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Making the TRANSITION

Grapple yarding is making the transition from British Columbia's forests into Alberta's, and the equipment could have applications elsewhere in Canada.

By Tony Kryzanowski


Some unusual logging equipment has appeared in the forests of Alberta in the last several years, although it is rather commonplace in BC. A Madill 122 Swing Yarder has been successfully operating in the Virginia Hills area north of Whitecourt, Alberta. Could this be the start of things to come in other parts of Canada? For the uninitiated, the grapple yarder (or swing yarder) is an alternative to the use of a skidder in specific types of terrain. It has a large boom extending from the front with cables. Two cables extend out to harvested logs needing to be transported to roadside. At the far end, the cables are held down by a mechanism called a backspar. The backspar is often attached to an excavator or dozer so that the extended cables now resemble a clothesline. Two guy wires-often anchored down with a heavy piece of equipment- extend behind the yarder. Two additional cables are used to control the grapple. One controls the grapple arms as they pick up logs.

The other controls the movements of the grapple along the clothesline cables. Voila! A grapple yarding operation. There are many pros and cons to grapple yarding, which is why its use is site specific. Dano Contracting Ltd has a long history of grapple yarding in southern BC. Two years ago, they decided to use their yarder in a burned wood salvage operation in Alberta's Virginia Hills area. The yarder is capable of retrieving logs up to 1,000 feet from roadside. Typically, skidders retrieve logs only within 400 feet of roadside, although there are larger skidders on the market that can skid logs to roadside from about twice the distance of other conventional skidders. Not only can the yarder retrieve wood from a longer distance compared to smaller skidders, it does so without the need for skid trails. Grapple yarders first became popular in the mountainous American Pacific Northwest, then gained acceptance in BC. They perform best in terrain with a lot of gullies and plenty of water, where a skidder simply cannot do its job or would cause severe environmental damage.

Dano Contracting owner Dan Streichert is concluding his second year of recovering burned wood in a Forest Management Area (FMA) owned by Millar Western Forest Products. The company is engaged in an aggressive campaign to recover as much wood as possible from a large area devastated two years ago by forest fire. Millar Western field supervisor Kevin Westerhaug says the size of timber in the area is what made it attractive for logging, but it is also an environmentally sensitive area with several small permanent and intermittent streams. It was impossible to harvest the timber with a ground-based system. Dano Contracting is headquartered in Nakusp, BC and has hired Les Walker Logging from Vernon to fell the wood using a leveling Timberjack 2628 feller buncher.

It is capable of felling wood in up to 50 per cent slopes and harvests about 95 per cent of the standing timber in the Virginia Hills area, with the rest being hand felled. Streichert has also brought in a KMC 2600 grapple skidder to accelerate the yarding process. Using this low ground pressure skidder, they can transport wood from nooks and crannies the grapple yarder cannot reach and also skid some wood closer to the grapple yarder. The backspar is attached to a Hitachi EX300 excavator, while a Cat D8 dozer operates as the rear anchor. Finally, he uses a Limmit delimber on a John Deere excavator to delimb the wood, and a LinkBelt loader to load the tree length logs onto trucks. Given the huge area affected by fire, Millar Western's strategy is to focus on recovering as much prime timber as possible within the short, two-year window of opportunity. "We were quite impressed with the production the grapple yarder delivered to us last year," says Westerhaug, "and that's why they're back again.

The quality of the wood being delivered is the same as we receive from a grapple skidder, and the minimal environmental impact is fairly appealing to the Alberta Forest Service." "We've targeted 500 cubic metres a day average production, and we are achieving that," says Streichert. "A skidder would not be able to log half of the area we log because of all the gullies and draws." .

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The line speed on the grapple yarder is about 50 kilometres per hour. After visiting other Forest Management Areas in the province, Streichert believes there is plenty of potential for successful yarding in other parts of Alberta. He was shocked to see how much high quality timber was being left behind in draws and gullies because traditional transporting methods could not deal with the severe slope or stringent environmental standards. He did not have to look very far, as Millar Western itself has a number of areas where a grapple yarder can excel, he says. "My understanding is that within their whole FMA, they have large areas where the logs are ground skidded to the edge of plateaus and all the big valleys are left with big spruce and nice pine," he says. "Grapple yarding is an alternative method that will get it harvested." Westerhaug agrees that grapple yarding may become a permanent fixture at Millar Western. "I can see integrating something like this into our annual operations in the future, whether it is grapple yarding or a smaller high lead system," he says. "The reason being that we have some steeper terrain that we have traditionally stayed away from because of the cost." He adds, however, that it would likely occur on a smaller scale with smaller equipment. Streichert says grapple yarder operators must overcome a perception among sawmill owners that grapple yarding is more expensive.

