Forestry in South Africa
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December : Modernisation is an ongoing process

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1 December, 2020

Modernisation is an ongoing process

"You are never modernised; it is an ongoing process," is both a reminder and a warning that risk assessment and continuous improvement pave the road to modernisation and business competitiveness and sustainability.

Dean Da Costa made the remark during a recent silviculture webinar. He was explaining why Mondi launched its strategic, and carefully managed silviculture modernisation programme in 2012.

He emphasised that modernisation and mechanisation are not synonymous. "Modernisation can be an ergonomic, safety or technical intervention ranging from a better hand tool to a fully mechanised operation. Mechanisation is the introduction of machinery to an operation as part of modernisation."

Over the past eight years, Mondi has shared the ups and downs of its progress and learnings with industry. The most recent report was during a silviculture webinar hosted in October by the forestry department at Nelson Mandela University (NMU).

Dr Muedanyi Ramantswana facilitated the "Towards modernised silviculture," virtual seminar. Introducing the event, he said a frequently asked question is why modernising of silviculture has lagged behind harvesting. This phenomenon is not unique to South Africa, and globally there have been significant changes in silviculture activities over the last decade.

"We have seen the introduction and adoption of new technologies by local stakeholders driven by various reasons, such as the need to increase productivity and to reduce costs. However, even though silviculture has left us behind for several years, there is growing interest both locally and internationally in our innovations in this field," commented Ramanatswana.

The silviculture experts who agreed to share their experiences, and their topics, were:

  • Shaun Biggs of Ellepot South Africa: Paper-based pots as a solution for improved mechanised planting.
  • Helgaard Steenkamp of Novelquip Equipment: Bringing precision to mechanised planting operations.
  • Jacob Zimbodza of Siyanquoba Forestry Solutions and NMU: The effects of manual, motor manual and mechanised pit preparation techniques on tree growth response and operational productivity.
  • Sean Mackenzie of Silvix Forestry: How modernised silviculture can be achieved through simple and adaptable tools.
  • Nicky Gwende of Thuthugani Contractors: The keys to successfully transition from manual to modernised silviculture - a contractor's perspective.
  • Dean da Costa of Mondi: The challenges and solutions to modernised silviculture at a large scale.
  • Prof Saulo Guerra of UNESP and IPEF: The status of silviculture modernisation in Brazil.

According to the speakers, all businesses need to become and remain competitive. The key drivers of modernisation in forestry are to increase productivity and reduce costs, improve the quality and consistency of operations, improve the ergonomics of manual labour and thereby the health and safety of its workforce, all within the broader context of responsible forest management and social accountability.

It all begins with the seedling

Shaun Biggs of Ellepot kicked off the webinar. He said there are four main focus areas when it comes to seedlings: root quality and integrity, uniform height and branching, sturdiness, and good plant health.

"Internationally, studies show that logistics and planting costs can be reduced by up to 40%, simply by switching from plastic inserts and trays to FSC-certified degradable paper pots," he said.

"The advantages of the Ellepot system include faster root development because the paper pots are designed to maximise airflow, uniform rooting and encourages air pruning. The density of the growth medium in the paper pots produces healthier plants with natural root architecture," Biggs explained.

"Paper pots are ideal for mechanised planters because it reduces transplant shock caused by poor handling of the plants and reduces mortality to less than 5%. Productivity increases because the plants are transplanted faster with less timewasting, which helps you save between 20% and 30% on costs."

Keep it simple

Sean Mackenzie of Silvix Forestry said modernisation could take different forms. "We need to remember that modernisation is not just about expensive machines. We also need to look at basic factors that can make a difference and that are achievable by smaller growers."

He explained how communication and observation could lead to ideas of seemingly small innovations that have a discernible impact on the goals of silviculture. Mackenzie presented examples of hand tools that increase productivity. One example was how the addition of a hand-held three-metre aluminium pole fitted with nozzles transforms the person walking and wearing a Husqvarna motorised knapsack into an efficient pre-emergent fertiliser or herbicide broadcast spray applicator.

"Multi-skilling and teamwork are essential," he said. "By changing attachments, one multi-skilled person using a knapsack can plant seedlings, apply water, fertiliser and herbicides, or be a firefighter."

Mackenzie discussed the importance of matching herbicides to the correct container and applicator. He also described the developments in and new formulations of fertiliser and herbicide chemicals.

Precision silviculture

Helgaard Steenkamp of Novelquip Forestry explained how digitisation and telematics enable precision silviculture.

