By Tony Kryzanowski
In hockey, coaches frequently talk about the importance of the “compete” level of players to achieve success—and the same can be said about logging today.
In today’s business environment, where rate negotiations are always a challenge, often the only way to make it is to bring your “A” game to the cutblock every day. On the management side, that means being fully committed to the industry and thinking of ways that the company can work more productively.
That’s the philosophy that drives Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan-based, Freedom Logging Ltd.
Owned by Randy Lay and his son, Jonathan, they are a stump-to-dump contractor, harvesting primarily hardwood for Tolko Industries’ oriented strand board (OSB) plant east of Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan. Incidental softwood is shipped to NorSask Forest Products also east of town, or Carrier Forest Products in nearby Big River. Their annual cut is 283,000 cubic metres, with logging taking place within about a 150 kilometre radius of town.
Hardwood content in each cutblock varies from 60 per cent to 90 per cent, depending on the time of year and where they are logging. Log diameter can also vary from 8” up to 16”, depending on the area.
Known for its farming, Saskatchewan also boasts a significant forest resource starting north of Saskatoon, which provides hundreds of forestry jobs. There are modern sawmills, OSB plants and pulp mills stretching west to east, primarily along the Hwy. 55 corridor.
Saskatchewan is also noted for its leadership in First Nations’ direct investment and involvement in forestry, with the Meadow Lake Tribal Council, owners of NorSask Forest Products and Mistik Management, having been involved in the forest sector for decades.
Jonathan, along with his wife, Kellie, is the fourth generation of the Lay family to take up logging as his occupation. He manages day to day operations. Randy is also hands-on in the business, and helps out by sharing his experience, and running equipment.
Randy says that the family’s involvement in the industry probably dates as far back as the 1940s. His grandfather and dad were logging before him, and he’s been at it for 40 years. Most of their logging and sawmilling was done north of Goodsoil, Saskatchewan, west of Meadow Lake.
“Grandpa Albert was sawmilling on his own and selling to the Timber Board or whoever wanted lumber,” says Randy, “and then my dad, John, and his brother began sawing lumber for the Timber Board in Meadow Lake. Wherever the Timber Board sent them, they went.”
The forest industry in Saskatchewan has an interesting history tied somewhat to the politics of the province, which is the birthplace of Tommy Douglas, the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) Party and later the New Democratic Party (NDP). For years, sawmilling and lumber sales in the province were managed through a single, government-controlled entity created after the Second World War called the Saskatchewan Timber Board. They controlled who was allowed to log—and who could operate a sawmill on Crown land.
When a large sawmill was established in Meadow Lake, the Lay family switched primarily to logging. Originally, their equipment consisted of chainsaws and farm tractors or Caterpillar dozers. They still own a John Deere skidder that was purchased in 1971 by Randy’s uncle, Art Lay.
Having grown up in bush camps and running the skidder starting when he was 12-years-old, it was a natural fit when Jonathan partnered with Randy in 2008 in Freedom Logging, after Randy and his brother wrapped up their logging business. The company is now celebrating its tenth anniversary.
Their log volume has grown steadily, starting at about 80,000 cubic metres annually, and is now more than triple that amount. They have also built a brand new shop in Meadow Lake to service both their logging equipment and their log trucks. In addition to Freedom Logging, Randy and Jonathan partnered in 2016 with Randy’s son-in-law, Cort Nicholson, in their log haul operations through a company called CJR Freedom Trucking Ltd. It currently operates six log trucks, consisting of five Kenworths and one Western Star.
Freedom Logging is a true family business, with Randy’s daughter, Nicole Nicholson, also working in the office and his wife, Iris Lay, ensuring that the company is meeting all its safety obligations. So it goes without saying that the entire Lay and Nicholson families are hands-on in the day-to-day operation of the business. They are also a major local employer, providing jobs for between 25 and 40 workers, depending on the season. Logging is typically happening from July 1st to March 31st.
The company is also responsible for all the road building related to their logging activities, which essentially means that they are in control of all aspects of accessing timber and delivering it to their customer’s doorstep.
