By Tony Kryzanowski
The stress of a short winter logging season has a way of helping owners and employees focus on work each and every day because lost production could mean missing the annual harvesting volume target. That’s the type of pressure SK Trucking, headquartered in the Mitsue area east of Slave Lake, Alberta, faces every day.
Co-owner Shane Kropp doesn’t have to say much. Everyone in his core group of employees just know what’s required of them—and they do it. Needless to say that equipment uptime is also essential, and proven reliability is what Kropp looks for in his equipment fleet.
Since efficiency is key at SK Trucking, they have adopted certain practices—like their 60-foot rule regarding the log processing zone at roadside. This is the distance between the front edge of the drag deck created by logs retrieved from the cutblock and the edge of the road. It leaves exactly enough room for the processor to work in and for the log loader to efficiently retrieve logs. Too little space and it is impossible for the processor to neatly create the sorts. Too much space and the log loader has difficulty efficiently reaching logs to load trucks. So there is no compromising on the 60-foot rule.
Kropp and his processor operators are ever cognizant of that 60-foot rule, so much so that they use an actual 60-foot long tree trunk on the ground to make certain that this measurement is maintained. Having operated a log loader for years when working with his father, Dennis, he knows of what he speaks. Kropp says that failure to properly sort logs within that 60-foot zone results in significant loading inefficiency and serious financial consequences. That’s because once the soft muskeg ground north of Slave Lake starts to melt, logging is shut down for the winter season—and the log haul is over. They can’t afford to leave any log decks in the block.
In addition to a short winter logging season, SK Trucking must also manage as many as six sorts. They may only supply one client, West Fraser Timber, but that forestry company has a variety of plywood, sawmill, and pulp facilities located in the Slave Lake region. So they require as many high quality veneer logs, sawlogs, and pulp logs in specific log lengths and diameters as possible from each block.
Large veneer logs are the most valuable and are decked closest to the road with smaller veneer logs decked about 4-feet back. Larger diameter cut-to-length (CTL) sawlogs are processed and decked 25-feet back from the edge of the road, and smaller sawlogs destined for West Fraser’s Blue Ridge sawmill are decked near the back of the processing zone. Tree length hardwood logs are sorted separately for delivery to pulp producer, Alberta Pacific Forest Industries (Al-Pac), or Slave Lake Pulp, owned by West Fraser.
Log loading in the block is a circular process, where the loader will load one type of log for delivery at a time, starting with the large veneer logs, then the small veneer logs, larger sawlogs, smaller sawlogs and then the pulp wood.
“The processing zone is definitely for the benefit of the loader operator,” says Kropp. “There is a lot of travel involved with the loader these days and the veneer peelers are what we are looking for.”
The 2020 winter logging season was even more challenging for SK Trucking. That’s because they were logging in a burn salvage area resulting from a massive fire that occurred north of Slave Lake. Maximizing log recovery before break-up was critical.
Kropp brings significant logging experience to SK Trucking, because of working for years with his father, who also has a logging contract with West Fraser. In 2014, he and his wife and business partner, Rosalie, diversified SK Trucking from strictly trucking to include log harvesting, describing it as a fairly easy transition since he already owned a truck fleet, log loaders and road building equipment. It was simply a matter of adding the logging equipment and finding good operators. Today, they log 200,000 cubic metres annually for West Fraser.
They are a stump-to-dump contractor with about 25 employees. Their logging season starts in July and mostly ends at spring break-up in March. While they log in the summer, they really aim for high production in some of the best timber for eight to ten weeks between Christmas and spring break-up in the frozen muskeg.
Rosalie Kropp is actively involved in the business, managing all of the office functions. She also owns six of their 11 log trucks, operating under the name of Kropp Trucking. Shane Kropp adds that they have a very dedicated foreman in Cory Tanghe and their crew of equipment operators and drivers, many of whom they consider close friends. He says that many companies talk about how great the relationship is between management and employees, but they are lucky enough to have it—and that makes all the difference, given the pressure they work under.
Alberta logger SK Trucking has only eight to ten weeks to retrieve veneer logs, sawlogs, and pulp wood from frozen muskeg ground north of Slave Lake. So equipment uptime is critical.
“We find that our crew is really the key to our success,” said Kropp.
