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Timber Pro Logging owners ( left to right) Ron Head, Art Thiessen, and Murray Head. The company has expanded its equipment fleet over the years, as its cut volume has grown. Since 2006, Timber Pro Logging has nearly tripled its annual cut, working for Canfor, Ainsworth, and Weyerhaeuser.
Alberta’s Timber Pro Logging is carefully managing growth,
and making the right equipment decisions—including an investment in some John Deere equipment this past fall—has been key to their success during a time of tight profit margins.
By Tony Kryzanowski
The owners of Timber Pro Logging in Grande Prairie, Alberta, have a long association with the forest industry, are growing their business and have opportunities to take on more volume. The hard question is whether the industry has come to a crossroads where it is difficult for loggers to build a business case to justify growth or even stay in business.
In 2006, brothers Murray and Ron Head partnered with Art Thiessen in Timber Pro Logging. Thiessen was a log operations supervisor at the time. He had 20 years of logging experience under his belt. Partnering meant they were able to expand beyond the log haul business to include log harvesting. Members of the Head family have a long history with the forest industry as they have been transporting logs to Canfor’s Grande Prairie sawmill since the early 1970s. Given their combined knowledge and experience, the partnership has worked out well.
Since 2006, the company has nearly tripled its annual cut to about 500,000 cubic metres per year, working southeast and southwest of Grande Prairie and providing logs to Canfor, Ainsworth, and Weyerhaeuser.
The company has managed to expand during a time when the struggles of the forest industry are wearing on the people involved in both the logging and production side of the industry. Still, there are opportunities out there at present to expand logging operations, especially for contractors who can guarantee that logs will be delivered to the yard given the current labor shortage.
The question is whether it is worthwhile.
All one needs to do is investigate how many logging contractors have packed it in over the past five years to recognize a trend. It’s becoming tougher and tougher to justify the effort given the meager returns that the industry can afford to offer.
Ron Head says that the challenges being faced by loggers today go beyond requests to hold the line on rates to help companies keep facilities open—even as logging expenses increase. The switch by many forest companies to cut-to-length (CTL) logging versus tree length logging has added another formidable challenge for contractors. Art Thiessen added that with so many sawmills making the switch from tree length logs to CTL logs at the same time, it has become next to impossible to find a qualified processor operator. Timber Pro Logging decided to sell one of its three processors to an owner/operator to ensure it could maintain its quality and production. They managed to find two sub-contractors with processors and experience to bring their complement up to four working in the field.
On the log haul side of the business, the company was familiar with the truck and trailer configuration required for hauling CTL logs versus tree length logs, so there wasn’t a major adjustment required there.
“Over the years, we have been slowly converting to hayracks to accommodate cut-to-length for pulp wood for other mills anyway,” says Murray Head. “As far as the truck configurations, we didn’t have to change too much. But with the trailers, we did have to add some more hayracks to our fleet.”
Murray adds that cutblock layouts have been adjusted somewhat to take into account the work space required by processors, how CTL logs are decked and the space required to load them onto trucks. Overall, however, there has been a bigger impact on log harvesting with the switch to CTL logs than on the log haul.
The wood is harvested and delivered within a relatively short time window from early October to about the middle of March. They also harvest wood for the oil and gas industry on leases and pipeline easements and this represents 5 to 10 per cent of their business.
While the seasonal logging contractor has become somewhat rare—especially in today’s tight labor market when companies have to work hard to keep good employees year round—Timber Pro Logging has managed to maintain a core of long term employees, many of whom prefer seasonal work, and return year after year. Thiessen, who oversees day-to-day operation of the logging business, says the seasonal nature of the company has more to do with the terrain that they work in, rather than a conscious choice by the company. He says there are forested areas that are simply too soft to log when the ground isn’t frozen.
With the pressure to deliver a significant volume of logs over about five-and-a-half months, the company spends about three months conducting extensive maintenance on its fleet between seasons so that the equipment achieves maximum uptime when working.
Timber Pro Logging operates a total of four processors—two that they run themselves and two operated by sub-contractors. All have Waratah processing heads.
Timber Pro Logging brings together a team of 30 to 35 employees from all over Canada, including British Columbia, Quebec and Nova Scotia. Supervisor Milton Gallant, who hails from New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, says the job fits his current situation in life. A forestry technician who retired after 30 years in the industrial supply business, Gallant says he was up for a new challenge. Given its seasonal nature, he says the work allows him to continue to pursue his passion of fly fishing during his off months. He adds that there are several other individuals and even family groups among Timber Pro Logging’s employees who for years have built their lives around working seasonally for the company and are well accustomed to life in camp.
The owners say their success has a lot to do with the quality of employees they have managed to attract. They are professional, hard workers who understand the need to produce a high quality product within a tight timeframe. That includes Murray’s wife, Sandy, who looks after the office and accounting side of Timber Pro Logging.
Timber Pro Logging harvests about 50 per cent CTL logs and 50 per cent tree length logs, consisting of about 90 per cent softwood and 10 percent hardwood that can vary widely in diameter. Due to the variety of species and diameters that the company must log within a short production window, the fleet needs to be both dependable and versatile.
“Price, service and availability are probably the biggest features we look for when we purchase equipment,” says Art. One issue they have come across lately is simply being able to purchase the equipment when they need it— the downturn in the economy has impacted the manufacturing of equipment by suppliers.
Art adds that they ideally keep their equipment for three to four years, and consider trading in their skidders and feller bunchers usually when they reach 10,000 to 12,000 hours. But they also have equipment in their fleet that they’ve retained over a longer period of time, a strategy that has worked out well as the company expanded.
Timber Pro Logging’s fleet consists of a John Deere 953K feller buncher, a 953J feller buncher, and a 903J feller buncher. They have a Caterpillar 535B skidder, a John Deere 848H skidder, two John Deere 748H skidders, and two John Deere 748G III skidders. Their processing equipment includes a John Deere 2554 carrier with a 2600 Lim-mit delimber, a John Deere 2054 carrier with a 2100 Lim-mit delimber, a John Deere 2454 carrier with a Waratah 623 processing head and a John Deere 2054 carrier with a Waratah 622B processing head.
The company’s most recent purchases were the John Deere 953K feller buncher, the John Deere 2454 carrier with the Waratah 623 processing head and the John Deere 848H skidder, in fall 2011.
In terms of support equipment for the harvesting operation, Timber Pro Logging’s fleet includes Caterpillar D8T, D8N, and D6R dozers, a John Deere 270 backhoe, and a John Deere 2554 log loader.
Art says that when it came to selecting their processing heads when making the transition to CTL logs, they spoke to other loggers who had already made the transition. This helped them make decisions on both the brand and processor head size that would best match their wood basket, which is how they settled on the Waratah brand. The variability of log diameter that the company can encounter, depending on where they are harvesting wood, had the most impact on Timber Pro Logging’s decision to purchase both a smaller and larger Waratah processing head.
All three owners are hands-on in the business, and when crunch time comes close to spring break up, it is not uncommon to see them taking a bunk in camp or behind the wheel of a log truck to ensure that their customers have access to an adequate supply of logs when harvesting operations are shut down.
As Ron points out, despite the financial challenges of the last few years, they wouldn’t be doing the job if they didn’t like it.