Small wood, solid success
New Brunswick contractor Rick Binney finds it a challenge harvesting small wood, but thanks to a solid group of employees—and a Neuson harvester and Rottne forwarder—he’s seeing success.
By George Fullerton
New Brunswick contractor Rick Binney says that building a business based on improving harvests and commercial thinning brings with it an incredible number of challenges. But he adds that choosing the Neuson 9002 HV harvester and a Rottne Rapid forwarder—and having a group of dedicated workers—is putting him on the road to making the business a success. Binney is a good representation of the new breed, the young and innovative logging contractors building their future on forest management services to private woodlot owners in New Brunswick. He focuses on doing what is best silviculturally for the forest and building value and security for woodlot owners.
Rick and his wife, Layla, run Platinum Forestry from Lawrence Station, Charlotte County in southwestern New Brunswick. They started with a Tree Farmer C-4 skidder to supplement income to the family’s 400 head sheep farming operation. Charlotte County’s forests have a history of more than 200 years of commercial harvesting and three decades of pre-commercial thinning. Intensive harvesting over the past 50-plus years—supplying the forest industries on both sides of the Canada-US border—has left a forest dominated by regenerating and crowded immature stands.
Combine the naturally developing stands with a history of three decades of pre-commercial thinning and you have a whole lot of small diameter stands that requires commercial thinning or partial cutting in order to maintain good growth and productivity. The challenge for woodlot owners and contractors is to find a way to harvest small diameter trees profitably and at the same time, protect small trees that remain.
From the outset, Rick realized that in order to be successful he had to develop harvesting services to treat developing stands. The opportunity to harvest big wood on big tracts simply wasn’t there anymore. It became apparent that it was not profitable to handle commercial thinning and partial cutting with a skidder. “I could do the kind of job I wanted with the skidder, but it just wasn’t profitable cutting mostly small diameter wood, pulling 14 chokers and then getting to the landing with less than one cord of wood.” Rick started looking at harvesters, believing that they were the best way to handle the small diameter wood. His search for a suitable harvester led him to Rocan Equipment in Moncton, New Brunswick and the Neuson 9002 HV, which they had begun to import from Austria to North America in 2000.
The Neuson had a series of attributes that Rick determined would fit his needs. The harvester was compact with virtually no tail swing, requiring a 10-foot-wide trail, and it weighed in at only nine tonnes, providing a soft footprint. The extending boom allowed the harvester to reach 30 feet from the trail. The LogMax 3000 head had a reputation as being lightweight, fast and reliable. The purchase agreement with Rocan included on-site operation, maintenance and repair training for Rick and his second operator, Tim McLaughlin. After nearly two years of running the harvester, Rick says that it has proved very reliable. Outside of regular maintenance, some hoses and cylinder rebuilds, the only snag of some significance was repeatedly failing electrical cable to the head.
This was eventually rectified by adjusting the collar that tethers the hydraulic hoses and electric cable to the head. Rick and Tim started out running the harvester on a double 12-hour shift, but have moved to three eight-hour shifts with the addition of a third operator, Tom Anderson. Anderson, a Forest Engineering graduate, started out working on layout and supervision, but took the harvester controls occasionally to cut a few trees while Tim took his break or ate his lunch.
Anderson decided that he wanted to become a full-time operator and began taking more time in the operator’s chair, with both Tim and Rick coaching his development. “Tom got on to the harvester very quickly,” says Rick. “It wasn’t long before he was sharing his insights about operating the machine. Tom’s forestry knowledge helps Tim and me to keep striving for excellence. His experience and knowledge makes him a very important part of the team”. Anderson has been working in the forest industry in Charlotte County since graduating in the 1980s, completing woodlot management plans and contracting pre-commercial thinning and running harvest contracting operations with both horses and skidders.
Anderson said that although there has been a demand for woodlot management plans, often the prescribed operations do not get carried out because the stands are young, overcrowded, small diameter and not profitable to harvest by conventional cut and skid operations. “You can’t operate those stands profitably with either horses or skidders — I know, I have tried both. I can do the quality of work required, but it is slow and you can’t make any money. I think that the harvester is probably the only way to profitably operate many of those young, over-stocked stands,” says Anderson. As long as the harvester operator makes the right decisions on what’s cut and what stays and the forwarder stays on the harvester trail, loading and moving though the stand without damaging the remaining trees, the job will be a success, Anderson says.
The Platinum Forestry operation relies on more than thoughtful operators. “When we start out with a new client, we first ask if they have a management plan, and close to 80 per cent already have a plan,” Rick says. “If they don’t have a plan we encourage them to get York-Sunbury-Charlotte marketing board staff to do one or we get Tom to do a plan for them.”
The harvest operation starts out with Tom or foreman Jeff Clinch reviewing the plan information and mapping a strategy for cutting. “Header” forwarding trails are flagged and then forwarding trails are laid out at 60-foot intervals off the header trail. Every forwarding trail is identified by a number painted on a tree at the intersection with the header trail.
All the trails are located with GPS units and the information is transferred to operational maps based on aerial photo overlays. Rick explains that establishing and mapping the trail system may seem elaborate, but it helps ensure that machines stick to the trail, and that communications are clear between the half dozen people that are working on the operation. Having trail numbers to refer to means that the next shift can go directly to where the previous operator stopped working. GPS data means that future operations can stick to the same trails minimizing impact to the stand.
In the summer of 2002, Platinum traded their Timberjack 230 forwarder up to a Rottne Rapid eight-wheel drive machine. The new addition has improved production markedly, with smoother operation with hydrostatic drives and smoother loader control. The double bogie suspension lightens the footprint and provides more traction going over obstacles on the trail. The Rapid has reduced forwarding from two shifts per day to one shift per day and only an occasional night shift to keep up. With two years of harvester experience, Rick says that he still faces some tough challenges. “We have shown that we can do the work that the woodlots need and woodlot owners want. Our biggest challenge is to remain profitable. The mills base the price they pay for wood on feller buncher production rates.
The problem is, harvesters cost twice as much and produce about half as much as a buncher. Many woodlot owners hear about buncher-based stumpage rates and figure that is the rate they should expect,” says Rick. “We did a lot of research and spent a lot of money determining stumpage rates that we can afford to pay. We went in and measured DBH, determined standing volume and then calculated what volume we could produce per hour and finally came up with the stumpage rate we should pay. We have a pretty good handle on the system now and we know what we need to operate profitably.” Rick says that despite high stumpage rates, Platinum is making a name in Charlotte County and is building a clientele that sees the value in high quality management. “Woodlot owners that have a long range management vision for their woodlot are coming to us. They realize that they have to sacrifice stumpage rates in the beginning, to make a bigger payoff down the road. Those woodlot owners are our bread and butter. I plan to stay at this for a long time and to be around when those stands are ready to be cut again.”
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