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It’s all in the details
The Groupe Savoie operation in Nova Scotia focuses closely on details in the woods and in the mill, working with its log suppliers to ensure it receives high quality hardwood timber, and ensuring it gets maximum lumber quality and value in the mill.
By George Fullerton
John Vautour, wood procurement manager with the Groupe Savoie mill in Westville, Nova Scotia, figures he is seeing a slow but steady recovery in the Nova Scotia forest industry following an extended and deep downturn.
“We are the biggest hardwood sawmill in Nova Scotia and we continue to face procurement challenges to supply our mill,” says Vautour. “Prior to the downturn in the economy and the related impact on the U.S. housing industry, about 70 per cent of our sawlog supply came from small scale independent contractors operating on private woodlots. But with the downturn in the forest industry, we saw an exodus of a large portion of small scale producers and contractors.”
Vautour said that many of these contractors did not only lay off their operators and park their equipment—a good portion of them got rid of their equipment altogether and got jobs in western Canada with better security, and where their skills are in high demand.
“Even as wood prices begin to improve, a great number of these small scale contractors are simply not coming back into private land contracting, so that source of logs has changed dramatically,” he says. Currently, they rely on deals with industrial mills and large scale contractors and wood producers for 70 per cent of their log supply.
In addition to its operations in Nova Scotia, Groupe Savoie operates two sawmills, a value-added manufacturing facility, pallet fabrication and pellet and fire log operations at St. Quentin, in northwestern New Brunswick.
It has grown from a hardwood sawmill started in 1978 to a highly efficient integrated operation, employing 550 workers, and producing seventy-five million board feet of hardwood lumber annually. Groupe Savoie serves markets across North America, Europe and Asia with flooring, furniture components, hardwood lumber and energy products.
The company’s Westville mill in Nova Scotia was established in the late 1990s as a partnership between local businessman and sawmill operator Clint Dickson and Jean-Claude Savoie, president of Groupe Savoie. The hardwood mill was entirely new, with new processing equipment. Groupe Savoie took the opportunity to buy out Dickson’s share in the business in 2000.
The Westville mill is in the centre of an industrial centre, with supply and service industries supporting a concentration of forestry, mining and manufacturing activity. Vautour pointed out that the location provides the mill with quick access to repair and manufacturing businesses, critical to the successful operation of a wood processing mill.
He went on to point out that Westville’s geographic location puts the sawmill in the middle of the Nova Scotia hardwood resource, and in a busy forestry area with wood going to the nearby Northern Pulp mill at Abercrombie Point and the Port Hawkesbury Paper mill, about an hour east on Cape Breton Island. In addition to forestry activity generated by these two primarily softwood-using mills, a new biomass co-gen operation adjacent to the Port Hawkesbury mill uses around 500,000 tonnes of stem wood biomass annually, which substantially increases forestry activity and traffic in the region.
“Hardwood species make up a significant portion of the Nova Scotia wood resource and we have the climate and soils to grow high quality hardwoods that have the potential to generate a significant return to the provincial economy,” Vautour noted. “Our mill represents a critical market for high quality hardwoods produced by a well balanced provincial forest management strategy.”
Proper and effective utilization of the wood resource is important for the economy of the province, and those companies contributing to that economy, he said.
“In Nova Scotia, we are fortunate to have a suite of wood-using industries, for both softwood and hardwoods. Each of those mills requires a certain quality of log, so it’s critical that wood producers make the right log production decisions so those mills receive the appropriate logs so they can continue to operate efficiently and contribute to the provincial economy.”
Nova Scotia has a long and deeply entrenched softwood culture dating back and beyond European settlement that began in the 1600s. Softwood timber and long lumber were important economic exports for centuries. More recently, softwood pulpwood has become a key economic driver. Historically, hardwood has had a smaller and less vibrant place in the forest industry, and is sometimes relegated to cottage industry status by huge softwood pulp mills who look at fibre (chips) supply basically as the volume of tonnes delivered across mill scales.
Groupe Savoie, on the other hand, is primarily a quality lumber producer, requiring clear face logs with minimal defect. Rather than measuring tonnes in the load, Groupe Savoie piles down hardwood log loads and individually scales and assesses log quality in order to assign value return to the producer.
Glen Baker, harvesting and silviculture supervisor with Groupe Savoie Westville, explained that quality hardwood log production requires a good amount of attention to detail in the harvest, handling and transport of wood in order to attain the highest value. He points out that log bucking decisions must be based on maximizing the amount of clear face, and minimizing defects including sweep and crook. Baker’s message to producers: paying attention to details in bucking logs is the key to a profitable hardwood log production. He added that timely transport of logs to the mill, especially in the warm months, is critical to avoid staining and subsequent degrade to hardwood logs and their value.
