Planting seedlings for a better future

Mechanized Seedling Planter

A healthy forest ecosystem is essential for a healthy planet. Forests regulate the climate, rainfall patterns and watersheds and are crucial for providing oxygen and clean water. With the increased focus on environmental sustainability, the use of wood for fuel, fiber and wood products is increasing.

Healthy, sustainably managed forests can provide an endless supply of fuel, fiber, and wood products. Wood is the only renewable building material available today and the environmental benefits of wood construction are gaining recognition. Compared to a traditional timber stud, a steel stud requires 21 times more energy to produce and releases 15 times more sulfur dioxide to the atmosphere. Producing concrete emits up to 3 times more carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and hydrocarbon compared to lumber production.

Broader focus on silviculture

With the increased importance that the global Forest Industry has on the decarbonization of the atmosphere, and in order to help global forestry customers meet the growing demand for sustainably sourced, cost-effective wood products, John Deere Forestry has shifted its strategic focus from forest harvesting to include the entire Forestry Production System. This is not new at John Deere, since our agriculture team has successfully leveraged Production System thinking to develop a host of technology-driven products that have significantly improved agricultural yield and efficiency, while reducing input costs for farmers.

Applying this holistic thinking to the forest industry, it was clear that the forest harvesting segment has experienced a significant improvement in productivity, efficiency, and safety through mechanization over the past four decades. Forest harvesting has undergone a significant transformation, but silviculture is an area of the overall Forestry Production System that hasn’t experienced much change.

As we explored this further with customers and forest owners worldwide, it was clear that increased urbanization was making it increasingly difficult to attract and retain forest workers for the labor-intensive jobs typically found in silviculture. In some regions, especially those that have experienced higher than normal forest losses due to the effects of climate change (forest fire, insect infestations, drought etc.), silviculture activities are so constrained by the labor shortage that it is putting significant pressure on maintaining the exceptional history of sustainably managing the forest ecosystem.  

Committed to constantly improving sustainability, we saw an opportunity to leverage our experience with mechanized forest harvesting and the development of precision soil preparation, planting and spraying technology for agriculture and apply it to silviculture.  

Brazilian forests as a starting point

Like all significant change activities, you have to start somewhere. In discussions with forest customers worldwide, we saw a good opportunity to work with Brazil’s forestry industry primarily because they have very organized silvicultural activities, their plantation forestry infrastructure is well defined, and their forests have very short rotation times – which provides us with quick feedback on the positive and any potential negative impacts of mechanized silviculture. Additionally, there was considerable “pull” from Brazil’s forest industry for mechanized silviculture solutions to help them meet the growth of the eucalyptus plantation forest area over the coming decade.

According to the latest survey by the Brazilian Tree Industry (Ibá, January 2022), the Brazilian forestry sector plants more than one million seedlings per day and has 9.5 million hectares of productive forests. In addition to the significant investment in sustainably managed productive forests, Brazil’s forest industry has also developed another 6 million hectares of native forest, exclusively for conservation and providing a natural habitat for native species.

Mechanized planting as a solution to challenges?

Leveraging customer-focused processes, developed by the John Deere Ag Advanced Marketing team, we mapped the entire Silviculture Production System and looked at the areas where customers were experiencing the biggest challenges. We also looked at where the biggest opportunities existed for customers to improve productivity and efficiency. Comparing the challenges and the opportunities, we quickly identified that mechanized planting provided one of the biggest opportunities for Brazilian customers to meet the challenges they were facing.

We assembled a small, highly talented team by bringing together people with experience in Forestry, Agriculture and Construction equipment development. Working closely with customers, this team managed to quickly create a concept Mechanized Seedling Planter that was initially sent for customer testing in early 2020. Unfortunately, the global pandemic stopped our testing and we had to reassemble our efforts during the pandemic based on very limited customer feedback.

Promising test results

We were able to resume field testing after the global travel restrictions were lifted. We presented the concept Mechanized Seedling Planter to many excited customers at the Florestal 2022 forestry show in Três Lagoas, Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil, in May 2022.

The Mechanized Seedling Planter is currently undergoing further customer testing. Initial feedback is very favorable, and we are on track to meet the customer request to be able to plant one hectare of forest per hour and significantly reduce manual labor by approximately 90%. In order to achieve these results, we integrated several technologies leveraged directly from Agriculture, such as automated path planning and steering, which simplifies the operation of the machine and improves the overall quality of the planting.

Continuous development for healthier forests

The Mechanized Seedling Planter is designed to be adaptable to different species and is intended to be used in different forestry markets around the world. The planter is built on the 1510G forwarder that is in serial production at the Joensuu factory in Finland. The 1510G’s performance and ergonomics provide an industry leading platform for the silviculture solutions Deere is developing.

Mechanized planting is only the beginning; through the leverage of Agriculture technologies, there are further opportunities to improve the productivity and efficiency, while reducing input costs for forest owners. Emerging technologies like the recently released John Deere See and Spray™ have significant potential to further reduce the cost of silviculture activities while improving the health of the forest.   

The future of the forest looks more promising every day.