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Chipping Away the Obstacles
Montana’s Ed Cheff Logging innovations keep the company in the game

For almost four decades Ed Cheff has harvested in Montana. His innovational ideas and hard work have definitely paid off.

By Jeff Mullins

On April 8, 1970, Ed Cheff of Missoula, Mont., refinanced his home to purchase a used D6B Caterpillar and began salvaging logs for Anaconda Forest Products. Over the years, challenges emerged—restrictive logging regulations, severe reductions in available timber, and dramatic changes in log harvesting practices. Despite it all, Ed not only survived, but he’s prospered. His success can be attributed to his willingness to adapt, diversify, and make his equipment work just a “little bit better.”

Right Timing and Rapid Growth
Ed began small. Initially, stems were felled and bucked by a couple of sawyers, then Ed and his partner would bring the logs to a landing where the timber company loaders would load them onto their trucks. By the late 1970s, Ed employed 65 men to support his line and ground based operations.

Line sides were anchored by Ed’s five 98 Linkbelts. To meet harvesting demands, he also hired two other 98s and their crews. On ground sides, he fielded skidders, dozers, and loaders. At peak production, Cheff Logging harvested more than 25 MMBFT of timber annually. To keep the wood moving, he also fielded two road building sides full time.

Retooling in Response to Restrictions
When the increased regulations and reduced timber availability of the 1980s arrived, Ed adapted by downsizing his operation to meet reduced harvest demands yet remain profitable. “Downsizing also alleviated some of the stress associated with keeping so many people working,” he says. In 1983, realizing that the changes were here to stay, Ed began transitioning to mechanized logging and purchased a feller buncher. The Timbco 2518 with an 18-20” shear head was only the second Timbco to operate in Montana.

Not satisfied with the butt damage produced by the shear, especially in frozen wood, Ed joined forces with Pat Crawford, of Timbco, and was instrumental in the development and testing of the prototype “bar saw head.” When that first 28” bar saw became operational, mills purchasing Ed’s logs were understandably pleased with the high quality of logs he produced.

Chipping Away
The next decade found Ed venturing into chip production. He recognized that a high demand for chips was bolstering prices, and a large number of Montana ranchers wanted to improve their pasture lands by thinning the stands of pine on their ranges.

In 1995, with a partner, he purchased a Peterson DDC 5000 portable chip plant and began to process the thinnings, (especially lodge pole pine trees) into chips, which he sold to paper mills for pulp. The strong market continued, and Ed added a second Peterson 5000 and eventually a Morbark RXL 23 chipper.

In 2000, Cheff brought his operation to eastern Montana with equipment he custom designed to load directly into rail cars. Daily production reached 850 tons — 10 rail car loads.

In 2000, Cheff brought his operation to eastern Montana with equipment he custom designed. Daily production reached 850 tons — 10 rail car loads.

Picking up the Pieces
A byproduct of the chipping operation was residual slash from tree tops, branches, and a significant volume of chips that fell on the ground during his chipping operation. Although these materials were not useable for pulp chips, Ed recognized they could be processed into hog fuel, which had a growing market.

Since Montana logging regulations require all logging slash to either be burned or processed to reduce the fire danger, Ed figured there would be a large amount of material available to produce hog fuel well into the future. So he purchased a trailer-mounted Highway Contender model portable grinder from Universal Refiner. Ed discovered that in many locations, small landings and narrow roads prohibited locating both a chip truck and the grinder near slash piles simultaneously.

And, because the chipper could only throw chips so far, discharging into the back of chip vans resulted in partial loads as fast-traveling chips blew from the bed of the vans. Discharging onto the ground wasn’t an option, because reloading into trucks required more time and equipment and led to contamination of the grindings.

As a remedy, Ed’s shop crew removed the chipper from its trailer and mounted it on a Hyundai 220 track carriage salvaged from a delimber that had been destroyed in a fire. The mobile, track-mounted grinder was able to go “off road” and discharge in a perpendicular direction directly into the chip van — an innovation that doubled grinding production.

Ed then added radio controls to the chipper, which allowed a single excavator operator to feed slash into the chipper, move the chipper, and control chipper operation without leaving the cab. Observers were puzzled when they saw the track mounted chipper moving quickly between slash piles without any visible operator.

Grinding Away
Although recent market constraints in the chip market resulted in Ed selling his chipping equipment, he continues to grind logging slash to produce hog fuel. Many landowners prefer grinding to burning as a cost effective and more environmentally sensitive option. Ed purchases the slash from landowners, and grinding offers the advantage of utilizing the raw materials rather than disposing of them.

“Grinding produces less atmospheric emissions and leaves less debris on the ground. Unlike burning, grinding does not leave black scars, nor does it produce sites where noxious weeds can easily become established,” says Ed. Ed’s son, Levi, operates a Slashbuster rotating mulcher mounted on a Komatsu carriage and masticates slash for customers who are concerned about aesthetics.

Cheff Logging has diversified over the years. In 2007, the company operated two mechanical sides, one road building side a yard log, a recycling yard and a grinding operation.

Sleek and Efficient Harvests
Sometimes Ed speaks of downsizing, and possibly retiring after almost 40 years of logging. Yet in 2007, with only 12 employees, Cheff Logging continued to operate two mechanical sides, one road building side, a log yard, and an equipment recycle yard, in addition to the grinding operation.

Ed recently sold his Timbco 445 feller buncher to his son Raymond and contracts him to fell timber for him. Skidding is accomplished by double function grapple skidders, including a Caterpillar D5H with a fixed tree-toe, a Timberjack 460, and a customized Timberjack 560.

The TJ 560, however, isn’t your average machine. Finding that, even with good tires and chains, it was sometimes difficult for skidders to back uphill on slick ground, Ed modified his TJ 560 grapple. After flattening the deck, a turn table bearing was added to allow the grapple to swing to either side about 20 degrees, and he extended the grapple boom four feet. The innovations increased productivity since the grapple could collect stems as much as 11 feet behind the tires and also reach those to the side of the skidder.

Ed processes stems with two Denharco strokers — one mounted on a John Deere 790 carriage and the other on a Komatsu 220. When his 2000 Peterbuilt truck isn’t moving equipment on his Whitlog lowboy, it’s used to transport vans for grindings. And Ed’s youngest son, Martin, is the working foreman who keeps things moving smoothly.

Getting the Wood to the Right Place
Although Ed no longer runs line sides himself, many area loggers set towers on narrow roads switching across steep Montana slopes. These operations often need to sort logs for delivery to various mills, but have little or no room to deck the sorts. Also, operators often have mixed “clean up” loads to manage.

Ed solved the problem. In 2005, Ed began operating a log sorting yard for Plum Creek Timber near his equipment shop. Each day, up to a dozen loads of logs arrive, are sorted, and then shipped in full “unmixed” loads to the mill best suited to process them.

It’s been almost four decades since Ed stepped into the woods, and due to his innovation and relentless nature, he’s productively overcome every obstacle.