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Attractive site prep package
Alberta site prep specialist Darcy Grudeski has opted for an attractive equipment package: a custom Canadian mounder that features off-the-shelf components and offers easy troubleshooting.

By Tony Kryzanowski

Master Reclamation owner Darcy Grudeski (above) is now working with a locally designed and manufactured TERRA Technology mounder that is up to the demanding site prep task, and easier to troubleshoot than what he’s operated previously.

Alberta silviculture site prep specialist Darcy Grudeski learned his trade literally from the ground up. With 20 years’ experience under his belt, a keen eye for quality, and a business philosophy built on honesty, he’s often called upon by other contractors and forest companies for his expert opinion.                                   

Grudeski and his wife, Karen, own Master Reclamation Ltd, based in the town of Olds, about an hour north of Calgary. Their main clients are West Fraser Timber and Sundance Forest Products, supplemented by site prep contracts on harvested sites managed by the Alberta government.                                   

In his typical low key style, Grudeski operates a small company with only four employees. In reality, though, the depth of his knowledge qualifies him as an invaluable asset in an industry that is rapidly losing its experienced contractors to greener pastures or retirement.                 

Today, Master Reclamation offers mounding and disc trenching services. Its fleet consists of a John Deere 748E skidder with a Donaren disc trencher and a John Deere 748 GIII skidder with a TERRA Technology mounder. The company does site prep on between 2,000 and 3,000 hectares per year, on forest blocks around Sundre, Edson and Hinton, Alberta.                 

“When I first started doing scarification in 1987, the only rules and regulations that were applied were aimed at pipelines,” Grudeski says. “Basically, it was four lines on a piece of paper telling you not to go near them. Today, you almost have to have someone in your company dedicated to safety, forest stewardship, and so on. Things have changed a lot over the years.” Overall, he says, new regulations pertaining to safety and refuse management have had a positive impact, particularly in terms of leaving behind a cleaner environment.                 

Site prep is usually done a year after an area has been harvested and a year before the manual tree planters arrive to reforest an area. Disc trenching is Master Reclamation’s most common form of site prep, followed by mounding and chain dragging. Grudeski says the reforestation effort put forward by forest companies is still not well known by the general public.                                   

“We have people in Olds who don’t have a clue about how many trees the forest companies put back in the ground,” he says. “They don’t even know that they do site prep to help the trees grow and to cut back the competition on them. What comes out of an area goes back in. We need to get more information out there.” Grudeski’s work experience includes a three-year stint in the US, primarily in the Southeast and Oregon. He says site prep is markedly different in the US, where forests are grown mostly on plantations. Because there is less debris, sites are easier to navigate as compared to the Canadian environment.                                   

Grudeski got his start in the site prep business when the company he was working for moved permanently to the US and vacated its contract with Sunpine Forest Products in Sundre, which is now owned by West Fraser Timber. Rather than move to the US with his employer, Grudeski parlayed his work experience into a new business venture and signed on with Sunpine.                                                     

Recently, Master Reclamation has expanded into grapple skidding to keep its equipment working longer. The site prep season lasts only about seven months, from May to November. Expanding into grapple skidding in the winter months extends the work window to about 10 months, thus giving the company a stronger business foundation to purchase newer equipment.                                   

Mounding is the preferred site prep method in situations where there is a lot of heavy grass and standing poplar. Mounds help seedlings survive in an environment where the grass and poplar want to take over.                                   

Part of Grudeski’s expertise extends beyond his knowledge of what qualifies as excellent site prep. He started out in site prep at the same time that the first Swedish mounders and disc trenchers arrived on the Canadian scene. The same growing pains occurred with the introduction of this Scandinavian technology back in the mid-1980s as with early Scandinavian harvesting heads and purpose-built carriers. While the technology was impressive, parts and service support was close to non-existent.                                   

“The instruction book on our first mounder was in Swedish,” says Grudeski. “Part of the problem was that the numbers for the hydraulic pressures were written out instead of numbered.”                                   

