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HARVESTING: New Life For Old Skidders

Summary: A New Brunswick equipment house responds to contractor demand for an inexpensive forwarder witha successful conversion program for John Deere skidders.

By Tony Kryzanowski
Copyright 1996 Contact publisher for permission to use

An equipment company in New Brunswick is helping several forestry contractors adapt to new demands by local mills for more environmentally friendly forestry practices. Don's Equipment, located in Grand Falls, has developed a design to convert skidders into forwarders at one-third the cost of brand new forwarders.

So far, the team at Don's have completed 10 conversions. They also plan to launch a new line of forwarders based on their own design and using John Deere components. It is called the Forotek DEG 1400. Owner Don Phillipe says they became interested in supplying skidder conversions about two and a half years ago when a customer asked about it. The choice was either buy a forwarder or hit the unemployment line.

"Here in the east, we're getting away from conventional harvesting," says Phillipe. "About 90 per cent of mills in New Brunswick have gone to shortwood harvesting." He adds that with shortwood harvesting, the wood is better quality, and there is less environmental damage. Rather than operating a complete line of equipment common to conventional harvesting, such as a feller/buncher, skidder, slasher and delimber, many operations now simply work with harvester/processors and a forwarder equipped with a loading arm and grapple.

Logs are no longer skidded to roadside for delimbing, which means less environmental impact. The limbs usually remain at the stump for natural regeneration, and there is less disturbance of small growth. Shortwood harvesting takes longer at the stump than conventional harvesting, usually requiring two harvester/ processors to one feller/buncher. Considering the logs are delimbed and forwarded rather than skidded to roadside for delimbing, and the savings are obvious.

Phillipe moves about 1,000 trees per 12-hour shift in his own operation. The question on many contractors' minds, however, was how much it would cost them to meet demands from mills for making the conversion. Many had skidders sitting in the yard while new forwarders retailed anywhere from $300,000 to $400,000. It's not surprising that many did not have the cash sitting around for such a major investment. Enter Don's Equipment and the combined knowledge of his company's staff. Also working as a New Brunswick forestry contractor, he shared many of the same challenges.

The result was a structurally sound design to convert 1985 and newer John Deere 640D, 648D and 748 skidders into forwarders for between $100,000 and $125,000. Suddenly, the price and strategy to convert a piece of existing equipment caught the attention of many. Plus, the conversion only took six to eight weeks and can haul about one-third more than other comparable forwarders. The conversion weighs in at 14 tons and can haul six cords. Don's Equipment came up with a design that retains the skidder's front end, meaning the engine, transmission and differential.

The conversion involves fabrication of a new trailer and installation of new fuel and hydraulic tanks, a new cab, and addition of hydraulic pumps as needed. They have chosen a Rotobec loader and grapple because it is Canadian-made and has an excellent reputation. "We are trying to promote our product as a Canadian product," says Phillipe. He admits that they have made considerable modifications since the original conversion.

They now have units working in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Quebec. The skidder conversion is CSA approved, as their design was double checked by an engineering firm. They have reinforced the structure based on the engineer's recommendations. In addition to several John Deere models, Phillipe also offers skidder conversions for Clarke and Timberjack products. So far, he has only converted John Deere skidders. "There were so many John Deere skidders around that it seemed the best path to go," he says. "I worked for John Deere and sold John Deere equipment. I guess you could say my blood runs yellow. The engines, transmission and differentials were all proven on the market. But John Deere doesn't fabricate a forwarder." Cost was a major factor when New Brunswick contractor Gerard Ouellette decided to purchase a skidder conversion.

He has operated a John Deere 640 skidder conversion, which he purchased at Don's, for about a year and a half. He also operates a Timbco single-grip harvester, and together with the skidder conversion, he moves a variety of timber to roadside. Right now, he has a contract to harvest, forward and load larger softwoods like spruce and fir for Irving in the Sussex area. He has also worked for Repap. Ouellette paid $170,000 for the skidder conversion. "I had all kinds of literature on all kinds of porters," he says. "But the price was quite steep for the brand new ones. The cheapest I could find was at Don's Equipment."

Other than bolts breaking on the drive shaft, Ouellette has operated his skidder conversion relatively free of downtime. His only concern is with flotation. "I'm working for Irving right now and they'd like to get the tracks no deeper than six or eight inches," he says. "Places that I've had to forward the wood, we've been making a lot deeper tracks than that."

As a four-wheel vehicle capable of hauling a third more than some eight-wheel forwarders, flotation is bound to be a problem. Phillipe responded that Ouellette's problem has to do with tires, not with the conversion itself. He recommends 44'' tires working in soft ground, versus the 32'' tires installed on Ouellette's unit. But with this conversion contractors face an additional $25,000 cost. Selection of tires by contractors depends a lot on where they expect to be working most. Also, Don's Equipment will soon offer a six-wheel conversion.

The new DEG 1400 unit will come in either a four- or six-wheel standard or tandem configuration. "Northern Ontario is six-wheel country for sure," Phillipe says. Having the skidder conversion has offered Ouellette more work opportunities. For example, two operators stayed busy last summer loading timber, moving it to roadside and loading trailers.

The unit can also operate independently in specific forwarding applications. New Brunswick contractor Bertrand Pouliot can attest that buying a more expensive and complicated forwarder is not necessarily always the best. He operates a John Deere 740A skidder conversion and plans to purchase another. Prior to owning a skidder conversion, he bought a brand new and more expensive competitor's model. It burned.

"We had it for just one year," he says. "The machine wasn't satisfactory in general. It was always broken down." Pouliot has not had a problem with his John Deere skidder conversion, and adds that it definitely has a larger payload. Both Ouellette and Pouliet say the Rotobec loader is well suited for the skidder conversion, and has offered problem-free performance. Don Phillipe approached John Deere about handling the conversions for them, but John Deere was concerned about liability, since the equipment was a conversion instead of manufactured from the ground up.

That opened the door for Don's Equipment to take the initiative themselves. Phillipe realizes the market potential for his design. For example, if a contractor in Alberta was interested in a skidder conversion, he could pay about $10,000 in shipping, but still save himself a pile of money. In the meantime, Phillipe is currently in negotiation with a BC company to form a conversion and marketing partnership out west.

Their new DEG 1400 unit will start with John Deere components from the ground up. The only difference is that the unit will be brand new, and manufactured for forwarding applications. Phillipe estimates the DEG 1400 unit will sell for between $265,000 and $285,000 with no options. "The oldest conversion we have out there is two and half years old, and the unit has no cracks on it or anything," says Phillipe. "The customer is super satisfied. We're starting to get repeat business, and that's great."


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