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November/December 2022 | Muedanyi Ramantswana

Digital Silviculture and Progress in Forestry

Digital Technology


Digital silviculture is an approach that can be used to improve the efficiency, productivity, and profitability of forestry operations. Commercial forestry operations do not have an unlimited amount of land available for planting so the land that is allocated to growing forests needs to be managed in a smart way. Adding insult to injury, forestry compartments are nowhere near as productive as prime agricultural land, and as a result, forest establishments are usually “pushed to the edges”, where foresters need to contend with tough terrain like rocks, hard compacted soils, and slopes.

One way that foresters have been able to manage their forests better is through digital silviculture—the practice of digitally managing and monitoring tree growth on an individual basis. Adding tree-level grain to your data breaks important bottlenecks in the production of accurate reporting, enables machine learning models, opens new opportunities for automation, creates opportunities for monetizing the early stages of tree growth through carbon farming, and most importantly helps to shorten rotation times.

The development of digital silviculture
Risutec began conceiving of a digital documentation system for silviculture operations over a decade ago when the storm “Asta” tore through large parts of the landscape in Finland in 2010. The hypothesis was that this system will take forest operations and silviculture practices by storm.

Why was Risutec so enthusiastic about the digitization of individual silvicultural treatments in stand establishment and reforesting operations?
The was a clear understanding that current practices of sampling in silviculture were outdated. The practice was based on self-reporting, taking a measuring rod, and sampling the number of spots in a compartment. As one would expect, bias crept into the picture and oversampling was rife resulting in plant waste (since the nursery ships the number of seedlings based on your extrapolation). This may not be such a big problem for one compartment, but when you multiply it over all compartments in a country – since we’re dealing with national silvicultural practices here – the implication maybe millions in wasted plant material per annum. Southern African compartments may not have the same issues as Nordic areas in terms of plant waste, due to the practice of planting in grids (consistent spacing between trees during establishment). Nonetheless, there will be variance between the planned and cultivated areas – something that you can “nip in the bud” with the help of digital control.

Precision Forestry and Shorter Rotations
The aim of shortening rotation times, i.e., better growth, should be at the heart of any digital silviculture initiative for commercial forestry applications. Here it helps to look at what is happening in agriculture because topics in precision forestry follow closely to those in precision farming. Allocating the right process inputs and labor to the right sites is as relevant in silviculture as in agriculture. Silvicultural inputs such as water, fertilizer, and other ameliorate can become important limiting factors. It pays to know which factors limit the growth of trees and has a negative effect on rotation times. By combining data on the lineage from the nursery with silvicultural treatments applied during planting and data on soils collected via sensors during soil cultivation you can build a traceable chain of growth at a detailed level.

No Mechanization without Digitization
Integral to any mechanized silviculture project is the use of digital tracking. There are obvious benefits to collecting accurate tree-level data for operations. This information needs to be evaluated and analyzed for patterns that indicate opportunities for improvement. New operator training can leverage driving and planting patterns and bad habits can be broken by inspecting and implementing “top-dog” operator patterns of driving and planting. Digitization also plays a transformative role in forest contracting. Because the collection of data on work is granular in nature, new models of remuneration can be employed. Contractors can be paid per unit of work, and reporting is automated – reducing management overheads and increasing the transparency of work.

Digital applications like remote sensing, GIS, artificial intelligence (AI), and machine learning are transforming the forestry sector. Contractors and their operators become important players in breaking data collection bottlenecks for forest owners (companies). By collecting data on silvicultural inputs, tree locations, and a host of other variables, data can be more easily integrated into forest company production systems. With the development of advanced sensors and software applications, digital silviculture has become an essential part of modern forestry management practice.

Conclusion and Suggested Tools
Digital silviculture will not replace human foresters, but it can significantly improve our ability to manage forests. The transition to digital silviculture is already underway, and we are now seeing the benefits of this approach in several ways. It will take time before all trees are managed with digital tools, but Risutec believes that this process will eventually lead to better forest management strategies and improved (scarce) resource utilization.

Risutec provides a wide range of precision digital forestry solutions as part of the ASTA product range to help you improve your forestry operations, including:

ASTA for Contracting 

Real-time documentation and reporting for soil cultivation and mechanized planting.

ASTA for Surveying 

A handheld tool that can be configured to any silvicultural process with a “boots on the ground” component, like site surveying and data collection in orchards.

ASTA for Fleets

This solution combines centimeter accuracy with the ability to plan compartments and spacements - “grid planting” - ahead of time and adjustments in-field.

Article information provided by Risutec. For more about the different product offerings visit