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Sept 2003 - Contractor Profile

Successful equipment strategy

Felhaber Bros. Logging, mechanical harvesting pioneers in the Ottawa Valley, are continuing to execute their successful equipment strategy, with two Timberjack 2618 bunchers as the centrepieces.

By Tony Kryzanowski

The Felhaber brothers (from the left): Danny, Ronnie and Larry. Another brother, Willard, sub-contracts his logging truck to the company.

The owners of Felhaber Bros Logging have demonstrated the same skills that constitute an exceptionally good advanced military recognizance unit: the ability to think creatively and adapt quickly. Over the years, the management group of this Ontario logging company has worked well as a team to analyze immediate challenges, make good tactical decisions, adapt to their environment, modify their equipment to suit their needs, and attack their objective for maximum recovery with minimal disturbance.

They also know what it feels like to lead the charge from the front lines. Eight years ago, Felhaber Bros was believed to be the first logging contractor between Sudbury and Montreal to replace conventional chainsaw and cable skidding crews with a mechanical harvester. The company was also the first to introduce a grapple skidder into its operation. It is based near Eganville, with most of its logging operations taking place north of Renfrew County in the Ottawa Valley region of the province. This area consists of wood fibre commonly found within the Great Lakes forest region. It is renowned for its variety of softwood and hardwood species, steep slopes and rocky terrain, which demands the use of a variety of harvesting techniques ranging from pure select harvesting to modified clearcutting. Felhaber Bros, as its name implies, is owned by three brothers, Danny, Larry and Ronnie.

They have been in business together since their father, Ellard, passed away at the age of only 59. He had worked in the forest industry since he was 12 years old, building the business through careful investment along the way, and providing his children with an opportunity to learn what it takes to succeed in the logging business. The Felhaber family consists of six boys and two girls. There is no doubt that the practical experience he provided has helped the children who have decided to continue to make their living from the forest industry. In addition to the three sons forming the logging partnership, another son, Willard, sub-contracts his logging truck to Felhaber Bros.

When asked how other contractors in the area reacted to their decision to make the switch to mechanical harvesting, “they said we’d be fools or we’d be heroes,” says Larry. “No guts, no glory,” adds Ronnie. “It’s not as if some other companies in the area had already tried this and were already well off. When we started, we had nothing. We took money out of our own pockets. There were no grants or anything. We just did it.” They thought about it for a year before they actually made the commitment, but either way, the chainsaw and cable skidder approach was no longer an option. “We operated for years with chainsaws and cable skidders,” says Danny. “But our shoulders gave out. We couldn’t take the cutting with chainsaws anymore. And we couldn’t replace ourselves with a younger generation getting into the business.”

The Felhaber Bros’ Timberjack skidder is a custom machine, with special order axles and rims that resulted in only a nine-foot, six-inch width.

So their only options were downsizing, shutting down or going mechanical. After doing extensive research and visiting several mechanical harvesting operations throughout Ontario, they opted to invest in a Timberjack 2618 zero tail swing and tilt cab feller buncher, equipped with a 20-inch Koehring head. Another big reason behind their decision to proceed to mechanical harvesting was their Timberjack salesman at the time. He was eager to have Felhaber Bros as the first contractor to try mechanical harvesting in that area of Ontario, given the owners’ extensive forestry experience.

Timberjack knew that it was essential to establish a successful operation in the region if it wanted to build that market. While the owners of Felhaber Bros could see the value of mechanical harvesting as a means of maintaining and growing their business, there was still plenty of convincing to be done. They had to prove to the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR), as well as to their sawmill customers and other area contractors, that it would work. For about two years after purchasing the Timberjack feller buncher, MNR contracted Felhaber Bros to put on demonstrations for other contractors.

