Peace River Logging successfully rolls with transition

by | Jun 27, 2024 | 2024, Harvesting, Logging & Sawmilling Journal, May/June 2024

Significant changes have occurred at Peace River Logging (PRL), the largest logging contractor supplying the Mercer Peace River Pulp mill in Alberta. The biggest change has been transitioning from in-block chipping to harvesting and processing whole logs (see the feature story on the Mercer Peace River Pulp mill re-activating its wood room beginning on page 20 of this issue).

It has obviously required a significant revamping of a portion of PRL’s logging fleet as well as some employee retraining.

A stump-to-roadside contractor, PRL has a contract to harvest up to 600,000 cubic metres of primary and incidental hardwood for Mercer, as well as up to another 200,000 cubic metres of primary and incidental softwood for the Boucher Bros sawmill located south of Peace River, in Nampa, Alberta.

The timber harvesting company is a joint venture between the Woodland Cree First Nation and Mercer Peace River, and has operated as the Peace River Logging Limited Partnership since 2004. At its peak, it employs about 85 people with logging typically taking place about two hours from the pulp mill, which is located in the town of Peace River. They also provide mill yard and landfill maintenance services to the pulp producer.

The biggest change with the transition from in-block chipping to whole log harvesting was the need for log processors and employees to operate them. Peace River Logging is a major seasonal employer in the Peace River area, offering up to 85 jobs during peak logging season.

 

PRL is a seasonal logger, operating from October to the end of March. They have negotiated an extension to that season with Mercer Peace River to include a planned summer procurement program starting in mid-July, which will help with employee retention and business cash flow.

The switch to delivery of whole logs—instead of chips—is just one of several significant changes that have taken place in forestry in the Peace River region.

It started in December 2018, when Mercer International purchased the Peace River pulp mill from Daishowa-Marubeni International (DMI) for $465 million. It was DMI that made the decision to switch to what was a novel concept at the time, in-block chipping, shutting down its wood room in December 2004. PRL became one of DMI’s largest in-block chipping contractors with four in-block chippers in its fleet, before the transition to cut-to-length processing.

Not long after purchasing DMI, Mercer Peace River made the decision to reinvest and re-commission its wood room at the mill site. The transition began during the 2021/2022 logging season with the purchase by PRL of two new log processors. The transition is now complete with a total of six processors in their fleet and the liquidation of all their in-block chippers. They also subcontract the services of four processors, so all told, they have 10 log processors working at peak logging season.

With so many pieces of equipment in its fleet, including seven Tigercat 632H skidders, Peace River Logging is one of Canada’s largest logging contractors.

Another recent change at PRL was the hiring of Ryan Hee as the incoming General Manager, in September 2021. Previously he was a Woodlands Operations Supervisor at Mercer for nine years, so he was very familiar with PRL and their in-block chipping program. After joining the company, he helped to shepherd it to whole tree logging.

Over the years, the annual harvest volume at PRL has increased significantly.

“Back in 2004 when PRL originated, with the previous General Manager, Bernard Fortin, it had one feller buncher, two skidders, one in-block chipper and one dozer,” says Hee. “It has grown exponentially since then. Originally, we were doing 100,000 cubic metres annually with one line and now we have been up to 800,000 cubic metres annually.”

Hee adds that this growth has filtered down to benefit the area’s First Nations communities. The joint venture with the Woodland Cree First Nation was intended to include local First Nations in the economic prosperity that a large operation like the Mercer Peace River pulp mill provides to the region, and that continues to this day.

“I believe that the motivation was and continues today to be providing economic benefit and employment opportunities to Alberta’s northwest indigenous population,” says Hee. “There has been consistent and sustained economic growth and development with the Woodland Cree First Nation. It’s been almost 20 years now, and both partners have benefitted from the relationship.”

PRL also has an ongoing initiative to encourage band members to consider coming to work for the logging contractor, and it can also be an opportunity to acquire and improve on their skillsets. For example, they currently have one band member signed up in a mechanical apprenticeship program at PRL.

In terms of process flow in company cutblocks today, operations have essentially changed from feller buncher, skidder, chipper, and B-Train chip trucks to feller buncher, skidder, processor, and log loader. Hardwood logs are processed to 18’ in length for hayrack 8-axle log trucks, and 21’ for 10-axle trucks.

