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June 2006 - The Logging and Sawmilling Journal



Taking Care of the Details

From making sure his private forestland customers are satisfied to the maintenance of his mostly John Deere logging equipment, Ontario logging contractor Barry Elmhirst knows that business success lies in taking care of the details.

By Paul MacDonald

When logging contractor Barry Elmhirst is looking for a better vantage point on a bush he is considering buying in southern Ontario, he sometimes takes to the skies—quite literally.

Elmhirst, who flies for a hobby, will climb into the cockpit of his Citabria (that’s Airbatic spelled in reverse) plane and get a bird’s eye view of the bush, and the trees it contains. “Sometimes it helps to get a better look at it,” he says.

More often than not, however, viewing a bush from the ground is sufficient to determine whether he wants to purchase the timber, and move his crew in with its two main skidders, both John Deere 540G III units, and a smaller back-up, a Deere 440D. In addition to buying bush, Elmhirst will sometimes buy the bush and the land, and then sell the property after doing a selective cut.

Elmhirst comes from a long line of loggers in the Peterborough, Ontario area—his grandfather carried out horse logging. His father also logged and even had a sawmill set up during the boom years of the 1960s and 1970s. That long line looks like it might be continuing, too. Barry’s daughter, Lindsay, is a paramedic and a volunteer for the local fire department, but his son, Shawn, recently finished high school and is showing interest in joining the family business.

These days, Elmhirst is busy sourcing timber for his crew for a variety of log purchasers, including veneer producers who pay top dollar for hardwood logs. And Elmhirst knows a good veneer log when he sees one. From 1975 to 1980, he worked as a timber buyer for a major veneer producer, Interforest Ltd, buying wood through the premier hardwood states of New York, Pennsylvania and Michigan. “It was a good job,” he says.

“But it got to the point where I had enough traveling.”

Following in the family tradition, he set up contract logging with his own company, BW Forest Products. “I bought a John Deere 440B skidder for about $15,000, bought a bush and started logging. I bought another skidder, a truck, and then another truck. I don’t know how many trucks I’ve had since then.” Presently, he has two International trucks, 1998 and 2001 models, both equipped with Serco loaders. A rubbertired Case 621 loader handles the timber in the bush.

In recent years, the John Deere skidders have become more late-model, to keep uptime to a maximum and downtime to a minimum. “Rather than put money into older equipment, I decided to buy new equipment, and not have to deal with downtime. When you want to do the work, the equipment is there and ready to go when you turn the key.”

While he keeps his logging crew busy, Elmhirst also sources logs from a variety of smaller contractors. “We broker a lot of the timber, buying it off loggers or people who just have logs for sale. They may have a small bush, and a tractor or skidder of their own. We’ll buy it roadside, bring the logs in to the yard, and then grade them out.” They’ll buy and pick up logs with the Internationals up to within a 150-mile radius. About 70 per cent of the logs Elmhirst brokers, in fact, are bought at roadside. “We pay on the spot and pick up the logs. They don’t have to wait until the logs go to the mill to get payment.”

And he takes all the wood. “We’d sooner just buy the veneer logs and not the sawlogs, but that’s not the way it works. People want us to take it all.”

While there has been a downturn in markets the last while, things were extremely busy around this area of Ontario over the last four or five years. As a result, a number of new logging operations set up shop, making the market for bush timber quite competitive.

Barry Elmhirst (above) of BW Forest Products takes great pride in the company’s reputation for providing professional harvesting services on private forestland. He credits his crew for doing a consistent, quality and safe job.

This has made it a bit harder to source timber, but Elmhirst feels BW Forest Products will come out of this fine, as it has a long history, and reputation, of doing a good job.

“If we do a private bush, we do a selective cut—the trees are all marked and there may be county bylaws that must be adhered to. We don’t just go in and flatten it. We leave lots of trees for 10 or 15 years down the road.”

Elmhirst notes that any logger can go in and take 100 trees out of a bush. What happens after that can be the key to getting further business, and keeping a good reputation intact. “We’ll pull the tops out, and won’t leave the bush in a mess. It’s the right way to do things. And if you clean it up after, there’s a better chance of you getting more work down the road.” Even with less desirable wood, they’ll buy it for firewood or take it out of the bush for use by the owner.

