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Ricardo S Vilela – Bela Vista Forestry – CEO

Production costs have been on the rise in recent years in Brazil. The problem is particularly felt in the forestry industry, with the increase in deployment, maintenance and harvesting costs. The recent devaluation of our currency (Real) caused cost increases of around 25% in many fertilizers. Virtually every company in this industry is focused on cost control. Despite the high productivity of forests in the country, the increase in inflation rates and consequently in interest rates, is harming the financial outcomes of enterprises, which have long-term returns and are penalized by the cost of capital.

Another factor that in recent years started to haunt many business owners is drought and uncertainty from an increasingly erratic weather. Severe drought may kill or weaken plants, rendering them more susceptible to pests and diseases. We have seen this especially in Minas Gerais, which was very much affected by the historic drought of 2014.

Investment security, high productivity and cost control, invariably pass through scientific research. What came to be a consensus on traditional forest species such as pine and eucalyptus, does not seem to attract investors betting on new species, in which investments in research are incipient and inadequate vis-à-vis the amounts that have been invested in plantations.

As I explained in another article published in this magazine, the eucalyptus case in Brazil is the best example to follow. Research and breeding achieved high productivity with the species and better-fit clones to different uses and regions of the country.

Are the projects involving plantations of high value-wood trees going in the opposite direction? I cannot speak for all kinds of high value-added species been publicized as a good investment option. Many are them: Australian cedar; African mahogany (within this there are those who like the Khaya ivorensis and those who like the Khaya senegalensis); parica, acacia, guanandi, Indian neem, etc. What we know is that few companies dedicated to this niche invest adequately in research, and this causes a considerable risk, despite the great potential for financial returns.

This does not happen by chance. The academia and large companies usually carry out research on forestry. They are expensive, long and run the risk of not producing anything. Large forestry companies produce pulp and paper, steel or panels, using eucalyptus or pine as raw material, and they obviously gear their investments to these species. Universities and research agencies have a reason to follow the same path; with more than 7 million hectares planted, numerous farmers, entire supply chains, countless municipalities and regions are impacted by pine and eucalyptus. The academia is responsible for providing security and finding solutions to stakeholders and the society as a whole.

Since large enterprises are based on traditional species, and that small and medium-sized enterprises are interested in this niche, how can one reconcile costs, availability of financial resources and human capital? It is paramount to have the involvement of agencies and research institutions.

Then I come to the Australian cedar case, which I am a more familiar with. Nobody is trying to reinvent anything in cedar studies. All we are doing is following the successful path trailed by eucalyptus. It is important to stress that the work is done within the financial reality of the companies that are dedicated to this species. And yet, the results have been spectacular. In this process, the participation of the Federal University of Lavras – UFLA has made a big difference. Many academics have been devoting part of their time to these studies for nearly a decade, following along the same lines of research on traditional species, with the benefit of knowing what worked best and being able to take some shortcuts. These studies yielded three doctoral theses, 6 master degree dissertations and 15 course completion studies (CCSs). There are currently 7 more lines of study underway.

Aiming at cost control and productivity that justifies the choice of the new species and safe investments, these are the studies taking place since 2006 with Australian cedar in Minas Gerais:

1) Plant production

-Selection of the most productive materials from a genetic point of view for maximum gain in plant production, i.e., more seedlings per seed tree. Selection of clones and families with the ability to sprout.

-Cloning, as a means of propagation (asexual reproduction).

-Specific nutrition development for nurseries.

-Studies on plant physiology.

-Controlled crossings for hybrid seed production.

2) Genetic breeding

-Productivity Increase (Gain).

-Identification of the best species within families and origins.

-Classic Breeding; cultivars obtained by mass selection in plant populations.

-Plant -Hybridization; cultivars obtained by controlled crossbreeding of selected seed trees.

-Hybrid Vigor; genetically very different individuals in the same species, when crossed are able to form stronger hybrids due to a higher genetic variability. This is what we are seeking in this improvement stage; hybrids with vigor, or superior individuals, from parents of different families and origins.

-Characteristics that depend on genotype: resistance to pests and diseases, diameter increment, adaptability to different sites, etc. Such characteristics depend directly on the genotype of the plant to be expressed. It is a breeding strategy, to work them to make gains within the crop, because they are all direct production parameters and influence in forest management.

-Use of molecular markers; identification of genes and proteins in optimizing the selection of new cultivars.

3) Forest Management

-Know genetically controlled features for the breeding strategy; stem form for high performance in the sawmill, taper, trunk circularity, marrow eccentricity, branch architecture, uniformity among plants.

– Production characteristics controlled by environmental variables; spacing, plant density per hectare, need for pruning, thinning, weed competition.

– Pruning; knot-free wood and plant growth potential (productivity x wood quality dilemma in handling).

– Thinning; maximizing diameter increment keeping intermediate revenue in the forest cycle.

– Weed control: competition with herbicides to reduce costs.

– Parameters for forest inventories; factors for volume and height equations.

– Use of mathematical modeling in determining volume and shape as a genetic breeding strategy.

– Study of elasticity, rupture and form moduli as a selection strategy for less susceptible clones and breakage by strong winds (sail effect).

– IPDM (Integrated Pest and Disease Management); understanding the biology of pests and diseases, its interaction with genetic materials, its control and dynamic for breeders and farmers.

4) Nutrition

– The cost-effective relationship still makes sense because of the high value of the wood.

-Determination of base saturation and gypsum administration parameters.

-Studies of missing elements in macro and micronutrients.

-NPK dose determination.

-Nutrient kinetics and absorption.

-Use of micronutrients in the control of abiotic diseases and pests.

-Studies with heavy metals.

-Hydroponics and nutrient solutions.

-Nutrition in the nursery.

5) Technology and wood quality:

-Destructive and non-destructive studies on density, defects, dimensional stability and shape.

-Establishing wood commercial parameters such as machining, workability, surface, using adhesives, nails, tests mills, production of various panels as a need to add value to the product.

-Determining wood drying programs.

-Yield in sawmills.

6) Registration and protection of cultivars

-Description of morphological parameters of the species.

Finally, we needed to open the market and validate the species economically. In the specific case of cedar, the interest comes from industries producing doors and window frames, finishing in civil construction, veneer, plywood, furniture, shipbuilding and others. When the final process stage is proven, the farmer will feel safe, knowing that he/she can produce the wood and there will be someone to sell to.

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