By Heather Hudson
In 2009, Dave Quehl was faced with a tough decision: follow the time-honoured tradition of conventional, labour-intensive tree length logging—or chart a new course in cut-to-length harvesting with leading edge machinery?
It had been almost 10 years since he’d gotten his start in forestry working for his father-in-law’s outfit, Robert D. Robinson Logging Ltd. As one of the biggest logging contractors in the Maynooth, Ontario area, the company at its peak harvested 100,000 cubic metres a year.
But times had changed since he founded David Quehl Forestry Services. The challenges were different than the ones Robinson faced in his heyday.
“They had some big years in the 1980s and 1990s, but everything was done conventionally back then, with chainsaws and skidders that required plenty of manpower. They had lots of people. Today, nobody wants to work in the bush,” said Quehl.
For the first nine years of business, Quehl ran a full tree length operation, employing up to six staff during busy times. He sub-contracted for Robinson, who cut for Murray Brothers Lumber Co. Quehl says the terrain in the area—where he still cuts today—is rocky and hilly and features mostly poplar, aspen and a small percentage of pine.
Select cutting hardwoods was a common practice when he was transitioning in 2009, but not many people were doing it mechanically. “It was just beginning to trickle into the area. They were using feller bunchers and grapple skidders, but nobody was doing cut-to-length.” As he sub-contracted for his father-in-law, he had an opportunity to dabble in mechanization alongside the more conventional system.
Intrigued with the precision and efficiency modern equipment brings to harvesting, Quehl reconsidered his business model and took the plunge into exclusively cut-to-length hardwood harvesting. This required deep investments and a leap of faith, but it’s a move he’s glad he made.
“At first, mechanization set me apart from other loggers in the area. The hardwood field in Ontario is one of the slowest areas to recognize advancements in the industry. When the old guys had something that worked, they stuck with it.
“As the younger generation, we came along and found an easier way of doing things. I guess we don’t want to work as hard,” he laughed.
Quehl says the cut-to-length system he’s running is huge in the U.S. hardwood market. “A few states are 90 per cent cut-to-length. There’s less damage, it’s better on residuals and it’s more efficient. I’m finding I can keep employees going now full, 44-hour weeks. Before, if it rained, they would have 20 hours one week and 44 the next. It’s hard to keep guys interested in that kind of work.”
Quehl’s annual harvest in the cut-to-length system is around 40,000 cubic metres. With selective hardwood, there’s not the same volume; trees are marked by the Bancroft Minden Forest Company and the harvest blocks are prepared. “We go from stump to dump. We harvest and truck it into the mill yard.”
The system requires only himself and an employee in the bush, plus two truckers. They do selective hardwood cuts exclusively for Murray Brothers. “We’re thinning the bush, but we don’t want to push the basal area below 18 BA.”
With little competition from other provinces (besides Quebec), the market for hardwood is fairly strong, though it’s always something Quehl keeps an eye on. Weather conditions are the biggest challenge. He says it’s one of the factors that put him over to the cut-to-length system.
“When we used grapple skidders years ago, we lost a lot of time to wet weather. You can’t damage residual stems in the forest. With the harvesting system we currently have, we’re able to place brush in front of us and the ground pressure of the forwarder is very minimal. Our eight-wheel John Deer 1510E forwarder does the job well.”
When Quehl started his business, he was felling trees manually with a chainsaw and using a cable skidder to haul them out.
In 2003, he purchased his first Timberjack 608 feller buncher for more heavy duty work. By 2005, he added a Tigercat 822 feller buncher, two grapple skidders and a line skidder. “We were topping our wood manually with chainsaws, which worked since we’re primarily cutting hardwood.”
This equipment produced well for them, but Quehl ran into a consistent problem of finding people to cut the tops off the trees. “It’s hard manual labour and the workforce of people willing to work long hours in the bush is shrinking.”
It was at this point that he transitioned to cut-to-length. To get the job done well, he knew he needed the right equipment. That’s when he twigged onto the idea of incorporating a Quadco 5660 processing head, and a Tigercat 1065 forwarder. “We went through growing pains and bumps and curves trying to transition from the tree length to cut-to-length operation, but the equipment helped make it work.”
A few years ago, he upgraded to a John Deere 1910E forwarder, which works well for heavy removals like poplar and pine. But in the summer of 2017, they entered into a five-year selective hardwood plan and found it too big for the kind of work they were doing.
“We traded it in for a John Deere 1510E and it’s been working super for us for selective hardwood. With the shorter frame length, we’re able to access our branch trails much easier and we’re able to have a lighter load which works better in dark hardwood soil,” said Quehl.
They ran into a similar size challenge with their John Deere 753JH with a Waratah 622B head. It worked well when they were doing poplar and pine removal, but it wasn’t up for heavier duty hardwood.
“We were using it to fell at the stump and process our trees. It worked great until we came to hardwood, when we found the bar and chain very slow in production of large hardwood. It was bending bars and breaking chains in big maple. For small hardwood it was fine, but for large hardwood and timber it was a little small.”
That’s when a Cat 521B tracked harvester equipped with a Quadco 5660 processor head came in. “We wanted to be able to go to a controlled fell head—just pick up the tree and place it. With this equipment we can carry a hardwood stem out of a residual and place it on the trail to process it. It’s very precise.
“The disc saw on the 5660 works wonderful in underbrush among the hardwoods. It handles large hardwood logs quite well, too, and protects the residual stems much better.”
Another advantage of the Cat is they put a lot of oil out to the end of the stick so the Quadco head works well without having to run additional hoses. Quehl says they don’t have to add extra pumps or lines, which helps them avoid the fuss of adding hoses in areas engineers didn’t design. The lift capacity and tractive effort was also a huge selling point of the 521B.
To make their operation even more efficient, they use self-loading and centre-load log trucks, which allows them to cut and fell trees, process them and use the forwarder to put the wood roadside. “All I use for equipment now is the harvester, the Cat 521B and forwarder. And I can do it all with just me, one other person and two truckers.”
Quehl says they generally harvest from June till March. They consult with Murray Brothers Lumber in the spring to learn what products they want and when. “During April and May we come up with an annual work schedule for what harvest areas we’ll work in and what time of the year we’ll access them. Some are winter access only and some are summer access only.”
He continues to be pleased with the efficiency of the cut-to-length system, particularly the ability to do all the work in the bush, leaving the residuals to go back to the earth as nutrients rather than dragging it out to become a woodpile and disposing of it. “We’re doing the same work with less equipment, manpower and fuel. And it’s easier on the residuals.”
He says there are smaller scale operators operating this way in the same area and he can see it gaining in popularity, noting that it’s younger people like him that are starting up. “The majority of the workforce is 55+ and they’re not interested in investing in $1.5 million for a cut-to-length system, but younger guys are more willing to do that.”
Still, making a switch is not for the faint of heart. Quehl says he had to clean house and sell off a bunch of equipment to fund the new venture. “Sometimes the risk is worth it. I’m betting on technology and investing in mechanization for the future.”
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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Building the base…
Saskatchewan’s Freedom Logging started operations in the jaws of the economic downturn, and has gradually built its volume—and its equipment base—to the point that it now has more than triple the cut that it started with, in 2008.
Ontario logger Dave Quehl has made the move into cut-to-length harvesting, and his equipment line-up has evolved—with a Caterpillar 521B tracked harvester with a Quadco 5660 head and John Deere 1510E forwarder now fitting the bill.
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Included in this edition of The Edge, Canada’s leading publication on research in the forest industry, are stories from the Canadian Wood Fibre Centre and FPInnovations.