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Tigercats taming steep slopes
B.C. logging contractor Mike Closs has recently made investments in some new equipment, including a Tigercat 635D six-wheel skidder and a new Tigercat L870C leveling buncher, both of which are now ably taking on steep slopes in the B.C. Interior.
By Paul MacDonald
In the past few years, contract logging has been a lean business to be in, to say the absolute least. “It’s really been like trying to make a dime out of a nickel,” says B.C. logging contractor Mike Closs.
That was especially true a couple of years’ back, when it seemed like things could not get worse and sawmill closures were common. “I’ve got a few more grey hairs now,” jokes Closs.
Though times were difficult, the forest company that Closs contracts for, Tolko Industries, pretty much continued to run its sawmills in B.C.’s Southern Interior. There was only the occasional week or two shutdown.
And Closs found that it pays to be resourceful—especially in tough times. Tolko asked him to bid on and log BC Timber Sales wood, since it was less expensive than their quota wood. Some contractors might have been reluctant to do this, not knowing the ins and outs of timber sales. “But we had done timber sales before, and know how that system works, the bidding, the grades,” says Closs. “You want to put in a competitive bid without leaving thousands of dollars on the table. So we were able to do that and it kept us busy for Tolko.”
Recently, Closs and his crew were working to bring in some extra volume for Tolko in the Kootenays area of the province, a bit further east than they usually operate. In addition to logging, this involved a good amount of roadbuilding.
“We’re building road on a pretty tight timeline to get the wood out,” he says. And it’s also a bit different approach with roads in this region of the province. “There is more water in the Kootenays, so they are more stringent on the roads. There are a lot more permanent roads on these blocks compared to what we do in the Okanagan, where we have an elevated grade.”
But, Closs notes, roadbuilding is not new to them. Being a stump to dump contractor, they’ve always built road, just not on this scale. They’ve been building four kilometres of road a month since this past June.
“It’s helped to keep us working and it’s kept me busy, too. I’ll run Cat or hoe a couple of days a week. We have two mechanics, and one of the mechanics, when he isn’t busy, will also be on a Cat or hoe. And the same with Buddy Mallach, our supervisor.
“It’s kept us all a lot busier this year. Especially during fire season, when the bunchers are cutting ahead, you want to keep the roads up with them, so you have access for fire and water, and safety. During the hot weather, it was a bit of an extra effort to keep up with the roadbuilding all the time. But we’ve been able to do it.”
Key to keeping up with all of the extra harvesting and roadwork has been the equipment fleet for the operation, including some new pieces that are really earning their keep.
These include a new Tigercat L870C leveling buncher, and a Tigercat 635D six- wheel skidder, which they have had for about a year. Both were purchased from Tigercat dealer Parker Pacific. “The new skidder has been an awesome piece of equipment,” says Closs.
Though they also have a fair bit of Deere equipment, purchased from dealer Brandt Tractor, they have also recently rounded out their equipment line-up with some other brands.
“We’ve leaned a bit towards Parker Pacific lately—we also have a couple of Link-Belt machines, equipped with Waratah processors. And I’m all Kenworth trucks, which is Inland Kenworth.” They’ve bought four new trucks in the last year, and Closs says he has a couple of 2007 units that he might be looking to replace this year.
For the best part of several years, they sat tight with the equipment they had. Like all loggers at the time, they were caught in a squeeze. Parts and fuel costs were continuing to rise, but they faced lower revenues.
“We ran equipment a lot longer, doing more repairs and maintenance,” he explains. “With our tires, for example, we did retread after retread and really worked hard at cutting our costs. But with equipment, there comes a time when you have to buy—and I’ve bought now even though the times in the industry aren’t perfect yet.”
And high on the shopping list was the Tigercat 635D six wheel skidder. They went to see the new machine in three demos northeast of Williams Lake, B.C., and got a good sense of its versatility.
One of the demos was in the middle of winter, with deep snow. But they also wanted to see how the skidder worked in steep and wet ground, and they went up and saw it work again. “I was impressed both times,” says Closs.
“For me, getting the 635D was a straightforward decision,” he added. “There were so many features on the machine that I wanted. The Tigercat guys are the first to have the turnaround seat, so the operator doesn’t have to reef his neck around back to look at the bundles he’s gathering for skidding.”