Today, there are about seven mechanical harvesters working in that area of Ontario. Larry says there are many positive reasons for switching to mechanical harvesting. These include lower labour costs, a safer work environment and high production output. At present, the company’s annual cut is between 50,000 and 80,000 tonnes per year, consisting of as many as seven wood species. Felhaber Bros logging is the main contractor for the Ben Hokum and Sons sawmill in Killaloe, Ontario, and is also co-owner of a Sustainable Forest Licence (SFL) with 15 other independent contractors. Wood from this SFL area supplies four sawmills. About 50 per cent of the company’s annual harvest is poplar, 30 per cent pine, and the remainder mixed hardwood.

Initially, its feller buncher was quite a novelty. “The first time I used the machine, there were 25 guys standing there with white hardhats, and I had never operated one in my life,” says Ronnie. “You’d walk in the bush, and you’d have four guys following you in. Everyone would ask, ‘Can you cut this’, ‘Can you cut that’, and ‘Will it go up there?’” While the company has enjoyed tremendous success given its business management strategy and decision to adopt mechanical harvesting, the owners’ only regret is how they had to learn to operate the equipment on the fly.

Luckily, their mechanical inclinations and harvesting knowledge helped them progress along the learning curve to where they could quickly achieve quality production from the mechanical harvester. “I remember when we first started, I’d cut a few trees with the mechanical harvester, then get out of the machine to cut down a bunch of trees with my chainsaw to keep the skidders going,” says Ronnie. “I’d get out and keep scratching my head wondering, gee whiz, how am I going to make this work? That was for the first two weeks. After that, I was able to keep ahead of the skidders.” It took some time before the brothers had an understanding of what the mechanical harvester could or could not do, and they are convinced that one reason it has performed so well mechanically is because they operate the equipment.

This has not only resulted in paying close attention to preventative maintenance and careful operation, but has given the company a manpower cushion in that all three brothers can operate all the equipment in their fleet. They have built up their fleet over time to now include two Timberjack 2618 self-levelling feller bunchers, four Timberjack skidders, a delimber, two truck-mounted log loaders, a Cat excavator with a high rise—so that it can also be equipped with a butt ‘n top log loader—and assorted road building and snow plowing equipment. But they have also been frugal on how and when to invest their money in equipment. “People used to laugh at our service truck,” says Danny. “We’d buy a bus every year for $1,000 and put everything we needed in there.”

Felhaber Bros believes that it has the perfect feller buncher for its needs. The owners describe the Timberjack 2618 as a very versatile tool that is relatively simple to work on mechanically. The company also needed a feller buncher that could be productive within a wide range of tree sizes. “Up here in the Ottawa Valley, we have a huge mix of tree sizes,” says Danny. “It can go from four to 48 inches. And there is no real consistency. Our average is about 13 inches. That’s why we had a hard time selecting a machine to suit our area, because we just couldn’t get a machine that was suited to 12-inch wood or whatever.” Ronnie believes that as far as versatility, operator visibility and production go, there isn’t a feller buncher on the market as good as the Timberjack 2618. With the unit’s nine-foot, six-inch width and zero tail swing, it works well in select harvesting operations to minimize tree rub and regen damage.

The tilt cab is also a benefit, given the amount of steep slope in the company’s cutblocks. Felhaber Bros Logging had a problem, however, matching a grapple skidder to its feller buncher, as most were 12 or 13 feet wide. So they requested and received a custom-built Timberjack 450 grapple skidder, with special order axles and rims that resulted in only a nine-foot, six-inch width. While the Koehring head has also proven its worth for cutting both hardwood and softwood, felling trees up to a 40-inch diameter, the owners haven’t been too shy about taking a welding torch to it as well. It has been modified to suit their specific needs, particularly to improve visibility during the sawing function.

A major contributor to the company’s profitability is that the owners carry out their own mechanical repairs and equipment rebuilding. In fact, their first skidder is still operational. Building their company on a solid foundation of quality harvesting tools and technique has helped Felhaber Bros Logging fine tune all aspects of its operations from road building to scarification. You might say that they’ve won the battle to both overcome occupational adversity, and successfully make the transition to mechanical harvesting.

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