“It’s definitely more work, but it’s a situation where we are not waiting on the next guy. So we have more control over our entire operations,” says Jonathan. “When we started logging 10 years ago, we started with one feller buncher, one skidder and two processors, and we grew from there.”
Freedom Logging was incorporated in December 2008, right in the midst of the last major forest industry downturn, precipitated by the housing crash in the United States. For Randy and Jonathan, the timing actually worked out quite well.
“I guess you could say that we started at the bottom of the hill and chugged along to where we are today,” says Jonathan. “When prices were low, the mill was leaning on contractors for help and we took a couple of pay cuts. But we had a small fleet and we did a lot of the work ourselves and had some good operators and help at the time.”
The Lay family has a long association with John Deere equipment as the backbone of their logging fleet, with some Tigercat equipment added in.
They have three Tigercat 870C feller bunchers, one purchased just a year ago and the oldest one being a 2013 model. Freedom Logging believes in operating newer equipment to maximize uptime. The heads are Tigercat 5702 felling heads with high rotation wrists.
Jonathan says that they have chosen Tigercat for their feller bunchers because they find them to be operator friendly, fairly reliable, with smooth and efficient operation. Typically, they keep their feller bunchers up to 10,000 hours.
Their skidding fleet consists of a John Deere 948L skidder, a John Deere 848L skidder, and a Tigercat 635D skidder. They operate their skidders for about 8,000 hours.
The Deere skidders are top notch, says Jonathan. “They are quiet, the cabs are comfortable, they have good visibility, good lighting and the operators really like them.”
Their processing complement consists of two John Deere 2154G carriers with Waratah 622B processing heads. They also have three John Deere 2154D carriers with 622B Waratah heads. Again, these are newer models, the oldest one having been purchased in 2015. Jonathan says that he has been working with Waratah processing heads since 2003.
They purchased two new processors last year and typically hold onto their processors for between 15,000 and 20,000 hours.
“The last two processor carriers we bought came with a new cab design,” says Jonathan. “It has lots of leg room, good lighting, good visibility and good air conditioning. They are a big improvement from the older series.”
He appreciates John Deere’s JDLink equipment communication program—he can receive information on his cell phone related to troubleshooting codes, fuel consumption, and idle times.
Freedom Logging tries to maintain brand consistency for particular functions because it pays off in parts purchases and ease of maintenance.
“We try to keep our brands consistent,” says Jonathan. “If you have a buncher starter, it fits all three, if you have a feed roller motor for the processor, it fits all five. We stock a lot of parts and we believe that this is key to saving on downtime. Also, if I have an unusual problem with a machine, I have probably dealt with it before and don’t have to call in technical support.”
Often, he can diagnose the problem over the phone because of past experience.
For log loading, they use a John Deere 2154D log loader with a CWS head and a John Deere 2454D log loader with a Brandt grapple.
Freedom Logging’s road building and maintenance fleet consists of two Caterpillar D7R dozers, a John Deere 772D grader, a John Deere 872GP grader, a John Deere 270DLC track hoe, and a John Deere 270CLC track hoe.
Over the past four winters, the company has been logging in areas with a lot of muskeg; depending on weather conditions, it can be a challenge to access cutblocks and organize the log haul. So, Freedom Logging recently added a Bombardier BR275 Snow Cat to their fleet. This piece of equipment is particularly handy for building dependable winter access roads on swampy ground. Jonathan says that the mill previously hired a subcontractor to do this work, but this year, they decided to take on this task themselves. It gives them another measure of control.
When purchasing new equipment, Freedom Logging rates a history of consistent production and uptime for each piece of equipment as the most important considerations, followed by dealer support and then operator comfort.
On the Cover:
Saskatchewan’s Freedom Logging harvests about 283,000 cubic metres annually, primarily for the Tolko OSB plant near Meadow Lake, and the logging outfit has a long association with John Deere equipment, including Deere skidders, as the backbone of their logging fleet. Read all about the operation beginning on page 44 of this issue. (Cover photo by Tony Kryzanowski)
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