"Our GPS enabled technologies ensure that foresters achieve consistent, accurate and repeatable planting results and optimal land use. It also streamlines silviculture planning and production control processes, analysis and reporting."  

In their presentations, Da Costa and Prof Guerra referred to the effectiveness of Novelquip's pitting head and fully mechanised planter. "The pitting head is a great unit and develops fantastic pits. Our planting staff don't want to work without it because their hands are not exposed to splinters, chemicals and water," explained Da Costa.

Steenkamp explained how Novelquip's machine management system (MMS) accommodates all aspects of plantation establishment, from planning to operations to reporting. "It saves the costs of inputs and increases productivity. The GPS guides the operator to planned planting location and records the accrual coordinates of every seedling. This reduces redundant non-value-adding movement in the plantation and generates intelligence to optimise management," he said.

"Our unique fully integrated technology is what foresters need to get work done smarter, faster and more efficiently over the full rotation. It also enables future precision innovations such as autonomous re-irrigation, fertilisation and harvesting. It Is compatible with other mechanised forestry solutions and can be fitted to any machine."

Pitting methods

Jacob Zimbodza presented the progress with his MSc research on re-establishing eucalyptus plantations. He is examining the effects of pit preparation techniques and slash management on pit quality, seedling survival, initial growth, and operational productivity.

"I compared the possible impact of manual, motor-manual and fully mechanised pitting techniques on productivity (pits per hour) and pit density (pits per hectare) at re-establishment," he said. "I also examined the effects on quality of the pitting tools used during manual, motor-manual and fully mechanised pitting."

To burn or not to burn slash is a debate in South Africa, but no longer in Brazil where controlled burning is banned. Zimbodza said the control of harvesting residues is imperative. "The more residues in a plantation, the higher the risk of wildfires destroying the plantations, and it impacts heavily on re-establishment processes and productivity."

Zimbodza's findings confirm that fully mechanised pitting is more productive than manual and motor-manual pitting methods.

Contractor's perspective

Nicky Gwende's presentation looked at silviculture from a forestry contractor's perspective. He said silviculture processes are dependent on a high-level and compartment operations planning, and here drones play an essential part in mapping the terrain. "It is essential to know and understand the capability and productivity factors of your machinery and equipment and to match it precisely to sites. You then need to monitor productivity daily," he said.

Gwende said contractors are dependent on their skilled operators and competent operational and support staff. "You need to keep your team informed, and the best way to do this is through visual and transparent management," he advised.

"You also need to work closely with your client and develop a mutual understanding of compartment operations planning because it impacts on your pricing model. There needs to be a joint approach to research, development and implementation of technologies and innovation. Joint measurement and evaluation are essential."


The decision by a large corporate company like Mondi to modernise its silviculture practices was driven by the need to remain a Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) accredited internationally competitive low-cost producer of pulp.

"Our move to silviculture modernisation wasn't a knee-jerk reaction. We didn't say we need to do this because everybody else is doing it," Da Costa said. Mondi's analysis of its workforce trends and the safety performance of its silviculture operations convinced it that innovation was the way forward.

"Modernisation can range from the versatile hand tools that Sean Mackenzie described, to Novelquip's fully mechanised system. You can't apply mechanisation to every site because the conditions vary considerably," he explained.

"Also, if you take the cost of modern machines in South Africa, you cannot limit it to one contractor or one area. You have to think about exploiting the most appropriate science and technology and spread it across your landscape."

Mondi now has two silviculture focus areas or "establishment suites". A de-stumping, pitting, pre-plant spraying, planting, blanking and fertilising suite for slopes up to 20%, and another for slopes greater than 20%.

"Fire prevention and firefighting are areas of silviculture that need more attention. Poor fuel load management is the greatest threat," said Da Costa.

"A benchmark visit to Australia in 2014 influenced us a great deal. We worked with ANCO and designed modular, standardised firefighting equipment and equipped our vehicles with thermal curtains and auto-reels," he explained.

"In addition, we have introduced three compressed air foam (CAF) units. These include a double cab tender, designed for small, highly-trained firefighting proto-teams."

Da Costa's closing remarks summarise how far South Africa has come in silviculture modernisation. "We made greater gains from 2012 until now than we ever did in the previous 30 years. Innovation cannot come from a bunch of technical propeller heads; it has to come from foresters, contractors, multi-skilled workers and highly trained supervisors. It must be all-encompassing."

Joy Crane
WoodSA & Timber Times