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Good Woodlot Management Holds The Promise Of Profit

You can cut and sell timber from your back 40 for profits today while planting for future farmers. But good woodlot management is key!

by Cary RideoutNovember 10, 2020
PHOTO: Valdas Jarutis/Shutterstock

When you hear the word “lumberjack,” it probably conjures up images of a red-shirted ax-wielding fellow hard at work in the big woods. What you might not realize is that early homesteaders were equal parts farmer and logger.

Even today, countless rural land owners are still hard at work out among the pines, following woodlot management plans that preserve the forest while bringing in cash.

Planning Is Key to Cutting

Now it may seem a stretch to consider your woodlands a crop source. But is it really so different then oats or cattle?

Granted, the process takes years compared to months. But if done correctly, a section of woods will amply return all your work. Most country properties have some ground that is wooded, even if broken up into small sections.

So how does a would-be logger get started? Well, he or she gets started with a plan, of course.

For many landowners interested in a logging operation, the first thing in order is to look at what you want both now and down the road a decade or more.

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Do you want enough income from the woods to keep the taxman at bay or a steady income? Do you intend to hire a professional crew or do you feel like getting in touch with your inner lumberjack or -jill?

If this is your first logging venture, it’s a good idea to have a woodlot management plan prepared. A professional forester can be contacted to perform a timber survey and draw up such a plan. Your local farm extension office, forest rangers or woodlot owners association will be able to steer you toward a competent person.

Once the forester completes his survey work, he will map out the woodlands into blocks, tally all marketable timber and outline access roads with any additional possible trails. Then each block will be assessed as to the amount of cutting available, possible improvements and any trouble spots.

The finished woodlot management plan will also guide you on how to keep the water table in good shape and improve conditions for wildlife. These woodlot management plans are very detailed.

For the average homestead logger, a woodlot management plan will certainly offer some good guidance.

Read more: Your woods can also provide a number of non-timber products!

Market Matters

One thing you need long before you begin cutting is a market for your production. This can sometimes present a challenge.

At one time, rural areas bristled with sawmills, and any farmer with logs had a ready market. However, these days it seems sawmills are getting scarcer, and making a haul of a couple hundred miles not out of the question.

Again, the woodlot owners association or forest ranger office can help locate a buyer.

Contacting a mill is crucial to harvesting timber. They will give dimensions such as length or top width and quality requirements, which you must adhere to closely. You can’t sell corn to a turnip buyer. So give the mills the correct logs and they will use you good.

Any load of logs is going to need hauling, and few farm woodlot owners can execute proper management of this. You will need a truck.

Local people in any farm area will truck logs for a fee and have the loading equipment as well. How many logs will you need? That’s a tough question, because regions vary. Here in the North Woods where I live, a two-tier semi-trailer will hold 220 to 300 logs (more or less), depending on the wood type.

These big trucks need good roads plus an adequate turn area and room to load.

I try to use existing farm roads and haul out to cut grain fields, cleaning up any mess once the logs are hauled. Try to schedule a dry week to haul and long before winter comes.

Believe me, trying to drag a fully loaded semi trail of logs with both my farm tractors taught me this lesson!

woodlot management
Lorain Ebbett-Rideout

Old and New

My cutting process is a mix of old and new, with the long game always in mind. Believe it or not, I have often cut trees left by my grandfather for “someone else.”

I, too, routinely leave trees for tomorrow, which means I’ll likely never touch them. But someone will.

Selective harvest methods work best on my small forest blocks. I never cut any trees less than 8 to 9 inches in width at the base. By following this simple rule, I can guarantee future cuts.

True, it may be 10 years or more before you can remove these trees. But they will provide much in the interim. Left to grow, they have seeded down the area with a desirable species, plus kept the surrounding forest in good condition.

Another method I use is to first look over any section slated for harvest for damaged tress, such as broken off tops, too many damaged limbs or signs of weakness or insect problems. Trees with poor root hold or too much lean or the ones with clumps of dense branches indicating poor prospects.

