Farm woodlands can produce income, tax benefits, aid conservation efforts

Dan Hansen
Commercial loggers use a variety of equipment in their operations. A skilled operator uses a processor to cut smaller trees and then cut them to the proper length.

WAUPACA COUNTY –  A significant number of Wisconsin dairy and crop farms also have woodlots adjacent to, or near crop fields, and these woodlots can sometimes generate more income per acre than corn ground or alfalfa fields.

That’s especially true if the woodlot is growing saw timber or veneer-quality red oak, black cherry, black walnut or sugar maple. Other tree species and forest products are also profitable to grow.

However, many farm woodlots are neglected because they don’ t provide cash flow as frequently as corn or soybeans or milk, and are often not considered in the total farm  business plan. Paychecks from wood come only periodically, sometimes only once or twice in a lifetime.

With care and planning some hardwood stands can be managed to grow $200 or more in timber value per acre each year. Properly tended, some pine plantations on good soils can grow one cord of wood per acre for every year after planting. Products of increasing value can be harvested at seven- to ten-year intervals.

The 78 acres of woodland that has been part of our family farm for over 100 years continues to produce a sustainable harvest of ash, aspen, birch, maple, oak and other hardwood species. In the next year or two, we are looking at the third harvest within the past three decades.

Taking inventory

The first step in generating income from your farm’s woodlands is to know what kinds of trees are growing there, how much wood they contain, and what they are worth before any management decisions can be made. This information is obtained through a field inventory called a timber cruise.

 A professional forester can help provide this valuable inventory. Most woodlots are divided into stands containing different timber types, much like the other fields on the farm. Individual stands may contain various sizes of trees. They may also vary by species composition, or management techniques. Most stands are easily distinguished from others.

The forester locates sample plots in each stand and then identifies and measures all trees on each plot. Volume by species is estimated for the trees in the plot. Your forester will make management recommendations based on many factors in your woodlot including size, health, species composition, soils, geology, tree species, etc. 

Most woodlots require adjustments in stocking levels – the number of trees growing per acre – if they are to produce maximum harvests and profits. Woodlots with less than optimum stocking are not making full use of the growing capacity of the soil. Trees are too widely spaced and contain too many large limbs to produce high value logs.

Stands with above optimum stocking levels tend to be crowded and nutrient resources of the soil are spread over more trees than needed. Mortality is high, growth is slow, and timber yields are reduced due to high competition among individual trees. Maintaining proper stocking increases growth rate and steadily improves the quality and value of products harvested.

Working with a forester

Foresters employed by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resource in most counties, and are available to advise farmers and may  assist  with management plans and oversee tree planting. They usually do not mark or administer timber harvests on private lands or appraise timber.

Private consulting foresters are self-employed. They contract with farmers and other woodland owners to write management plans, do timber inventories, perform management practices, and conduct timber harvests. They work for a prearranged fee or a percentage of timber sales. They represent the woodland owner in all contractual arrangements with loggers.

Industrial foresters generally work for a paper mill or saw mill. They offer management planning and other forestry services to farmers, often at no cost, but usually reserve the right of first refusal when woodland owners have timber stumpage for sale. Their salaries are paid by the companies they represent.

Backgrounds and experience of foresters vary greatly. Select the one best suited to the needs of your timber stand and your personal goals. Ask for references and proof of liability insurance.

Managed Forest Law

The Managed Forest Law (MFL) program is a landowner incentive program that encourages sustainable forestry on private woodland. In exchange for following sound forest management, the landowner pays reduced property taxes. 

It was enacted in 1985 and replaced the Woodland Tax Law and the Forest Crop Law., and is the only forest tax law that is open to enrollment. Land enrolled in the MFL program must be managed according to a plan agreed to by the landowner.

Enrollment into the Managed Forest Law (MFL) program is open to all private owners of forested land. To be eligible for the MFL program, a landowner must have a minimum of 20 acres of contiguous land and at least 80 percent of that land must be productive forest land.

To apply for the MFL program, an application must be submitted with a management plan written by a certified plan writer. The management plan addresses items such as landowner objectives, timber management, wildlife management and water quality.

Tree planting

On some farms tree planting may be advisable.

“It’s important to establish clear planting goals,” said Michael Schuessler, a forester with the Wisconsin DNR. “Determine if you're planting to improve wildlife habitat or food, to provide shade or a windbreak, to prevent soil erosion, if you want fast-growing trees, or if you are willing to invest in species that grow slowly and provide timber and recreation for future generations.”

It’s also critical to determine the type of competition newly planted trees might face.

“People don’t often view grass as a huge competitor,” he said, “but it’s probably the most significant competitor you can have for a tree seedling.”

Schuessler strongly advises against planting non-native species.

“What we typically find is there’s a reason why certain trees grew and evolved in a particular area,” he said. “We might like them because they look pretty, but they’re just not well suited for an entirely different landscape.”

“For conserving soil or stopping erosion, woody shrubs are a good choice because they allow other grasses to grow up between them to aid in soil erosion,” said Brian Haase, Waupaca County conservationist. “Erosion problems are best addressed by faster growing species.”

Enhancing wildlife habitat

Likewise, wildlife habitat and favored outdoor recreational activities can be enhanced through tree planting and other normal woodlot management practices, often without added cost. 

Timber stand improvement cuttings, harvests, and plantings can be altered slightly to increase favorite wildlife species and to enhance nature’s scenery as well as to increase recreational opportunities.

The same trail system providing easy access for logging also attracts wildlife. It should be planted to native grasses and mowed each year in August to discourage shrubs and renew the grasses for fall grazing by deer and other plant eaters. Fertilizing makes grasses more attractive to deer. Mowed trails are ideal for walking on a grouse hunt or traveling with an ATV or snowmobile.

More information on farmland forest management is available at A Farmer's Guide to Woodland Management - FR-322 provides much valuable information. Additional information is available from Wisconsin Woodland Owners Association (WWOA) at 715-346-4798 or