By using low impact and well-established tracked forwarder equipment, Ontario contractor Unique Logging has been able to win over the trust of reluctant private landowners and grow its business.
By Tony Kryzanowski
A southern Ontario logger has earned the trust of private woodlot owners who are reluctant to allow skidders onto their property by going back to the future—investing in compact, tracked forwarder technology developed by a Quebec company over 30 years ago. Allan Bruce owns Unique Logging, a small, family-run business based in Huntsville, Ontario.
The lynchpin of his company is a five-ton capacity F4 Dion tracked forwarder assembled and distributed by Enterprise F4 Dion in St Augustin, Quebec. Bruce made the decision to adopt more compact equipment about three years ago. As a result, he has seen his job prospects on private woodlots and his profits soar. “When I was about 10 years old, my dad had a woodlot that he logged and he used exactly the same machine,” Bruce says. “Actually, the forwarder has pretty well maintained its simple design. So, I figured if it worked back then, it should work now.”
He promotes his company as an environmentally friendly logging business and has enough contracts to keep him busy for at least a year ahead. Furthermore, during each year of operations, he has to refuse at least another year’s worth of work because of the reputation his logging approach has earned with area landowners. While he could expand his operations, he prefers to remain hands-on in the business, primarily as the forwarder operator. He employs one chain saw operator who can also operate all the machinery, his wife—who is a fulltime 550 John Deere dozer and John Deere 440 skidder operator—and his son who works part-time for the company in summer.
The land base around Huntsville is well populated, with many private woodlots consisting primarily of high value hardwoods such as maple, oak and beech, as well as conifers such as white and red pine. About 90 per cent of the wood harvested by Unique Logging is hardwood. The trees are hand felled and delimbed, with an old and narrow John Deere 440 skidder supplementing the work of the forwarder when logs must be cable skidded up steep ground or over exceptionally stony terrain that might damage the tracks on the forwarder.
“A lot of sites where we work, the landowner does not want a skidder in his woodlot,” says Bruce. “Once they see the forwarder, they say they’d like us to log their property. We did 365 hectares last year on a site where there was a lot of quality timber. The owner would not let a skidder in.” Gaining access to sites where owners are skittish about cable skidders is just one advantage to his tracked forwarder system. Another is his ability to work about 11.5 months of the year because of the forwarder’s ability to minimize ruts—even in wet conditions—as compared to conventional skidders. Bruce says skidder owners in the area only work up to nine months a year.
Having the ability to deliver wood when other contractors are parked has its financial benefits. “When it gets wet in the fall, the mills will almost fight each other to get our wood,” says Bruce. “Not many machines are able to move. A lot of them are working on Crown land, so they are shut down because of the rutting. There really is a good market for our wood. I’ve never had any problems moving it.” Unique Logging’s harvesting method also attracts business. He says the company attempts to remove trees that are likely going to die within the next 15 years. His chain saw operator also selects a cross section of various diameter trees, leaving those in the 10 year and younger range to mature further.
Typically, Bruce will harvest a 1.5 to 1.8 metre wide corridor in a cutblock, leave a 3 to 3.75 metre block of trees, and then harvest another corridor. Seven years later, he will return to harvest another 1.8 metre wide corridor, and finally return to the third swath of trees in 15 years. Bruce says he knows of no existing skidder model that will work as productively and carefully within a 1.8 metre corridor as the F4 Dion tracked forwarder. “If you walk with your arms stretched out, this forwarder will follow you in between the trees,” he says. The forwarder’s turning ability results in minimal tree rub, thus minimizing regen damage.
Except in steep ground where the rubber-tired skidder is needed, there is practically no skidding and no need for landings in a cutblock. Because the logs are forwarded and not skidded, the logs are also cleaner. Bruce stacks about 3.5 to 4 tons of wood per load onto the forwarder trailer, which he estimates represents about 600 to 700 board feet per load. He sorts the wood at roadside according to the maximum sales value of each log. Bruce says having control over his own sorting and timber marketing is one financial advantage to working on his own.
It also helps that he has experience evaluating trees, having been employed previously as a certified tree marker. He says compared to working as a contractor for a single mill, “I have the opportunity to separate the species and sell them to the mill that bids the most for them. I’m getting a lot higher return.” He could have as many as seven sorted piles at roadside, as well as a stack of debris that is sawn and sold as firewood.
Except for the red pine, the wood is sold to mills based on delivery at roadside. That way, he avoids having to organize trucking. Bruce cautions that the F4 Dion forwarder is not a high volume, high-speed unit. However, the financial return he receives for his high value hardwood allows him to both practice careful logging and take his time doing it. On average, red pine logs sell for about $180 per thousand board feet, while hardwood logs sell for about $600 per thousand board feet.
Obviously, it’s financially worthwhile for Bruce to make the extra effort to meet the requirements of private woodlot owners who insist on careful logging practices. The forwarder comes equipped with a diesel-powered, 85-hp Deutz engine. It consists of a tractor unit and a trailer, both equipped with heavy-duty tracks. The tracks on the trailer are powered with a power take off (PTO) connection. Bruce says the forwarder has plenty of power for his requirements. “It will out-climb a skidder any time,” he says, “yet if you get into a soft area and only go in there a few times, there is minimal ground disturbance.”
The machine comes with a fully enclosed cab for winter operation, with windows for good visibility. Bruce says the unit is comfortable. The forwarder uses a hydraulically-powered stick steering system. The hydraulics also control the stabilizers that make contact with the ground to keep the forwarder steady while the operator loads logs, as well as the boom. Everything else is mechanically driven through the transmission and differentials.
The forwarder has facing seats, so that after being driven in one direction, the operator can simply change seats and drive it back in the opposite direction. Although it has a five-speed transmission, Bruce says he operates the forwarder primarily in third gear, slowing down in particularly muddy or rocky areas to avoid both ground and track damage. He is satisfied with the fowarder’s speed in third gear. “In third gear, you’d have to jog to keep up,” he says. “We burn 27 to 32 litres of fuel per day, which I feel is quite reasonable.”
The tracks are steel on rubber belts and require patching from time to time. However, Bruce has yet to have a track detach while on the fly during three years of production. A tracked forwarder does require considerably more maintenance than a skidder. For example, there are a number of additional grease points that need attention daily.
The unit has four tracks. Each one costs about $2,800 to replace, which Bruce recommends should be done every two years. After a couple of years of steady production, Unique Logging returned the forwarder to F4 Dion’s Quebec factory for a complete refurbishing. It cost about $6,000, but Bruce believes it was a good investment considering how valuable the unit is to his business. Since offering the forwarding service, he says they have received plenty of positive feedback from landowners.
Because Unique Logging removes about 33 per cent of the trees and creates narrow trails, many landowners afterwards find it much easier to navigate their quads in among the trees, especially during hunting season. “One of the main things that we hear is that they hope we are still around in 15 years to come back and harvest the woodlot again,” says Bruce. Many are also eager to help Unique Logging by offering their woodlots as examples of how pleased they are with the job done by the company.
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