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Productive Upgrade

With upgraded equipment, Manitoba contractor Mike Huzel finds his operation is now more productive and flexible-his Cat 320 becomes a handy roadside trencher or brush cutter in the summer months.

By John Dietzi

Three years ago, M & K Huzel Logging and Excavating of Hadashville, Manitoba traded up to a Cat 320 with an Ultimate sawhead for bunching and limbing. (The Ultimate head is now manufactured by Quadco Equipment.) Since then, this small contractor has found the big upgrade is easily paying for itself. "I was taking a risk at the time, but I'd happily do it again," says Mike Huzel, who leads the M & K crew that includes his father Ken, a brother and a part-time employee. A third generation logger, Huzel watched his father and grandfather logging in winter, by hand, when he was a boy. His father agreed to partner with him in 1991 when he was just 20 years old- hence the M &K name.

Logging contractor Mike Huzel says that with the Ultimate processing head-mounted on a Cat 320-he has been able to significantly increase the amount of wood skidded. "Even if you get a foot of snow, it still skids out like candles ."

The work area for M & K is eastern Manitoba, primarily near Highway #1. It's flat, with easy winter access through swamps. Merchantable forest is mainly black spruce that average six to eight inch butt sizes. It grows in patchy stands, often mixed with pine. Winter harvesting starts when the swamp is frozen in mid December and runs about four months. Another three months of work can begin in May. The wood is hauled to Kenner, Ontario or Pine Falls, Manitoba for the pulp industry. M & K does both custom cutting and work on quota holdings. They cut some pine for a small sawmill, too. "We'll cut 3,000 to 4,000 cords in a winter season," says Huzel. "We also cut 2,000 to 3,000 cords in summer ."

Summer cutting is less dependable, though. Rain and drought can cut production drastically. The summer harvest is mostly pine, on rocky areas and sandy ridges closer to Falcon Lake and Whiteshell Provincial Forest. Felling trees by hand, limbing, and bucking was "alright" when forest work wasn't a full-time career. But Huzel wanted to get into it in a bigger way. That led to forming the company and buying a well used 1981 Cat 215 buncher with a Harricana hotsaw. It had booms for logging and ditching. By 1997, it also had about 20,000 hours of work behind it and needed serious attention. "After a while, you don't want to know how many hours are on a machine," he says. "I told my banker it was time to either put money into the old machine or upgrade to a newer one ."

The best option for M & K was a 1994 Cat 320L with an Ultimate 4500 18inch processing head. It would cost $175,000 for the whole thing. When the banker looked at their numbers, their equity in land, other assets and payment record, he agreed on financing. "This machine was worth more at the time, and still is," says Huzel. He estimates a new comparable system would cost about $400,000. The unit came with 2,900 hours on it and he has put on about 4,000 hours since then. He was nervous at first. No area contractors had a processing head. "We just have hotsaws and bunchers around here. I'd heard that Ultimate has about the best limbing head on the market, and liked it when I saw a video, so I decided to take a chance," he says. The result was better than he hoped. "This head does wonders," Huzel says. "It's been a very good investment. If I was to upgrade, or buy another head, I would buy another Ultimate limbing head. It's very efficient ."

Ultimate heads come with a computer for cut to length operations. He doesn't use it, even though it's in the cab. "We just run it manually, treelength," he explains. Hourly production can be five to seven cords in six to eight inch spruce. It is a little slower than just bunching, Huzel admits, and the head requires more maintenance than a hotsaw because it has more moving parts. But it's more economical for him because the limbing is done, and skidding time is cut about 75 per cent. He also gains a slightly higher pay rate for custom cutting, limbing and topping. "If you didn't have the delimbing, you'd need a stroke delimber or have to do it with a skidder and grapple. That takes two guys and two machines," he says. As it is, skidding and slashing can usually be handled by just one assistant to the Cat 320 operator. Delimbing with this processing head produces great results. The Ultimate cleans spruce and pine so well, he says, that "when the truckers are loading, it's like the wood never had limbs ."

Overall, Huzel concludes, the upgrade has been worthwhile. "We've upped our volume and made our payments. There's more cash flow," he says.