In terms of efficiency, they have one employee whose job it is to wake up at 4 a.m. to make sure that all the equipment is fuelled up and started so that when operators show up to work at 6:30 am, they can begin production immediately. SK Trucking has zero morning downtime.
Kropp recently purchased a new Waratah HTH622C 4x4 processing head mounted on a Hitachi ZX210F-FE-6 carrier. He took delivery in the fall of 2019 during a Gold Key event held at the Deere-Hitachi Speciality Products (DHSP) factory in Langley, B.C. This is one of two Waratah 622C processors in Kropp’s fleet. SK Trucking also has a larger 623C Waratah head that they favor for processing larger logs.
Also present at the Gold Key event were representatives from John Deere and Hitachi dealer, Brandt Tractor. They provide sales and service support to SK Trucking.
Kropp and his crew had noticed that when processing logs, they were leaving branch nubs behind, and because West Fraser demands a high quality product, SK Trucking wanted a tool that would eliminate that issue.
While the Waratah 622C 4x4 is well-known for its multi-tree processing capabilities, it can be configured for cleaner, single stem delimbing requirements, and that is what Kropp wanted. He optioned the new head with single stem arms for cleaner delimbing, and a standard drive arm link for better diameter accuracy, log handling and traction.
As for the carrier, Kropp says that this Hitachi is one of two in his fleet. Historically, he has preferred Hitachi carriers because they have been cheaper on fuel, although John Deere carriers today are fairly comparable. He adds that the Hitachi 210 carrier is a good match for the Waratah 622C processing head.
SK Trucking uses a fairly new approach to decking logs at roadside that is being adopted by more and more by loggers. The approach is to continually deploy two skidders to drag logs to roadside while using a grapple-equipped loader at roadside to deck the unprocessed logs. It proved to be particularly valuable for SK Trucking in the winter of 2020 as they retrieved logs from the burn area north of Slave Lake. Al-Pac had indicated that they wanted no hardwood logs with burn damage. The loader operator was able to sort out clean from burned logs as he created the roadside decks, with slightly charred logs diverted to Slave Lake Pulp.
“Decking in-block with the loader creates neater decks and it saves time because skidders don’t create decks nearly as effectively as a log loader does,” says Kropp. “I honestly feel that if you have two skidders skidding and a loader decking, it is like having four skidders skidding, although actual production depends on the skidding environment.”
Their summer logging activity tends to occur on higher ground, although logging at this time of year presents its own challenges. The main issues are flotation and minimizing environmental damage when skidding to roadside. For this reason, SK Trucking worked with Tigercat to develop a factory-installed, dual-wheel, 632 skidder for better traction and flotation. It has four tires on the back and four on the front. The outside tire is not actually attached to the axle, but welded onto the inner tire rim.
“Deploying that eight-wheel skidder has made a huge difference in the soft ground and it has been working well,” says Kropp, although he recommends pairing it with a log loader because having eight-wheels, its movements are a bit more awkward than a standard four-wheel skidder.
The SK Trucking fleet consists of two Tigercat 870 feller bunchers, two Tigercat 630 skidders, and the 632 dual-wheel skidder, a John Deere 748H skidder, and a John Deere 748G III skidder.
For processors, they use a Tigercat 855 carrier with a Waratah 623C head, the ZX210F-FE-6 Hitachi carrier with the Waratah 622C processor equipped with the single stem arms, and a Hitachi 210 carrier with another Waratah 622C processor, configured for multi-stemming.
Logs are loaded on trucks using a Hitachi 310 carrier. Working with the skidders in-block is a Hitachi 350 decking loader.
Another specialty item in the SK Trucking fleet is a custom designed blade on their dozer for creating brush piles. They took their standard bush rake blade and widened it by four feet to 16.5-feet and configured the corners into more of a basket shape so that the blade cradles the brush better. They also added about three feet to the top of it.
“It is about twice as fast piling brush compared to the regular blade that we were using before,” says Kropp.
On the Cover:
The Spruce Products sawmill in Swan River, Manitoba is proving that it pays to invest in targeted efficiency and optimization. Most recently, the sawmill has increased its log throughput at the front end of its main breakdown line by 20 per cent with a $3 million investment. They can now process about 4,000 logs per 10-hour shift, as compared to about 3,300 logs per shift previously, with a new log sorting system supplied by mill equipment manufacturer, Carbotech. Read all about the improvements beginning on page 8. (Cover photo courtesy of Spruce Products)
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