While the logging crew at BW Forest Products is kept busy, the company also sources logs from a variety of smaller contractors in this area of southern Ontario.

Elmhirst credits his crew—all of whom are licensed under the province’s cutter/skidder program—for doing a consistent, quality and safe job. “They’re a good bunch of guys. They don’t rush things, they look after the equipment, and they look after themselves.”

When BW Forest Products starts work with a new bush owner, they’ve got lots of positive references from the last 20 years to draw from. Logging outfits can live and die with their reputations—doing a bad job around this region can be the kiss of death. “If you do a bad two or three bushes in a row, it’s going to be a long time before you cut in that area again,” he says.

There’s very little Crown land in this part of southern Ontario—most of the land is privately owned, some of it by very demanding individuals. A few will want to follow the job from the harvesting of the trees right through to the scaling of the timber.

And sometimes Elmhirst does a bit of educating, especially of new landowners fresh from the city. He points out that selective logging can leave a forest healthier, and that letting a forest go can, in fact, be harmful. He cites the case of one bush where there had been no cutting whatsoever until the owners agreed to let Elmhirst do a selective cut.

“The trees were big, no doubt about that. There were some huge maples and large white oak. But the quality was terrible. They should have been cut 30 or 40 year ago. There was no young growth in this forest, and the next forest is now going to be 30 or 40 years out, rather than five or ten years out.”

This area of Ontario is mostly farmland, so the bushes are not huge. Generally, Elmhirst moves the cutting crew and skidders in for anywhere from 20,000 to 30,000 board feet. But of course if there are nearby bushes with 10,000 board feet or so, they will take them on at the same time.

Not surprisingly, September through to March is the busy time for the operation. Through the winter, his crew has been working in a 200-acre bush Elmhirst owns, which provides work from around late-December right through to break-up. They’ll head out from there from time to time to do smaller bushes.

Both the company’s trucks are equipped with Serco loaders. In additional to handling the logs the company harvests, the two International trucks will also pick up logs at roadside from other contractors.

“We try to plan the work so we don’t leave anyone out.” The rest of the year, they are moving the skidders, low bedding them from one bush to another.

After break-up and during the less busy summer months, the equipment gets greater attention in the BW Forest Products shop. “We do the maintenance. If it’s a clutch or the rads, we can do that.

“But if it’s bigger work, whether for the skidders or the trucks, we’ll send it to the Deere dealer, OnTrac, in Peterborough, and to the International dealer. We want to have things done right. It can be putting good money after bad trying to fix your mistakes with major repairs.” By the time the end of summer rolls around, the equipment is in top shape, and ready for a busy fall and winter.

Each truck and skidder has a detailed maintenance log, with entries from Johnny Reed, who oversees the skidders, their maintenance and safety in the bush. Virtually every maintenance and repair item is entered into the log.

When the equipment is sold, they have the maintenance logs to show they have been properly maintained, which adds to their value.

Elmhirst says that out in the bush, the resourceful Reed’s truck is like a minishop. From a rubber mount for a chainsaw to spiked boots, “nine times out of ten, he’ll have it in his truck.”

Taking care of the trucks and other jobs around the operation is primary truck driver Jamie Trudeau, who also does log grading. Trudeau records maintenance for the trucks in log books.

In terms of equipment, Elmhirst is sold on both International trucks and Deere skidders. “John Deere is the Cadillac of equipment in my opinion,” he says. “The older skidder we have has 13,000 hours on it and it hasn’t been touched, aside from filter and oil changes.” In addition to the skidders, they also have a Deere 650 dozer and a Deere backhoe for roadbuilding.

Generally, the equipment is working in reasonable land in this part of Ontario, with mostly rolling hills. “Way north you can get into some rock, and some lower quality pulp type timber. But we stay south of that and try to stay with the higher grade woods for veneer and sawlogs.”

Working that area seems to have been a sound strategy in spite of some growing competition for wood in recent years. “We may have to go further afield at some point. But if we cut selectively, there should always be timber around this area.”

Two John Deere 540G II skidders move the wood in the bush for BW Forest Products, and get high praise from company owner Barry Elmhirst. “John Deere is the Cadillac of equipment in my opinion,” he says.



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