By Andrea Watts
Three times a day, a residual hauler from Sierra Pacific, Interstate Wood Products, or Veneer Chip Transport visits Gem Shavings’ new Shelton facility to deliver an average of 175 cubic yards of wood shavings. Usually a couple days later, these wood shavings leave Gem Shavings either as bales or in bulk, and are en route to feed stores in the Pacific Northwest or Thoroughbred farms in California and around the world.
The byproduct of dimensional lumber, wood shavings may be regarded as a waste product, but for Jamie Murray, owner of Gem Shavings and the third generation of his family to work in the forest products industry, supplying animal bedding has proven to be a successful business model.
Animal Bedding Business
The animal bedding industry may not make the headlines, but in fact, “the industry has been around for quite a while,” Murray says. Gem Shavings opened its first processing plant in Auburn in the early 1990s, and he acquired the business in 1999. Throughout his ownership, Murray has seen the industry evolve.
Horse owners used to purchase unscreened wood shavings, which was often a smaller, dustier product, and there was no guarantee how the material was stored before delivery from local bulk haulers. Now customers have a diverse range of products to choose from.
Gem Shavings offers six to seven different wood shaving products to accommodate everyone’s preferred tree species and size of wood shavings. Douglas-fir and western hemlock wood shavings are a popular request because these species are hypoallergenic with low levels of phenols, which makes them a better source of bedding material for horses. Kiln dried or green Douglas-fir wood shavings are also available, and the latter type results in a fluffier material that provides a better cushion.
“Horses really like our product,” Murray says. And another bonus for stable managers is that Douglas-fir and western hemlock wood shavings also compost in a quarter of the time that it takes pine or western red cedar to decompose.
It took time to educate potential customers, particularly those in California, that there was a better animal bedding product available.
“In California, everyone’s used to pine because that’s what grows there,” Murray explains. But Murray’s educational efforts have paid off. Gem Shavings’ bales are purchased by some of the top Thoroughbred facilities in southern California.
“Thor’s Echo [a recent Breeder’s Cup winner] bedded on our shavings,” Murray says proudly.
Settling on Shelton
This past year, Gem Shavings opened a facility in Shelton. One of the reasons why Murray wanted a second facility further south was proximity to the mills he contracts with, which include Sierra Pacific, Interfor, and Weyerhaeuser.
Although he scouted a Port of Shelton site on John’s Prairie, the site of Simpson Lumber’s former Mill No. 5 became available.
“I remember that when I first toured the building, it was difficult to envision the space with all the sawmill equipment filling it, but once it was removed I could see its potential,” Murray says.
After a year’s worth of negotiation, a seven-year lease was secured. Of the opening of the new Shelton facility, Murray says, “Everyone’s been really supportive.”
The plant manager of the Shelton facility is Don Dahman, who Murray says had to “immediately cut his teeth on this industry.”
Efficient and minimalistic is an apt way to describe the interior of the facility. One portion of the building is devoted to storing the bulk wood shavings while the other side of the building is where the sorting and baling happens. After the trailer empties its load, the wood shavings are moved into one of several bays that, when full, resemble massive snow drifts. The wood shavings are then fed into a hopper where they are screened by a BM&M orbital shaker screen to remove any wood chunks and the fine material. And when you pick up a handful of the wood shavings, there is indeed no dust.
The screened shavings are conveyed into a buffer bin, which then is fed into a bailing system where they are compacted into a white plastic bag emblazoned with the company name and then sealed and put on a pallet to await pickup. Every hour, two hundred bales come off the line.
“One of the things about this business is we turn over the inventory about twice a month; everything is gone,” Murray says. “The working capital works very hard.”
Just as wood shavings used to be considered a waste product, so too is the dust. There are buyers for this product, from dairy farms to landscape materials companies. The success of Gem Shavings means the future that the U.S. Forest Service Forest Products Laboratory envisioned in their November 1969 report, Uses for Sawdust, Savings, and Waste Chips, didn’t occur.
“Economical disposal of sawdust and shavings is a problem of growing concern to the wood industries. Enormous quantities of sawdust are produced annually by sawmills…Planing and machining of lumber and other manufacture from wood leads to further residues. A planer mill produces about 600 pounds of dry residue per thousand board feet. Thus, the total amount of air-dry wood fines originating in U.S. industries alone exceeds 15 million tons a year—enough to make a (triangular cross section) pile 50 feet high, 100 feet wide, and over 150 miles long!”
Nearly 50 years after this report, wood shavings are in demand. In previous years, Murray had to compete with the particle board market, which took the largest percentage of the residual market. Although sawmills cut back on production during the recession, Murray was able to maintain production thanks to his relationship with Commencement Bay. He says, “We’ve been able to compete and secure regular suppliers.”
The Shelton facility currently operates just one four-person shift, but Murray anticipates increasing his crew to 15 or more and adding a second line.
“Things are rolling along pretty well. Early fall and winter is when California gets busy,” he says. “We hope to add a second shift and double everything.”
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Starting out as far back as Idaho statehood, the Brown family has carried the logging tradition into the fifth generation.
Finding Success in the Residuals Market
Wood shavings may be regarded as a waste product, but for Gem Shavings, supplying animal bedding has proven to be a successful business model.
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Intermountain Logging Conference review.
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Guest Column: Forestry’s Best Days are Yet to Come. Here’s Why.
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