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All in the family
Having taken over the family logging firm from their father, Dave and Kevin Roberts have now ramped up their harvesting activities—and their equipment line-up—to meet the needs of Canfor’s newly modernized mill in Elko, B.C.
By Tony Kryzanowski
The owners of Norm Roberts Logging aren’t afraid to try new approaches, whether it’s making the transition to cut-to-length (CTL) logging, processing long logs at the stump and then skidding bunches by the top to roadside, or moving their equipment across the provincial boundary to work in Alberta, from their headquarters in Fernie, B.C.
The company is one of Canfor’s prime contractors in the region, supplying the Canfor Elko, B.C. sawmill with 250,000 cubic metres of wood annually. The wood is harvested in what is known as the Elk Valley, and the company is used to cutting its own business trail in an area dominated by five coal mines, tourists in summer, and skiers in winter.
While it may not seem like a major accomplishment to others, one major challenge that Norm Roberts Logging has had to overcome over the years—with the attraction of area mining jobs as well as being so close to Alberta’s oil patch—is simply keeping their crew intact.
Having learned the logging ropes working with his father starting as a hand faller in 1976, co-owner Dave Roberts understands that working with family members is one way to keep equipment productive. It also sets the stage to pass the business to the next generation.
The company is open to taking on more volume if it becomes available, which is where Dave says experience comes into play. They have the knowledge to manage controlled growth without getting out of control. The issue is often finding the quality operators to fill the equipment seats—and keeping them.
Established by Dave’s father, Norm, as Norm Roberts Logging, Dave and his brother, Kevin, now own the company. Kevin joined the company in 1980, which they purchased from their father in 2003. Kevin primarily looks after the hoe/decking and processing functions, while Dave oversees the feller bunching and skidding functions.
Dave’s son, Kyle, operates a feller buncher and Kevin’s son, Jordan is a processor operator. Their sister Kari’s boyfriend operates a backhoe for them. While he is retired, Norm Roberts still enjoys driving out to the bush to survey field operations once in a while, given the number of years he put into the industry.
The company’s current annual cut for Canfor is “way more than we have ever done,” says Dave. “The most we’ve ever done previously is 140,000.”
This is a much improved situation as compared to the six months off the company was forced to take during the industry downturn in 2009 when the Elko sawmill took a number of curtailments. While it was a challenge to make equipment payments at that time, it provided the group with an opportunity to recharge and now they are eager to tackle the extra volume presented to them.
The phrase “night and day” would not overstate the difference in the forestry situation in the Elko/Fernie area over the past eight years, given the impact of the downturn on the local forestry community and what little capital was being spent on the Elko sawmill owned until recently by Tembec. The sawmill was purchased by Canfor in March 2012 along with Tembec’s Canal Flats sawmill.
Canfor, recognizing the superior green wood basket in the area, promptly announced a $40 million modernization project for the Elko sawmill, which is now complete. It features an entirely new planer mill. That change of ownership and investment has injected considerable excitement and job stability into the Fernie/Elko area, as well as more logging volume for area loggers like Norm Roberts Logging.
With the volume uplift offered to them, Norm Roberts Logging has increased the size of their fleet by about one-third and has hired a sub-contractor on a temporary basis to produce 50,000 cubic metres for them until they can fine tune their equipment operating hours to handle all the volume on their own. The company currently has 14 employees and they log year round.
The company is also making an adjustment to supplying CTL logs to the sawmill, versus long logs, in an environment where the terrain is either hilly or mountainous, with slopes ranging from 20 per cent to 55 per cent. The average is about 35 per cent.
Occasionally, they encounter slopes over 55 per cent, so Dave fires up his chainsaw and gets to work. He is a very experienced hand faller as that’s how his father ran the business before they switched to complete mechanized logging. In this case, he fells the logs and then a hoe chucker moves them down to a trail where either their rubber-tired skidders or a Cat 527 tracked skidder can deliver the logs to a landing deck for processing. Ground conditions are also extremely variable, ranging from rock and boulders to mud. The wood basket is predominantly green lodgepole pine and spruce averaging 8” to 10” in diameter.
The transition to CTL logging in a steep slope environment has resulted in some interesting new approaches by Canfor’s loggers all the way from its operations in Radium further north, to Elko in the south. Area loggers were used to managing long logs and had become highly efficient in this logging method. Switching to CTL logging with a lot more equipment, an average of seven to eight sorts and processing at roadside has impacted productivity, so loggers are testing various methods to maintain work flow.
“We figure that we have dropped anywhere from 25 to 30 per cent in our production with all the additional sorts,” says Dave. “What we have done of course is added machines. We have discussed prices with Canfor and they have come around on prices for sure.” The number of sorts is another point of discussion and Canfor has shown some willingness to make adjustments when there are more than eight sorts.
To improve its efficiency, Norm Roberts Logging has taken the approach of clearly defining each phase in the logging process and making sure they have the right tool and highly productive equipment for each phase. They have added a piece of equipment called a hoe/decker, primarily operated by Kevin, to increase efficiency once the wood has been delivered by the skidder to roadside. It’s the company’s newest purchase.
“With the hoe/decking, you separate your phases really well,” says Dave. “The feller buncher bunches the wood and then the skidder comes along and pulls it to roadside. Then the hoe/decker puts it into a big pile. Later on, the processor comes along, followed by the loader. Everything is separate and it is actually more efficient.”
The move to total CTL hasn’t been a major head scratcher for Norm Roberts Logging; for years, they operated a modified CTL harvesting method for Tembec, where they processed all long logs at the stump up to 49 ‘6” lengths and skidded bunches to roadside by the top, instead of the butt. They discovered and demonstrated that they could skid a lot more logs per load, make fewer skidder trips and cause a lot less environmental damage if they skidded the delimbed and processed logs from the stump to roadside by the top. (See the February 2004 issue of Logging and Sawmilling Journal at www.forestnet.com for a story on this)
What has also added to the company’s productivity within their current logging operation is that they no longer rely entirely on contract log haulers—they have purchased two logging trucks and are considering the purchase of more.
Their equipment fleet consists of two Tigercat 830 tilting feller bunchers, two John Deere 748 skidders, one John Deere 648 skidder, and a Cat 527 tracked skidder. For processing they have two 2154 John Deere processor carriers and one Cat 324 processor carrier, all equipped with Waratah 622B processing heads. Rounding out the fleet is a Cat 324 hoe/decker with a power clam, a John Deere 200 backhoe and a Cat 525 loader with a power clam.
The company’s philosophy is to try to operate newer equipment in all aspects of their fleet because they know from experience that after 10,000 hours, each piece of equipment will tend to start having mechanical issues. They’d rather spend time harvesting and delivering logs than fixing equipment.
“I’d rather have a higher payment than have to pay repair bills,” says Dave, adding that the company prefers to purchase the best piece of equipment at the best price for each function, rather than necessarily sticking with a dominant equipment brand.
“We like to keep everyone honest and spread out the business to keep everyone competitive,” says Dave. “We’ve found that if you stick to one brand too much, then after a while they think that they own you, and I don’t like that at all.”
He adds that the equipment suppliers don’t make everything exactly the same, and a logger can only find out if a piece of equipment is any good by trying out something different.
Among the items on the features list for new equipment are fuel consumption, uptime, power, speed and resale value. But Dave says that while these are important—and do factor into a purchasing decision—the biggest issue these days seems to be operator comfort. That has been the final determining factor in their two most recent processor and feller buncher purchases.
In terms of service support, Dave says they are treated well and receive “really good” service from their equipment suppliers, specifically Inland Kenworth, Brandt Tractor and Finning.
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