“The block designs and the block roads have changed a bit to accommodate the long length, 10-axle log haul trucks,” says Hee.

With in-block chipping, chips were essentially being loaded directly into standard size chip vans. Now, PRL loads logs from roadside on to trucks owned by Peace River Transport, which is responsible for delivering them to the mill.

One of the benefits of the transition away from in-block chipping for PRL has been a lot less daily stress.

Since Peace River Logging is a seasonal logger, they depend highly on their Tigercat equipment for reliability. Lately, because of warmer weather patterns, the equipment has had to move to contingent ground much more frequently.

“One of the aspects of in-block chipping is that it is very capital intensive and there was a lot of repair and maintenance required with the chippers,” says Hee. “The cost of one of those chippers now is over $2 million. To keep that equipment going, there was mechanical staff on duty 24 hours a day, tied to a chipper at all times. It was very excruciating in terms of the costs in maintaining those mobile chippers.”

There was also a requirement to maintain a standard chip quality from those chippers. With the transition to delivering whole logs and chipping at the mill, Mercer Peace River is now responsible for the chip quality from their new wood room.

Needless to say that PRL has one of the largest equipment fleets compared to any other logging contractor in Canada.

It starts with six Tigercat X870D feller bunchers.

“One of the reasons we have chosen this feller buncher is for the footprint alone,” says Hee. “Given the seasonal component of our business, as we transition into freeze up, we want to be careful not to create any environmental impacts. The feller buncher’s low impact allows us to get into some areas as freezing occurs.”

The next fleet component is seven Tigercat 632H skidders, followed by six Tigercat 850 carriers equipped with Southstar QS500 processing heads.

Hee says that this size of processor head is a good match for their wood basket where trees typically measure about 14” in diameter, going up to 20”. Processing is random length to maximize fibre recovery, but the majority of the processed logs are 18’ and 21’. Incidental softwood from Mercer’s cutblocks is processed into cut-to-length logs, for delivery to area lumber mills.

The softwood logs harvested by PRL for Boucher Bros are tree length, down to a top of about 4.5”, with incidental hardwood processed and transported to Mercer Peace River.

The final step in their logging operation is loading, and PRL’s fleet consists of five log loaders featuring three Tigercat 880 log loaders and two 875 log loaders. Attachments vary but they are primarily CWS power clams with 12 sq ft grapples.

Tigercat has been the go-to logging equipment brand for PRL since 2017.

“The biggest reasons why they have kind of won the market in our area of northern Alberta is hydraulic flow for production utilization and fuel efficiency,” says Hee. “These are key—and crucial —with our winter logging requirements and the window of opportunity to harvest.”

He adds that PRL relies on the dependability of their Tigercat fleet and the technical servicing provided by Wajax, which is PRL’s Tigercat vendor in Grande Prairie, Alberta.

“The hydraulic flow provides better control for the operator, especially with our minus 20 to minus 30 temperatures,” Hee says. “It’s still sensitive so that what you are trying to provide for control, there is very little hindrance in cold weather.”

Fuel is a huge variable cost for any logging contractor, and any gain in fuel efficiency in equipment operation is a tangible bonus.

“The biggest considerations in logging are fuel and wages,” says Hee, “so fuel efficiency is always something that you are trying to improve upon. The Tigercat telematics platform allows us to monitor our fuel efficiency and produces reports on how each individual machine is operating. It’s very good reporting for use when negotiating logging rates.”

In terms of the processing head selection, he says that there are quality options on the market. The reason they chose the Southstar QS500 processing head is that they are rugged for the environment in which they are used and PRL has found them to be a better fit, particularly for less experienced operators. They also are well-serviced for parts and repair.

While it may not qualify as an obvious transition, one of the biggest challenges that PRL faces today as a seasonal logger is changing weather patterns. For example, this past November Hee was in the process of moving logging equipment to new locations because of unseasonably warm weather.

“Typically, the weather at this time of year is minus 10,” he said at the time. “Tomorrow, it is supposed to be plus seven.”

He says that there is no doubt that a pattern of warmer winter weather is having an impact on maintaining production flow and the company is finding that it is having to move equipment a lot more to ‘contingent ground’ that is still accessible in reaction to unseasonably warmer weather during the logging season.

Tony Kryzanowski

Author

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