Get them down before it becomes a total loss. Also cut any undesirable species when you encounter them.

woodlot management
Lorain Ebbett-Rideout


Unlike a mechanized clear-cut harvest, which is about speed and maximum production, I work slowly. And I stay careful to not destroy any other trees, if possible.

Once a block is selected for harvest and a good access trail brushed out, the tough stuff begins. I use a chainsaw with a 16-inch cutting bar and a 45 to 55-cc engine for cutting trees and logs. This is teamed up with a smaller 35-cc model, which is used for removing limbs or clearing trails.

A set of thick plastic felling wedges and a pry bar enable me to have control of the direction a tree falls or at least in theory anyway.

My tree harvest always begins at the farthest end of any selected block. This makes for shorter trips out as work proceeds.

From long experience I try to fall back into the forest rather than out over the trail. If possible, the tractor remains on the hauling trial and the logs are winched out. By this method, I keep the machinery tracks off the forest floor.

It takes little longer, but I’m always pleased with the results.

I strongly suggest mounting a logging winch on your tractor. These come in sizes for every tractor model and, for my money, are priceless in the advantages. They are a substantial investment of several thousand dollars, but you are miles ahead with one.

My 35-horsepower machine is a 4-by-4 model and with a winch can haul out a half dozen saw logs 16 feet long with ease. The logs come out slowly, slipping along between their standing neighbors and steered by adjusting tractor position. Best of all, winches allow you to keep the tractor on firm footing, avoiding backing down hills or into a bad spot.

Read more: Winter is the perfect time for small-scale logging. Here’s why.

Cut Right

Once delimbed, cut trees into logs right in the woods. I like this method because it makes for short, easy-to-pull logs. Even a casual tractor operator can quickly and confidently run this setup in no time.

When cutting I try to select trees that provide two 16-foot logs or a 16- and a 12-foot. Once hauled out to the yard, I pile logs up in separate areas according to species or length. Try to get things close to where the semi can easily load up.

At one time, most farm forest operations ran quite literally on horsepower. Oxen and mules have also done good service in the woods yarding out timber.

For the ultimate in low-impact logging, a horse is tops but a slower method.

woodlot management
Lorain Ebbett-Rideout

Also, any work with animals requires an experienced driver to work safely and humanly. I’ve logged with horses many times. The constant talk of the teamster with his co-workers is very enjoyable.

Any farm logging is very physical and safety is paramount. Personal logging equipment such as boots, helmet, eye/ear protection and cutting chaps keep you safe. All chainsaws should have a kickback device, and cutting or hauling always work at you own comfortable speed.

Good cutting practices are something to be honed and never allowed to dull.

Being a farm logger is part of your rural heritage and a country skill well worth maintaining. Performed to your satisfaction, a controlled log harvest is good stewardship of the land and insures future cutting potential rather than empty clear-cuts.

So if you have a stand of timber and a bit of Paul Bunyan inside, why not try logging the back 40 yourself? Who knows—you might even find yourself yelling, “Timber!”

Sidebar: Careful Cutting

Cutting is actually beneficial to the forest, and low-impact methods improve the health of the woodlot.

Understand that in nature, trees are removed constantly through fire, violent winds or winter storms. Insect damage can kill huge swaths of timber that falls into a dry, tangled mess. Heavy mature forests aren’t as wildfire-friendly as woodlands of various ages and species.

Any logging operation allows light to reach seedlings on the forest floor which spring up remarkably fast. Some land owners replant trees after a harvest, but if you temper your efforts with patience and follow a good woodlot management plan, the forest can regenerate itself after a moderate harvest.

Wildlife greatly benefits from careful log harvests. With new growth, berries, nuts and other grasses along with open places to wander. All wild neighbors from quail to deer are drawn to a fresh cut, and if you harvest wild game for the table a few strategic cuts will ensure a full deep freeze.

The forest soil is also stirred up in any cutting. While erosion is something to be constantly considered, good low-impact harvests can improve soil.

I have argued for years that a series of fresh logging trails are very useful to wildlife, quickly fill in with brush or seedlings and are part of the natural regeneration process.

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