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Tigercats keep timber moving

The uptime that Alberta logging contractor Dennis Kropp gets from his Tigercat dominated equipment fleet is key to keeping his operation productive. A recent addition is a six-wheel drive Tigercat 625 skidder, equipped with a hydrostatic transmission, which offers excellent flotation in soft ground.

By Tony Kryzanowski

Six years ago, Alberta logging contractor Dennis Kropp took a chance with his business and switched from operating strictly as a log loading and haul contractor to a full service, stump-to-dump contractor.

“It was actually quite an easy transition,” says Kropp, who has worked in the forest industry his entire life, starting in the mill yard and then as a trucker in Fort St. John, BC, before moving to Whitecourt, Alberta, and finally to Slave Lake.

“I was always interested in logging, and I had an opportunity to buy a line from my good friend, John Dawson. He helped me out a lot and was actually my foreman for a winter until I had it all figured out.”

In 2002, it was either switch to logging or lose a customer.

Kropp had been loading and transporting logs for West Fraser Timber Co.’s Alberta Plywood plant and a couple of other forest companies operating in the Slave Lake area. Then, in an effort to streamline operations, West Fraser required all their main contractors to offer stump-to-dump service so that more logging activities were managed by fewer contractors. Kropp decided to take the plunge.

The line Kropp bought from John Dawson included a Timbco feller buncher, a John Deere 200 carrier with a Lim-mit 2000 delimber, and a Tigercat 630A skidder. He also bought a new Tigercat line, including an 870 feller buncher, an 860 carrier with a Lim-mit 2600 delimber and a 630 skidder.

Although Dennis Kropp is focused on logging, he still operates a truck fleet and his son, Shane, continues the family trucking tradition. He owns SK Trucking, sub-contracts his services to his dad, and hauls a lot of forest products in that part of north central Alberta. Dennis’ trucking business is a nice complement to his seasonal logging operation, as he is able to keep his core workers employed year round. The oil and gas industry is very active in the Slave Lake area, so there is a strong demand for trucking services.

The flotation capabilities and hydrostatic drive transmission on Tigercat’s 625C skidder helps Kropp Contracting keep working in soft ground conditions. The ground in the part of Alberta where Kropp operates often doesn’t freeze until November, meaning they have to contend with logging in soft, silty, and hilly terrain for at least a couple of months a season.

Working for a plywood operation gives Kropp Contracting a bit more security these days than contractors working for sawmills. While Dennis agrees that by working for a plywood plant, his company does enjoy more security, he says that doesn’t translate into better logging rates. It’s tough in today’s market no matter who you work for, he says. Then, there are the other little things that he must deal with, like—of all things—diesel fuel rationing in oil-rich Alberta. All Alberta contractors were starving for diesel fuel this past fall because an oil refinery in the province was doing maintenance. At one point, Kropp had to scale back operations and was actually in danger of shutting down, but managed to struggle through until the refinery reopened in early November.

In all his years of trucking and logging, Kropp had never seen anything so ridiculous, considering where the raw material for the diesel fuel comes from (i.e. Alberta). As a seasonal logging contractor working from September to early March, a prolonged diesel shortage would have been an extreme hardship for Kropp Contracting.

On average, the company harvests about 225,000 cubic metres annually for Alberta Plywood. Kropp’s harvest is nearly equally divided between softwood and hardwood. All of the hardwood, which typically measures 18” to 22” in diameter, is transported to Slave Lake Pulp, another West Fraser operation. The softwood is transported in a variety of directions, depending on its size. Alberta Plywood takes logs averaging 13” to 15” at the butt. Smaller logs potentially end up at West Fraser’s operations in nearby Blue Ridge or are sold to other sawmills operating in the area. Alberta Plywood in Slave Lake manufactures veneer, which is then shipped to a plywood plant in Edmonton.

Most of Kropp’s logging is done south of Slave Lake, near or in the Swan Hills, which can be quite hilly. In fact, it is so hilly in places that some forest companies have contracted the services of BC yarder contractors to come in and harvest some extremely hilly cutblocks.

Kropp Contracting’s two Tigercat 870C feller bunchers, both equipped with 5702 heads, have the strength and power to harvest a variety of log sizes.