The operator, Merv Kristiansen, simply kicks a pedal at the base of the seat to turn it around. With all the controls available, he often drives the skidder back into the bush “backwards”—at least it would be considered backwards in a conventional skidder. In addition to reduced neck strain, the feature also results in quicker travel speeds, says Tigercat. Called “Turnaround” by the company, the two-position rotating seat feature is standard equipment for the 635D.
And it offers solid productivity. “It pulls more wood in more adverse ground, and offers operator comfort. It has a number of things going for it over a conventional four wheel skidder,” says Closs.
“There really wasn’t another choice after I had seen it work a few times. It does all the work that our tracked skidder used to do.”
It tackles pretty most of the steep slopes they have. “It does not do all of the steep slope work we have, but we do hoe chucking or whatever we have to do to get the other wood down safely.”
And, he adds, they have been getting good service from Parker Pacific when they need the occasional part. “They stock a lot of parts in Kamloops, so it’s usually just overnight to get a part.”
Closs has also been happy with their new Tigercat L870C leveling buncher—and he’s worked with more than a few bunchers in his days in the industry. “You know, the other guys build good equipment, but I don’t think anyone builds a better buncher than Tigercat—they are strictly forestry.”
The Link-Belts they have for processing are also fairly new. The oldest, a 240 machine, was picked up about two years ago. Closs wasn’t necessarily looking for new iron, when times were really tough in the industry. “But Parker Pacific had a good price on it. And we needed a machine for processing—the machine we owned had 22,000 hours on it, so I jumped in and bought it. The operator has been really happy with it, and we’ve had great service with it.
“It has an Isuzu engine, and they are really fuel efficient. So when we needed another one, I was ready to try another Link-Belt.” They added a 210 LX machine. Both are equipped with Waratah heads.
Closs says there was really no hesitation in broadening out the brands with his equipment. “There’s not much difference on the maintenance-side,” he says. “Everyone has remote mounted oil filers so you don’t even have to stick your head inside an engine—you can just spin it off.
“With everything we buy these days, we want easy serviceability, the engine to be as fuel efficient as we can get and you weigh everything before you buy—price, trade-in value, the relationship with the dealer. And we’ve had a good relationship with Parker Pacific and Inland Kenworth.”
In terms of fuel efficiency, good operators and awareness can make a difference, says Closs. “As operators get better, and have more experience, they are actually easier on fuel because they will work tighter and closer to the carrier with the boom. With a loader, for example, you don’t want to work way out there with the boom reaching, with the machine bogging down. You want to work tight in, with the boom all the way up and the stick tighter.”
Closs also had stickers printed up and posted on equipment, reminding everyone—including himself—that if a machine or pick-up truck is going to be sitting for more than a couple of minutes, it should be shut off.
They see some bug kill in the timber they are working in, in the Kootenays. But not nearly as much as they see in their usual area of operations, in the Okanagan. “There is some beetle, but it’s pretty green out here,” says Closs. About 25 per cent of the wood they are in now is affected by the beetle vs. the 100 per cent beetle wood they usually work in.
Sawlogs from the Closs operation go to Tolko mills, and pulp logs are trucked to Mercer International’s Celgar mill in Castlegar.
The Closs operation is one of the largest in the Southern Interior of B.C. They do about 270,000 cubic metres a year, which works out to about 30 loads a day. In total, they run seven processors, five of their own, and two sub-contractors, and two loaders.
“We’ve had a lot of small piece sizes, with tall skinny lodgepole pine, so to push that volume of small stems through, we’ve hired a couple of sub-contractors to get the volume for Tolko.”
Being customer focused has always been part of the business approach for Closs, so they have a close relationship with Tolko Industries.
“We’ve always tried to do the sorting that they need and give them the best product we can,” says Closs. Tolko uses a measuring system called KPI, for Key Performance Indicator, which is like a report card on the logs that are delivered by contractors. “We’re always up there near the top in terms of log quality, meeting the delivery schedule, lack of overweight loads, and safety.”
And these days, achieving all that involves more computer technology, such as GPS and computerized mapping, than ever. Plans were to have all the bunchers and skidders equipped with GPS systems early this year.
“Some of the older guys said they wouldn’t like a computer in their machine. But then when you show them how the GPS works, they like it. There’s no monitoring—it just shows where you are at.”
There are still paper maps, especially for the processor operators who work at roadside—they have to be aware if they are working near a creek or riparian areas.
In a sense, they are now using computer sticks to pick up wood sticks, says Closs. “When we do pre-work now, Tolko will just bring out memory sticks with the harvesting information, that we then plug into the computer.”
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