Rieger Logging – C-T-L Pioneer in Minnesota Uses Ponsse Machines for Higher Value Stands, Thinning Plantations
Contractor Uses 7 Ponsse Machines for Working in Higher Value Stands, Thinning Spruce and Pine Plantations
By Jack Petree
DORA LAKE, Minnesota — When Mike Rieger took his logging business into cut-to-length harvesting in 1994, he was betting his company on a largely unknown future. At the time, cut-to-length logging was almost completely unknown in the northern Minnesota woods where he lives and works.
When he invested in cut-to-length machinery, he bought one of the first pieces of equipment of that type in the region. No one quite knew what to make of it.
Today, less a few years later, cut-to-length is a widely accepted harvesting technology throughout the forests of the northern Midwest. In fact, some loggers, including Mike, believe it will be the dominant method in the relatively near future.
Mike Rieger grew up in the logging business. His father farmed and logged, like many others in the northern Minnesota, in order to provide for his family. Mike graduated from high school in 1980 and went to college for a couple of years before deciding that he wanted to join his father in the logging trade.
When he started working with his father, the business was small and did conventional logging. Soon after, however, he and his father decided that mechanization was the way of the future for logging. “We started the switch over in about 1983 and have been mechanized ever since,” Mike recalled.
Mike’s father retired in 1987, and Mike was on his own. The business grew with the use of conventional mechanized equipment, including John Deere grapple skidders and Timbco delimbers.
But Mike could see that with the growing emphasis on specialized silviculture, a new kind of harvesting approach would be needed. A lot of white spruce had been planted in the region and it needed thinning, but few if any contractors were providing that kind of service. He was invited to a demonstration of cut-to-length machinery, saw the potential for the harvesting approach, and decided to enter the field, which was relatively new in Minnesota at the time.
Mike’s first investment was in a Valmet 546 harvester, which he bought in 1994. He followed that up with investments in a pair of cut-to-length machines, a harvester and a forwarder, a year later. Rieger Logging has continued to grow its cut-to-length operations since. The company now has four Ponsse harvesting machines and three forwarders. The cut-to-length crews produce about 70,000 cords of wood annually.
While cut-to-length has become the major part of his business, Mike has not abandoned conventional logging. Rieger Logging still conducts conventional logging with machines for tree-length harvesting. The conventional logging operations are run on sites to harvest clear-cuts. In northern Minnesota, according to Mike, most of the clear-cut harvests are done in older stands of aspen with fairly large diameter wood. In these conditions, skidders and delimbers can often do a better job of efficiently and economically harvesting the wood. When timber of higher value is being harvested, such as balsam fir or other high-grade species, the cut-to-length machines are used.
Mike has developed a specialty for thinning the extensive spruce and pine plantations that have been planted in northern Minnesota in recent decades. His primary customers include the pulp mills that own land in the region, although he also works for sawmills that own land. About 90% of Rieger Logging’s cut-to-length work is thinning; the remainder is logging small parcels that are not big enough to justify the expense and set-up time required for a conventional logging job.
After running his cut-to-length operation for a few years, Mike decided to begin upgrading. Three years ago, after researching what machinery was available, he decided to invest in a new Ponsse HS10 Cobra harvester with an H60 cutting head.
The Ponsse machine was uniquely suited to the terrain he works in, said Mike. “Most of my thinnings are first-time thinnings,” he explained. “Much of the wood is small dimension material between 6 inches and 10 inches in diameter. The Ponsse seemed to give me a lot more speed, and when you’ve harvesting material of that size, speed is very important.”
Ponsse harvesters had other capabilities and features that Mike wanted in a machine. For example, the Ponsse’s traction is critical because the woods are often wet and the conditions make for difficult maneuvering. He also chose the machine because its weight is distributed over eight wheels, reducing ground disturbance. “I also liked the fact that with its hydrostatic drive the driver doesn’t have to take his hands off the wheel all the time,” he said.
The Ponsse HS10 Cobra worked as well as Mike expected, and a year later he traded in for a second Ponsse HS10 Cobra, and now he has three of the machines. Last year he added a Ponsse HS16 Ergo harvester with an H73 head.
The Ponsse HS16 Ergo with its H73 head has proved ideal for harvesting large, heavy aspen, trees that often have many big limbs, according to Mike. The machine is versatile enough to handle 20-inch to 25-inch aspen with the same agility it can harvest smaller trees. More and more jobs are coming available on small parcels, and the Ponsse HS16 Ergo can log them efficiently.
Along with the harvesters, Rieger Logging has invested in three Ponsse Bison forwarders to compliment them. With the speed of the forwarders and small stems usually being thinned, the three machines usually can keep up with the four harvesters.
“My best piece of advice for contractors investigating cut-to-length is to take a very good look at the wood they’re going to have to harvest, and then really study the machines available,” said Mike. “There are a lot of machines out there, and many of them are very good, but they can’t all handle all the conditions they’re called on to work under.” Contractors should carefully match a particular machine with the kind of work they do because high production is vital if the machines are going to pay off, he added.
Mike developed some strategies for expanding the time his machines are working in order to maximize production. His crews are cross-trained in operating both the forwarders and the harvesters; if someone is out sick or misses work for some other reason, the cutting goes on. He also is hiring extra operators; his goal is to reduce operator fatigue and to allow a shift rotation that enables cutting 10 to 16 hours daily during the long days of summer. “You have to do everything possible to keep these machines cutting,” said Mike.
As to the future, Mike sees more opportunity in cut-to-length harvesting. “We’re seeing more plantations in Minnesota,” he said. “Cut-to-length is far and away the best way to thin.”
In addition, he continued, even in the open forests fewer clear-cuts will be done. Harvests will be more selective and increasingly on smaller tracts — both factors that favor cut-to-length logging. “This technology is definitely here to stay,” said Mike, “and might, some day, be how most logging in Minnesota is done.”