Through trial and error, they managed to get the technology to work correctly, and it produced quality results for many years. Because of his experience successfully operating this Scandinavian equipment, he is often called upon to help other contractors using similar equipment, to troubleshoot problems.

Darcy Grudeski says the direct drive of the John Deere 748 skidders makes them ideal carriers for heavy mounder attachments because they are able to withstand the heat generated by constantly pulling the attachment across the cutblock.

However, Grudeski says parts and service support from Scandinavian suppliers, particularly in this area of Canada, has not been to his satisfaction. So he decided to make the switch to a local supplier that could deliver a product that was perhaps not as technically advanced, but certainly adequate, so that he could continue to provide the quality service on which he has built his reputation.                                   

He recently purchased a new mounder from a metal fabricator and site prep company headquartered in Stony Plain, Alberta, called TERRA Technology. His mounder is one of about five that have been built and put to use. Grudeski was directly involved in the assembly of the unit, assisting with putting together the hydraulic components.                                   

“TERRA Technology supplied us with a lot of replacement hydraulic hoses with the mounder, and if I need service support, they are only two hours away,” he says. “I can buy everything in the hydraulic box off the shelf in Edmonton or Calgary. The same is true of the computer and all the electrical components in the panel.” This is important, as Master Reclamation offers its services over quite a large geographic area and over a short season. The unit is also designed, Grudeski says, so that it is easier to troubleshoot a problem compared to other commercial units on the market. For example, the hydraulic controls can be engaged manually so that if there is a problem, it can be discovered almost immediately.                                   

When it comes to mounders, he says operating the equipment can be complicated because settings have to be made so that proper mounds are created according to site conditions.                                   

And working conditions can vary considerably from one site to another, ranging from sandy soil to soil with a lot of clay, as well as terrain that can range from flat to hilly.                 

All these conditions impact on such issues as down pressure on the mounder arms and travel speeds. While other commercial units offer more automatic settings, such as setting the angle of penetration by adjusting the mounder arms, there is the potential for a lot more to go wrong with those units.                                   

The work performed by companies like Master Reclamation is demanding. Grudeski points out that it is important for the mounder tooth to dig to exactly the right depth to flip over enough clay to minimize weed competition for a young tree in its early stages of growth, while ensuring that the nutrient layer is adequate so that the tree can establish a quality root base. The overall objective is to establish the right environment to give a tree an excellent chance for survival.                                   

Good regeneration is important to the forest company, as certain growth objectives must be met within certain timeframes to meet government and company targets. Poor regeneration is expensive for forestry companies, as they must replant if a site does not meet minimum requirements. Also, companies’ futures are dependent on having healthy trees to harvest in about 80 years.                                   

While use of skidders is quite common, skidder selection is important.                                   

Grudeski says he uses John Deere skidders because they are direct drive like a farm tractor. One major difference when using a skidder for site prep rather than skidding trees is that in site prep, the skidder is carrying a heavy attachment weighing in at about 9,000 pounds that is constantly working behind the skidder. When a skidder is used to skid trees, it is only pulling a load in one direction.                                   

“If you use a skidder with a torque converter, we’ve found in the past that they tended to heat up,” says Grudeski. “When you skid wood, the skidder travels loaded one way and empty on the way back, which is the time that the torque converter would cool down.”                                    The company has also opted for a model 748 as a minimum size because it can carry the attachment weight while still climbing hills. Hourly production on flat ground ranges from 1.1 to 1.2 hectares per hour, but can drop to as low as 0.7 to 0.8 hectares on hilly ground.                 

Master Reclamation has seen many site prep contractors come and go over the years. The company continues to flourish because it won’t sacrifice quality for a quick buck.                 

“I was asked to look at a site near Whitecourt recently and after surveying the site, I told them that their planned approach for site prep wouldn’t work,” says Grudeski. “I basically lost a contract for a 160-hectare job in that case—but it was the right thing to do.”