Cat to the Core

Alberta logger Niel Graham knows what works for his logging operation in the eastern slopes of the Rockies—Cat equipment—and he sticks to it, with the latest addition being Caterpillar’s new 541 feller buncher.

By Tony Kryzanowski   


ESC Harvesting purchased a new Cat 541 feller buncher (above) because it was impressed with the performance of an older Cat 741 feller buncher the company has in its fleet. Right (inset photo) is ESC Harvesting owner Niel Graham.  

Veteran Alberta logger Niel Graham is not a spontaneous shopper when it comes to forestry equipment. A diehard supporter of Caterpillar equipment, Graham is at the point in his career where it comes down to a simple equation: consistent equipment performance plus service support equals business success. The owner of ESC Harvesting Ltd, Graham has experience logging in three provinces over his 26 years in business. While the ESC Harvesting name may be new to the industry, the Graham name certainly is not. Niel and his brothers began logging in 1981 in Lillooet, BC, but moved to Alberta over 10 years ago to take a contract with Spray Lake Sawmills in Cochrane.                                   

In 2006, Niel struck out on his own as ESC Harvesting Ltd. At present, the company is harvesting about 266,000 cubic metres annually in Spray Lake’s Forest Management Area (FMA) on the eastern slopes of the Rockies. There are few places in Canada with the views and vistas of Alberta’s eastern slopes, and very few locations that have as many opportunities for unique wildlife encounters that include feral horses, cougars and grizzly bears.                                   
“I really like to get up and go to work every day,” says Graham. “Most days, I’m there by 6: 0 in the morning and I don’t leave till 4: 0 in the afternoon. After 26 years of doing it, I still enjoy it.”                                   
However, working in this scenic area of Alberta is not without its challenges. “We’re working in a really high profile area just outside Calgary,” says Graham. “A whole lot of people don’t want us there. We do, in some areas, have security for when we are not working because we have had some problems with vandalism and machines being spray painted.” He adds that Spray Lake Sawmills does an excellent job of dealing with the public by gathering input from all stakeholders in drafting its annual and five-year plans. In terms of their own operations, he says ESC Harvesting tries to do an outstanding job no matter where they are working.                                   

One area where Spray Lake Sawmills has been a leader is in asking its contractors to discontinue slash burning. To fulfill this request, ESC Harvesting has adopted processing at the stump. Essentially this means that processors follow the path established by the feller bunchers in the cutblock, processing at the stump and leaving branches in the cutblock, as opposed to processing at roadside and generating large brush piles. Graham says production was definitely a lot slower when this method was first implemented.                                   

ESC Harvesting sometimes shares its cutblocks with feral horses when it logs on the eastern slopes of the Rockies near Sundre, Alberta.  

“At first, the guys would be working like crazy to get 160 cubic metres in a 10-hour shift, but now we are getting between 00 and 400 cubic metres per day,” he says. “I see a lot of benefit to leaving the branches in the cutblock.”                                    

The limbs decay in the cutblock, leaving behind essential nutrients. Cones are also left behind, helping with regeneration. From an operational standpoint, the branches reduce the environmental impact by helping to cut down on equipment ruts. The company’s equipment set-up includes a Cat 527 tracked skidder, which Graham says is an extremely versatile piece of equipment capable of working in soft ground.                                   

It is also used to skid trees from steeper ground to flatter ground where the logs can be retrieved by wheeled skidders, and is useful for road building because it comes equipped with a dozer blade.                                   

Today, the vast majority of the company’s annual cut is lodgepole pine and with the recent flight of the mountain pine beetle from central BC to Alberta, the path of the beetle dictates which areas need to be harvested. So far, the beetle is most prevalent in the Grande Prairie area, but experts say that Southern Alberta is where the beetle suffered the least mortality this past winter.                                   

