Mulching may be the next logical step for growth in salvage logging services, but one of the biggest challenges can be choosing the proper mulching tool for the work environment.
Changing attitudes towards environmental protection appear to be presenting business diversification opportunities to savvy forestry contractors interested in providing specialized timber management services to mining, oil and gas, and seismic companies.
Many forestry contractors, particularly in Alberta and British Columbia, are already earning hefty bonuses from salvage logging contracts. But what about managing the unmerchantable wood fibre that often needs to be cleared for seismic lines or to build resource roads, pipeline corridors and oilfield leases?
One Alberta company is making a good living from its fleet of mulchers. “On a typical job site, we’ll mulch the stumps and limbs,” says Chevallier Geo-Con co-owner, Mark Chevallier. “The stumps from salvaged timber are left on the ground by the salvage logger and we mulch those as well. We can clear roughly one hectare per day.”
However, providing mulching services is not as easy as it might appear on paper, he says. It takes the right tool for the right environment, as well as experienced operators who can operate the equipment with minimal wear and tear, while doing a reasonably good job of mulching to meet the client’s needs.
“A mulcher is not the type of machine that you can just throw anyone on and have them do the work because it is such a violent activity with the smashing of the timber,” says Chevallier. “You have a three-quarters-of-a-million dollar machine that can be destroyed in a matter of weeks.”
Chevallier owns the Rocky Mountain House, Alberta-based company with his brother Grant.
It has been operating for 10 years with its primary focus on seismic line clearing, as well as roadbuilding and lease site construction for the oil and gas industry. Four years ago, they bought their first mulchers. “We recognized the changes happening in seismic line clearing, the effort to reduce the amount of environmental damage done with this activity,” says Chevallier.
The common practice in the seismic industry was to bulldoze wood fibre into windrows. However, new government regulations now require that narrower seismic lines have a reduced industrial footprint on the environment. This left no room for windrows. Since the topsoil is not removed after the wood fibre is mulched when constructing seismic lines, Chevallier says it is difficult to even find where a seismic line was cut after one year because of fibre regeneration. Sometimes the mulch works as a mat and reduces damage to the topsoil, for example, on a winter resource road that has a lot of traffic.
Mulching in situations where the topsoil is removed, such as pipeline construction, strip mining, road and oilfield lease construction, delivers environmental dividends as well. The mulched wood fibre is typically mixed in with the topsoil when it is stripped away with dozers.
When the topsoil is reclaimed, the mulch works as compost and also helps prevent soil erosion. “With mulching, instead of windrowing, piling in the bush, and then burning, you are actually stabilizing the soil,” Chevallier says.
For a land manager, one benefit of using a masticating machine like a mulcher on a strip mine, for example, is that there are no large roots or wood material that needs to be removed from the soil. Often the mining company would have to remove that wood fibre from the topsoil before it could be used for reclamation. However, if it is mulched before removal, the material is small enough that it will compost quickly and can be placed back with the topsoil.
Chevallier Geo-Con has made a significant investment in mulchers as well as in marketing their services over the past four years. It has paid off to the point where they now attract business by reputation. The busy oil and gas sector has also helped to fuel company growth. Some forestry contractors have recognized mulching as a potential business opportunity but soon recognize the investment required and the danger it represents without the proper equipment and operators.
“It’s getting more competitive, but because it is such a specialized market, a lot of companies are reluctant to get into it,” says Chevallier. One of the challenges is choosing the proper tool for the work environment. There are also more equipment brands and features to choose from as compared to when Chevallier Geo-Con diversified into this business venture four years ago. “No machine is suited for every job site,” notes Chevallier. “There are various sizes of machines, different weights, different ground pressures, and different mulching capabilities that fit into different marketplaces. So it is just a matter of finding what machine fits your marketplace best.”
For example, a large machine with plenty of horsepower should be used to mulch bigger areas with large timber. However, the tradeoff is that the mulcher will likely be a heavier machine. For mulching on roads and rights-of-way, a powerful but lighter mulcher is a better choice because it may have to work on softer ground. The company now owns three Fecon RT_00 heavier duty mulchers, two Fecon RT350 mulchers, as well as six smaller Rayco C87FM mulchers. The Fecon mulchers are their most recent purchases.
Chevallier Geo-Con tends to use its Rayco mulchers in situations where trees are non-merchantable.
“The Fecon brand mulcher is a middle of the road machine,” says Chevallier. “It has really good power. They run at 400 horsepower, which is at the upper end of the power range, yet the machine isn’t excessively heavy. We can still get away with going into softer areas with it.” When using the Fecon mulchers, two passes will produce a fine mulch. Other heads can take three to four passes to get the same degree of mulching.
Chevallier Geo-Con is attracting interest from a fairly large area and from a variety of resource sectors for its mulching services. For example, it recently mulched the residual wood fibre for a strip mine site near Tumbler Ridge, BC. Because the company is also active in resource road, pipeline, and oilfield lease construction, its fleet includes two Caterpillar D7R dozers, two Caterpillar D6R dozers, two Caterpillar D6M dozers, a John Deere 650 dozer, a 270 John Deere excavator and a 200 John Deere excavator.