Less Stress: An estimated 20 Southern yellow pine mills are installing MSR (machine stress-rated) grading units like the one from Metriguard below to help avoid being subject to cuts in design values that were enacted for visually graded Southern pine.
Courtesy Metriguard Less Stress: An estimated 20 Southern yellow pine mills are installing MSR (machine stress-rated) grading units like the one from Metriguard below to help avoid being subject to cuts in design values that were enacted for visually graded Southern pine.

About this time last year, groups for component manufacturers and lumberyards were screaming over proposals that implicitly recognized one of their most important products wasn’t as reliable as it used to be. Today, not only has the sky not fallen, it’s likely to get prettier in coming years.

A combination of computers, compromise, and Canada has deflated the Great Southern Yellow Pine Controversy to the point where, when the American Lumber Standard Committee (ALSC) meets this month to consider design value changes for the full array of Southern pine dimensions and species, its decision will have far less impact than originally feared. That’s largely because while ALSC’s changes affect only visually graded Southern pine, many of the region’s mills plan to have computer-guided machines do the grading. And the design values for machine-graded Southern pine never changed.

Forest Economic Advisers (FEA) reports that 20 new MSR (machine stress-rated) graders are slated to be installed this year at Southern yellow pine mills. These add to the 22 machines in use, FEA says, meaning that by 2013, roughly one-third of the mills producing Southern pine dimensional lumber will have MSR graders.

Visually graded Southern yellow pine (SYP) has been preferred in the South for making trusses because of its high design values versus other species. Design values are the strength characteristics that engineers and fabricators count on when producing trusses.

SYP’s status took a hit in January when ALSC’s Board of Review reduced visually graded SYP’s design values by at least a quarter. It did so after tests indicated Southern pine wasn’t as strong as its listed values, possibly because companies were harvesting trees at a younger age and thus using a weaker kind of tree than what used to come from old-growth forests.

Angry Customers

Organizations for such big SYP consumers as the National Lumber and Building Material Dealers Association protested those proposed design value cuts as potentially leading to stoppage and delays of thousands of construction projects and a slash in the value of Southern pine already sitting in lumberyards. Other groups—particularly the Structural Building Components Association —complained timber interests were operating too secretively.

ALSC limited the changes’ potential damage to dealers and component makers by approving the design value cuts in January but declaring they wouldn’t take effect until June 1. The delay gave mills time to start switching from visual grading to MSR graders, which are regarded as more consistently accurate than human graders.

The ramping up of SYP MSR also should benefit from a reduction in MSR from Canada, where over 75% of all North American MSR has been produced during the past five years, mainly out of SPF (spruce-pine-fir).

Canadian Clipper

Conditions will change dramatically over the next five to 10 years, FEA said, because by that time damage from the mountain pine beetle in British Columbia will have reduced yields of Lodgepole pine, a key component of SPF.

Meanwhile, Quebec’s parliament has OK’d a bill to reduce the annual allowable cut of timber in the province by nearly one-eighth starting next year, FEA says. A second conservation effort called Plan Nord could take 6% more from the annual allowable cut starting in 2016.

“Reductions in MSR capacity out of North America’s biggest MSR-producing regions will be concurrent with surging demand for MSR as residential construction markets rebound in 2014-2016,” FEA says. “Increases in residential construction will cause MSR demand to surge,” it adds. “This demand/supply imbalance will cause SPF MSR prices to rise and encourage many MSR consumers to switch from SPF to Southern pine.”