March 2006 - The Logging and Sawmilling Journal
Ontario’s WTWL Contracting is taking a diverse approach to developing its business—and is careful about taking on debt for equipment purchases, opting for used harvesting equipment.
By Paul MacDonald
Without a lot of fanfare this past summer, Daniel Miller started working with his father, Larry Miller, in a logging operation near Barrie, Ontario.
The significant point of teen-aged Daniel doing summer work with WTWL Contracting is that it marks the fourth generation of the Miller family to be working in the Ontario woods, a few hours north of Toronto.
Make no mistake about it, the Miller family is all about the forest. Family patriarch, Maurice Miller, Larry’s grandfather, was operating a skidder just weeks before he passed away, in his mid-80s.
“The family being so involved with the forest is kind of a legacy,” says Larry, who operates WTWL Contracting with business partner, Shawn Kelly. Larry recalls driving as a child with his grandfather on a Timberjack 208 skidder through bush that has since grown, and that they often harvest today.
Most of WTWL’s logging is now done for Miller Lumber, operated by Larry’s dad, Murray. Miller Lumber is a midsized mill operation that has rolled with the changes in the industry, especially shifts in the market, turning out a variety of wood and wood-related products. These days, the core of the business comes from producing utility poles.
Larry and Shawn were anxious to get started on the right foot with their business. They were helped along financially by their respective families, and were not keen on taking on a lot of debt to buy brand new equipment. So they bought used equipment, in the form of a Bell Mark IV three-wheeled feller buncher and a Fabtek 290 harvester. While they initially had some mechanical problems with the used 290, it now seems to be earning its keep.
“We’ve been processing tree-length wood in selective harvests with the Fabtek,” says Larry. “I don’t think there’s a lot of that going on. We do some chainsaw cutting, but we’re essentially trying to utilize the Fabtek as a full-length harvesting machine. It’s tricky in some spots, but generally it works well.”
The shear-equipped Bell, purchased a few years back, has done more than earn its keep. “At the beginning, we figured the Bell would do 50 per cent of the harvesting for us, and it turned out it did that and more, and we paid it off in six months.” Generally, Larry runs the Bell machine, while Shawn runs the harvester.
Larry notes there is some good solid logging equipment in the market, which certainly works out well for small harvesting operations such as the one he and Shawn operate. He notes that a lot of new logging operations face some pretty big pressure right off the bat when they have large monthly payments to make on big, brand new machinery. Smaller, preowned equipment is more their style, at least for the time being.
They try to stay on top of maintenance, but also stay flexible to accommodate the added amount of downtime that inevitably comes with using used equipment. If the Fabtek needs work, they might employ the Bell, for example.
“That little machine will do 100 trees an hour in the right conditions, and that’s selection harvesting, not clearcut,” says Larry. “The Bell can drop trees faster than the harvester.”
One of the appealing features of the Bell machine is that—components-wise— it is very straightforward, says Larry. “It’s all-hydraulic, has hydrostatic transmission and a Deutz air-cooled engine that is easy to deal with and is good on fuel. We can fix just about everything on it.” The machine being stingy on fuel consumption is a plus, especially with diesel prices at lofty levels.
A “bull moose” is how Larry describes the Fabtek 290. “It’s one tough machine. But if something breaks on it, we’re not afraid to dig in there and find out what is wrong.” Sometimes it’s a bit monotonous tracing an electrical problem, he notes, but it often results in a bit of electrical system education along the way.
Although neither Larry nor Shawn are mechanics, if equipment goes down, they trouble-shoot it themselves, and try to do the repairs themselves.
When it comes to major component work, Reid Equipment Solutions of nearby Innisfail are their go-to people. “We do the day-to-day stuff, but we’re not into rebuilding motors or transmissions,” says Larry. “That’s where Doug Reid and his people come in.”
While moving from logging site to logging site takes time, they try to minimize non-operating time by keeping the flow of wood, and sites, steady. When one harvesting project is completed, they usually have another to take on right after. They try to keep all their equipment working on one site, or at least close together.
They primarily harvest on land owned by the county of Simcoe. The county is made up of sixteen municipalities, stretching from Lake Simcoe to Georgian Bay.
The Simcoe County Forests are managed for forestry purposes, including production of forest products, protection of wildlife habitat and water resources, public education and recreation and scientific research. The forests are distributed throughout the county in tracts ranging in size from seven acres to over 3,000 acres.
Timber from the county feeds three sawmills in the area, including Miller Lumber. The mill’s requirements are modest: it cuts between 6,000 and 8,000 board feet a day. Most of the wood Larry harvests goes directly to Miller Lumber, with some poorer quality wood headed elsewhere for chipping. Larry notes that the county forests have their share of good timber, with a lot of the red pine averaging out at a 12-inch diameter.
Being small, they have to be resourceful, and it would be fair to say that WTWL Contracting is still a work in progress. In addition to the harvesting on county land, they have also taken on work on private jobs, from time to time.
The county, especially around the city of Barrie, is seeing tremendous growth— the city is becoming more of a satellite community for ever-growing Toronto.
With that growth, comes land-clearing projects. “With all the development going on, we’re branching out a bit into that area,” says Larry. A recent small project involved clearing three acres. “It was not a huge project, but it was a good starter for us because there was a variety of everything, some brush removal, some shrub removal and taking out stumps. It was all new to us.”
On that job, they used a rented Cat 235 C dozer, equipped with a demolition grapple, to do the work, which took about three weeks to complete. “It went pretty smooth.”
While their preference is to work doing selective thinning, the clearing work offers an opportunity to keep them busy. “The harvesting we do for the sawmill is the foundation of the company, but we’d like to do other work. We actually like to do a variety of different things.”
They are looking at possibly getting a
portable sawmill, something the likes of a
Wood-Mizer. Again, they’d probably opt
for used, rather than new. Going the used
route, they might be able to get a
portable mill that’s already set up with all
the spare parts, extra blades, and extensions. “It might help to keep us busy
“I grew up with diversity at the sawmill,” adds Larry. “We were peeling posts, peeling poles, producing charcoal. Miller Lumber does a multitude of things, and that works. That’s what we’re trying to do with the logging and bush side. We’re always looking for opportunities.”
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