The terrain and the seasonal nature of his business are two reasons why Kropp Contracting recently purchased a six-wheel drive Tigercat 625 skidder, which comes equipped with a hydrostatic transmission. He needed a skidder that had enough power, yet with excellent flotation, to transport logs to roadside without making a lot of ruts. Because the ground in that part of Alberta often doesn’t freeze until November, Kropp contends with logging in soft, silty, and hilly terrain for at least a couple of months a season.

“Last year, we were going to get shut down,” he says. “There were just way too many ruts and we were sinking in all the soft draws. I had to buy something pretty fast. Luckily, Tigercat had a 625 skidder sitting in Edmonton so I picked it up and brought it out to demo. I said if it worked, I’d buy it. We went through the softest stuff with it and the mill was happy. That skidder got us out of trouble and got us working.”

The skidder is equipped with 40” tires in the front and all six tires were banded for extra traction and flotation in the wettest conditions. According to Kropp, the skidder was actually able to flatten a lot of the tracks left by the feller bunchers. He adds that because of its hydrostatic transmission, the Tigercat 625 skidder is very smooth on its drags.

“It’s a totally different pulling machine,” says Kropp. “Traction-wise, they don’t ever run out of gearing because it’s hydrostatic. It’s unbelievable what a hydrostatic machine will do”.

In addition to the Tigercat 625 skidder, Kropp Contracting also has two Tigercat 630 skidders, a John Deere 748GIII skidder and a John Deere 848 skidder. Because of the volume of wood that his larger Tigercat 630 skidders can transport to roadside, Kropp believes that he is getting as much wood to roadside with three skidders as he’d normally get with four skidders. So it has saved him the cost of a skidder, hiring an operator, plus the wear and tear and maintenance of that skidder.

In terms of fuel consumption, when you consider how much wood these skidders can deliver in one trip, Kropp believes fuel consumption is reasonable.

At the front end of his logging operation, Kropp has two Tigercat 870C feller bunchers, equipped with 5702 heads. His newest one was purchased in January 2008. One has a full rotation head while the other has 110 degree rotation. Both have their advantages. It’s easier to install crossings with the full rotation head, but Kropp and his operators feel that the 110 degree rotation head is stronger and able to hold a 30” tree more easily. The operators also believe that the carriers are very stable and the overall movements throughout the felling and bunching processes are very smooth.

Kropp adds that he has experienced very few mechanical problems with either the Tigercat 870C carriers or the heads. “The bunchers are bulletproof,” he says. “They’ve never let us down.”

The Tigercat brand is somewhat of a recurring theme in Kropp’s fleet, especially when it comes to his critical production units, and that’s because he says the company has provided him with excellent service to ensure that he stays productive within his narrow operating window, which is something he appreciates.

For processing at roadside, Kropp Contracting has recently added a couple of processors to its delimber fleet.

“We’ve got such hard tolerances on our measuring,” says Kropp. “It’s very, very tight at minus two and plus three inches in either direction.”

The company has purchased two Waratah 624 processors to help it meet those tolerances on logs that are 70 feet and longer. Kropp believes by using the Waratahs, operators will be more accurate in their measurements and be able to recognize more defects. Their plan is to have two sorts at roadside, one for smaller diameter trees that they will continue to delimb, and a larger diameter sort that they will process.

They chose Waratah processors because of their excellent reputation with other logging contractors. So far, Kropp says he is impressed with how much control and data the computer provides. The Waratah heads are mounted on a John Deere 2554 carrier and a Komatsu 300 carrier.

In addition to the processors, Kropp Contracting has three Lim-mit 2600 delimbers. Two are mounted on Tigercat 860 carriers and one is on a Komatsu 220 carrier. The company also has a ForestPro delimber mounted on a John Deere 230 carrier.

By using the Lim-mit delimbers to delimb the smaller wood, and the Waratahs to process the larger wood where diameter measurement is critical, Kropp believes that this will satisfy the needs of Alberta Plywood for better accuracy on veneer logs, while making it possible for him to operate as efficiently as possible.

While Kropp has been fortunate with a fairly stable core of workers in his logging operation, the challenge he and other logging contractors face are finding truck drivers. It’s becoming very difficult to convince young people to consider truck driving as a career because of so many other opportunities, especially in Alberta, and the amount of compensation contractors can afford to pay.