“Logs left too long at roadside on operations can stain very quickly and move a very high value log to pallet stock lumber,” says Baker.
Hardwood species production and marketing differ markedly from softwoods. Log value is dependent on understanding hardwood log quality. Hardwood log production might be considered a challenge to high production forest operations, but it actually comes down to operators understanding quality requirements and transport logistics.
“Some companies understand the value opportunity that hardwoods provide and they have done a remarkable job to produce quality hardwood alongside high production softwood,” notes Baker.
Both Vautour and Baker spend time visiting producer operations to promote quality hardwood log production, and explain production decisions to get the best and highest value from the hardwood resource. In addition to decisions made in the cab or bucking in the yard, Vautour and Baker also offer advice on silviculture and general operations to get best value out of the future crop, whether it is an individual woodlot operation or an industrial operator.
“We have strong business relationships with companies like Northern Pulp, Wagner, Great Northern Timber and Port Hawkesbury Paper—we have fibre exchange deals with them and they understand the value of quality hardwood and how it fits in business plans,” says Vautour.
“Having a market for quality hardwood logs is critically important to meeting their utilization goals, and they also see a good economic value return on the wood they sell.”
Groupe Savoie has worked hard over the years to promote utilization of quality hardwood with its many suppliers and it continues to seek new suppliers regardless of operation size, whether it be a small woodlot producer or major contractor or land manager, he added.
Tolerant hardwoods generate the highest return, with clear face lumber directed to re-manufacturing industries producing furniture and cabinet components, flooring and trim products. Lumber produced from intolerant species, on the other hand, enjoy a healthy market demand for lower value products including pallets and truck decking. About 30 per cent of Westville’s log supply consists of intolerant species.
Westville buys logs in six, seven and eight foot lengths (plus trim). Truck load deliveries are initially mass scaled, primarily for inventory information. Logs are spread on stringers for individual stick scaling using New Brunswick log rules. The scaler identifies species with a paint spot applied to end of the logs.
Once scaling is complete, logs are loaded on either a 14 tonne Rottne forwarder with modified bunks or a loader-equipped yard truck with pup trailer, and piled according to species. Logs are then fed to the infeed deck with Volvo wheel loaders.
Logs are debarked with a 27 inch Brunette debarker and the debarker operator makes the decision to send logs to the large log line or small log line. The large log line features a band saw and Sanborn carriage. The small log line uses a manual set and manual feed PHL twin saw, installed in 2010, which handles up to 23 inch diameter logs. Sawyers rely on experience to manually position each log to open it for maximum lumber recovery.
Slabs from both lines feed to a Prescott (Forano) horizontal resaw, and cants feed to a Valley Machine bull edger. Lumber is manually graded and each piece is coded with an ethanol-based ink code indicating grade quality. The lumber continues to a green chain where individual pieces are sticker piled according to grade.
Trimmings from the mill go to a Forano chipper, with pulp chips trucked to mills and sawdust segregated for agriculture and biomass customers.
Mill manager Andrew Watters explained that thirty-eight people work in the mill, and he strives to encourage each employee to think like a lumber grader as they strive for the highest possible recovery from each log.
“Sawing for quality is a complex exercise, especially when you consider we have 32 sorts for sugar maple and 38 sorts for aspen,” Watters explained. “At every step, we have to be conscious of how we complete the task to ensure we maximize lumber quality and value. We want everyone in the mill to think like a lumber grader, and aim for best quality lumber recovery.”
The Westville mill saws an average 60,000 board feet per day, and while keeping workers focused on quality is critically important, Watters is looking forward to better fortunes for the mill, and new processing equipment to improve productivity.
The primary market for Westville lumber is Groupe Savoie value-add manufacturing in St. Quentin and Kedgewick, New Brunswick, as well as their Moncton pallet manufacturing operation. A portion of the lumber is also sold to value add manufacturing businesses in Nova Scotia and Quebec.
To keep that wood flowing, Groupe Savoie Westville is looking at options on the log supply side.
“We are continuing to look at different opportunities to secure a steady supply of sawlogs including entering a variety of business arrangements with contractors to help them secure stumpage contracts,” said Vautour. “Late this past summer, we saw an increase in deliveries by tandem trucks, and we hope that is an indication that small producers are getting back into the woods and we will see our supply issues improve.”
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