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Dano Contracting owner Dan Streichert is carrying out a grapple yarding harvesting operation in Alberta for forest company Millar Western. He says the stands are thicker and the tree sizes are more consistent compared to the areas he's logged in southern BC.

A ballpark estimate Streichert gave is $8 per cubic metre using a grapple yarder versus $3 to $5 using a skidder. However, he says companies need to realize that grapple yarders consistently deliver better timber because they can retrieve wood from areas where trees grow best. Plus, there is no need to build skid trails and there is minimal environmental impact. Taking all factors into consideration, employing a grapple yarder in specific circumstances can make a lot of sense. Not only does it make sense for parts of Alberta, but also the Eastern Canadian Laurentians and certain areas of the Maritime Provinces. "I believe that Alberta is in desperate need of it," says Streichert, who has 25 years of experience logging and nearly a decade operating a grapple yarder.

He has witnessed nearly every type of logging practised. "This province is going to be in a scenario where BC was six to ten years ago," he says. "Back then, the licensees started to slowly change into the yarding world. Some contractors chose not to. All of a sudden, they had no choice. They had to change over in order to access their wood because of environmental guidelines. Here it is the same thing. If you want to harvest the wood with no ground disturbance, grapple yarding is the only way to do it other then heli-logging."

Which way? Grapple Yarding Vs. Skidding

a grapple yarder may be the answer for Canadian forest companies forced to leave high quality timber in gullies or near rivers because of concerns with environmental damage or a conventional skidder's inability to deal with severe slope. Here are some of the pros and cons: A Madill grapple yarder similar to the one operated by Dano Contracting in Alberta would cost about $900,000. A skidder sells for about $300,000. That explains why it is more costly to hire a grapple yarder on contract. On the plus side, by contracting a grapple yarder, mills are harvesting wood that might have been unattainable using conventional methods. Dano Contracting's Madill grapple yarder can retrieve timber from a distance of 1,000 feet, without the need for skid trails, at a grapple speed of 50 kilometres an hour. Skidders, however, generally pull timber to roadside economically at a maximum distance of about 400 feet, although there are larger skidders that can skid economically at about twice the distance. Ground conditions in many parts of Canada restrict logging with skidders to months when the ground is frozen, leading to potential peaks and valleys in a sawmill's wood supply. Dano's Dennis Streichert says he can comfortably operate his grapple yarding operation 10 months of the year.

This way, the logs can be stockpiled at roadside for immediate transport once the ground freezes, or transported in summer months if ground conditions allow for summer log haul. Maintenance is also a consideration. "We can go about 30,000 hours without too much problem," says Streichert. "With a skidder, after bouncing around for 6,000 to 8,000 hours over the stumps, they are dead. You have to buy a new one." From an operational standpoint, unless you are planning to operate the yarder yourself, finding a qualified yarder engineer might be a problem. There are no schools that Streichert is aware providing instruction in grapple yarder operation. "You just have to have it in you," he says. Unless a person has a mechanical inclination towards operating a grapple yarder, training on the job can be extremely time consuming. On the other hand, logging contractors train most skidder operators on the job and find that many employees can acquire the skills needed to become a quality skidder operator. Because of a greater employee pool, wage costs are not as great.

Moving to Alberta has been a positive experience for his company for a number of reasons. Firstly, he says that the terrain is easier to deal with compared to southern BC because there is less snow and rock. Working in the Virginia Hills this year, the ground was barely covered with six inches of snow. He says he has worked in over five feet of snow in southern BC. Secondly, he finds that the Virginia Hills timber stands are easier for a grapple yarder to manage. "You have thicker stands with more consistent piece sizes," he says, compared to southern BC. With more uniform size wood, a better production balance can be achieved with the grapple yarder. He is the first to admit that operating a successful grapple yarder operation is not easy.

Among the most important tasks is plenty of advanced planning because of the necessity to keep the yarder operating as efficiently as possible. It is an expensive piece of equipment, so minimizing downtime is critical. If the yarder stops transporting wood because of poor planning, the feller buncher and delimber also come to a standstill. Given Streichert's positive experience making the transition from BC to Alberta over the past two years, FERIC's cost comparison study should make for interesting reading among equipment operators.


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This page last modified on Tuesday, February 17, 2004