“Yes, we’re definitely concerned that what happened in BC might happen in Alberta,” says Graham. “Anybody who is in forestry is really quite concerned. It’s important to be on the lookout for the beetle. If we find a suspicious tree or bug, we bring it to Spray Lake right away so they can provide verification.” While he has seen very little beetle indication within their operations in the Sundre area, ESC Harvesting has also harvested logs further south where the beetle has been more prevalent. There’s no doubt, he adds, that logging companies in Alberta are being directed more toward areas where the beetle could find a significant food source, in an effort to stem the tide from BC by harvesting mature pine before it becomes infested.                                   

Leading the way in harvesting operations for the company are two Cat feller bunchers. Graham purchased a Cat 741 feller buncher a few years ago, and he was so satisfied with its performance that last winter he followed up with the purchase of Caterpillar’s new 541 feller buncher—a product the company began field testing back in 2000. The feller buncher was designed from the ground up as part of Cat’s new product introduction (NPI) program, with modifications made along the way after receiving feedback from loggers during test trials. The company has worked hard to raise its profile in the forest equipment line, estimating that the market for forestry equipment is in the $4 billion to $5 billion range. Along with the 541, Cat has also introduced larger 551 and 552 models, with a leveling option available on the 552.                                   

“We went to Caterpillar from the Timbco product, and have had really good luck with them,” says Graham, noting that Cat dealer Finning has offered excellent service support. What he likes particularly about the 541 is the adjustability of the undercarriage—it can be configured in a wider stance for greater stability. This is an improvement over the 741 model, and is important since they are sometimes required to work on slopes up to 45 per cent.                 

Since ESC Harvesting is processing at the stump, it needs a carrier and head combination that can withstand the extra wear and tear of traveling in the cutblock.  

Graham adds that his operators also appreciate the electronic controls on the Cat 541 feller buncher, which allow them to customize their work settings. The 541 feller buncher weighs in at 0,191 kgs (66,560 lbs) without the head and has a maximum boom reach of 8.6 metres (28 feet, 1 inch) with the head. It has a Cat C9 ACERT engine with gross power of 05 horsepower at 1,800 rpm. The feller bunching head on the carrier is a Cat product with a 22-inch capacity. ESC Harvesting has added a Gilbert attachment that gives the head the ability to rotate 220 degrees and gives operators more flexibility in laying down trees, particularly on steep hillsides. Graham made a conscious choice not to purchase a tilting unit because of his logging method. Because his processors have to work in the same environment as his feller bunchers, it made no sense to have one piece of equipment capable of leveling while those following in behind could not.                                   

His desire to stick with brands that have delivered proven performance holds true for his log processors as well. He has used Waratah brand processors for the past 14 years, again touting their strong performance for as long as he has owned them. At present, he is using Waratah 622B processing heads.                                   

“Initially we liked the design of the head, the fact it was built to last, and its computer system,” says Graham. “They have also gotten better structurally and improved on the computer system over the years. Right now, we can get a printout of how much production each operator is achieving every day.” Service support on the Waratah head is provided through Finning.                                   

Graham remains firmly committed to Caterpillar in his selection of processor carriers and skidders as well. He has two Caterpillar 20 processor carriers, a Caterpillar 22 processor carrier for heavier terrain, two 545 skidders, and a 527 tracked skidder. The final pieces of the puzzle are a Cat 25 butt ’n top loader and a Cat 20 loader with a power clam attachment.                                   

Typically, Graham keeps his equipment for about three years, which is when they usually reach about 8,000 hours. He purchases the extended service package and powertrain warranty to try to ensure that the equipment is maintained in good condition for as long as the company owns them. He says he is pleased with the trade-in value of the equipment once it’s time to turn them over.                                   

While it can be tough to keep employees in Alberta these days given the lure of high paying jobs in the oil patch, Graham says he has managed to keep a full slate of employees for the past two years. That includes hiring workers from the Maritimes and Saskatchewan.                                   

While he cannot compete with the wages offered by the oil industry, he says employees are able to be home with their families every night, something not available with many of the jobs offered by the oil patch. The views from the foothills aren’t bad either, he adds.    

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