Stems are skidded out of the cutting area. They're cut into eight foot lengths with a 54inch Tanguay CC100 slasher. "Without limbs, it's just like skidding candles. The skidder doesn't work very hard at all," he says. Cut to length would be less economical. He'd need a forwarder to pick up the eight foot wood and bring it out. "With our volume, it's cheaper to skid it out treelength and slash it," he says. Thanks to the processing head, he skids double or triple the amount he could before. Skidding takes a quarter of the fuel it once did. "Even if you get a foot of snow, it still skids out like candles," he adds. "And in an area that's soft, you can limb ahead and walk on those limbs-so we can go in earlier or stay later ."

Forestry officials like the results. Ideally, they want limbs cut and spread evenly near the stump. Huzel's system does that to perfection. The Ultimate's 340degree rotation allows him to swing a tree to any point he chooses before limbing it. "Forestry people do check up," he says. "They walk the site and tell you if something is wrong, but we've never had trouble ." The 18inch Ultimate is an intermittent style saw with accumulators. In six inch wood, he can accumulate three trees at a time, lop off the tops with a small power saw at the top of the head and pile treelength stems. The sawhead stops between cuts.

Forestry officials reportedly like the results of M & K Huzel's operations. Ideally, they want limbs cut and spread evenly near the stump and the Ultimate system-with its 340 degree rotation-is a good fit with this since it allows the operator to swing a tree to any point before limbing it.

For piling wood, it's much faster than the Harricana, he says. He can tilt the head quickly to pick up virtually anything at any angle. "You have no trouble in wood that's blow down or laying on the ground. You can grab a tree in any position, and place it anywhere you want ." "Pick marks" made in the bark by the rollers help the wood dry out. It loses weight if it sits at a landing for a few weeks in summer. That's good for the odd load of firewood. It isn't so good when he's paid by weight. "You've got to watch that one. You could lose money unless the company will put a stick scale on it," he comments.

Huzel saves time and money with his Cat 320, and has more options. Between logging seasons, he's likely to be found cutting brush or excavating. The previous machine required a whole day to change booms. He only replaces the head on this boom. That takes him about 80 minutes, at most. Because he can change heads fast, he says, it pays to switch over for some smaller jobs.

The summer cutting season may be interrupted by special conditions, like fire hazards or rain. At a time like that, he can switch over to a bucket or brush cutting tool. It keeps the cash flowing into his company. The rugged Whiteshell area between his home in Hadashville and the Ontario border is in cottage country and has lots of rock and lakes. Huzel uses a 52inch Pro Mac brush cutter attachment for mulching, usually at roadside with the 32foot boom. "We sit on the roads and cut where they can't get in with a mower, or where the brush is too high. I've taken 10inch trees with it. You can hardly tell there was brush there once we're through the job," he says.

He has two buckets for the boom, a 1.5 cubic yard wristo-twist that tilts for doing slopes and a 1.25 cubic yard trenching bucket. With these, he picks up local opportunities for construction, trenching, roadwork and ditch repair. "It's not big volume, but it keeps us busy," he says. The Cat 320L is larger and heavier than his previous machine and has a longer reach and quite a bit more power. It has six cylinders, instead of four, a longer undercarriage for better flotation in soft conditions and is equipped for fire suppression. "The fuel economics are quite a bit better, too," he adds.

Maintenance is a critical component for the logger-excavator. "You don't want downtime. That's a killer," he says. The daily routine includes inspections, greasing and cleaning the radiator screen. Oil is changed on a schedule. The air filter is replaced every three weeks in dusty summer conditions. Repairs are made early, rather than late.

Cab comfort has made a big production difference, too. Windows stay closed on the newer machine in summer- bugs and dust stay outside. In cooler weather, with good heating and a stereo, he can put in 14hour work days when he chooses. "It's a short season in winter, so we cut as much wood as we can. Normally we leave home at 5 am. I'm happy if I'm working by 6:30 and we'll work till 6 pm. If I stay in camp, I'll put in a 14hour day ."

Overall, Huzel concludes, the upgrade has been worthwhile. "We've upped our volume and made our payments. There's more cash flow," he says. If contracts or volume increase, this young independent contractor sees a bright future and expects to expand his business in the next couple years.

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This page last modified on Tuesday, February 17, 2004