Michigan Logger Relies on Risley Rolly 24-Inch Rotosaw in Tough Hardwoods
GERMFASK, Michigan — When it comes to the forest products industry, family is everything. And so it is with WJZ & Sons Harvesting, located in Germfask on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
Bill Zellar is the third of four generations that have made their living in the woods. Bill’s father and grandfather were loggers. (At the annual meeting of the Michigan Forestry Association in 2003, Bill was presented with the organization’s annual Logger’s Award.)
Bill worked with his father in the woods during high school and afterwards until age 31. At that, he felt it was time to go out on his own, and he purchased some used equipment from his father to start his own business, WJZ & Sons Harvesting Inc.
Even then, however, the work stayed in the family. “I subcontracted for him for about five more years,” Bill said. “Then I bought a large tract of land from him and took over all the contracts and built up my business from there.” The long and short of it was that Bill gradually purchased the resources of his father’s business and then the business itself.
When it came time to add some new equipment, Bill added a Risley Equipment Rotosaw slingshot stroke harvester, which he bought from Roland Machinery in Escanaba, Michigan.
“Over the past ten to fifteen years, Bill had purchased about twelve of Risley’s slingshot stroke harvesters,” said Clyde Norman, Eastern regional manager for Risley Equipment. “The slingshot stroke harvester has a Rotosaw disk bottom with an 18-inch cut capacity.”
WJZ & Sons works in a lot of what Clyde refers to as “difficult timber,” and Bill requires rugged, heavy-duty equipment. “Bill logs mixed woods and a lot of ugly hardwoods, and he does a lot of salvage logging,” Clyde explained. “That’s where the slingshot harvester head did very well. It worked where none of the dangle head harvesters would work.”
Over a period of years, however, Bill found that the slingshot harvester head was not as productive as other, newer machines. “Two years ago, he wanted to replace the slingshot harvester with a Rolly head with a bigger cut capacity so he could cut larger trees,” Norman said. However, that raised a problem with the carrier Bill was using.
“Komatsu Forest has four models of carriers and track machines,” Clyde said. “Bill’s carrier of choice was always the Timbco 415, which is the smallest of the line of tracked carriers that Komatsu Forest manufactures. However, it was never available in a leveling version.”
Bill did not want to go to a Timbco 425 because the larger machine was not suited for the kind of select cut operations he does, but the Timbco 415 could not handle a Rotosaw with a larger cutting capacity.
Matt Hanson, sales manager at Roland Machine, had an idea. He went to Komatsu Forest and asked them to put a heavier undercarriage on a Timbco 415 for Bill. The manufacturer agreed, creating the Timbco EX 415 Extreme.
“The heavier undercarriage gave the Timbco 415 more stability, so it’s able to handle a heavier attachment,” Clyde said. With that change, instead of buying a 5,800-pound slingshot harvester, Bill bought a 7,300-pound Risley Rolly 24-inch Rotosaw head.
“We didn’t have to make any changes to it,” Bill said. “We were able to take it right to the woods.”
When Bill put the Timbco EX 415 with the Rolly 24-inch Rotosaw on it into use, he got what he was expecting.
“It increased his productivity,” Clyde said, “because Bill was able to cut larger timber. With the slingshot harvester, he would have to go by trees that were too big and then come behind with a hand-feller to cut them down. By using the larger saw, he eliminated that. Plus, he can cut the larger trees on the same carrier because of the up-sized bottom end.”
After Bill used the Timbco EX 415 with the Rolly 24-inch Rotosaw for a while, he liked it so much he bought a second one. He bought the first machine in 2004 and the second one the following year.
Over the years, Bill has received good service from Risley, which has contributed to his company’s ability to operate productively and profitably. “If we’ve had a problem, Risley’s been real good about getting a man out to get it fixed up,” he said.
Although he has increased the size and scope of the business, Bill said the business itself has not changed much. “I stepped things up quite a bit,” he said. “We had a fairly small operation at that time with only three processors. Now I have seven processors and a subcontractor.”
Bill’s company cuts both hardwoods and softwoods and works for a number of mills. “I do a lot for Plum Creek,” he said. “I generally keep two harvesters going on Plum Creek land. For them, I’m mainly thinning hardwoods. I also cut a lot of pines for Potlatch Forest Products Corporation, mainly pulpwood, and also for International Paper in Quinesec.” Those jobs get him spread out over a wide geographic area.
“Right now, our furthest job is about 80 miles away, but sometimes we’re working between 100 and 150 miles away,” Bill said. Most of the company’s work is within about a 70-mile radius, he said.
Bill’s customers contract to cut a wide variety of sizes and species. “It just depends on the markets,” he said. “What we cut just depends on what the market demands. I’m in a diverse bunch of timber types all the time. We normally run about five different jobs at a time, and very seldom are all in the same type of woods.”
The common denominator among the various jobs, Bill said, is that he cuts the timber and trucks it to the mills.
When you combine all the jobs together, WJZ & Sons Harvesting cuts around 90,000 cords of wood a year. That volume has been fairly stable over the past several years, although Bill thinks the company probably cut more than that in 2005.
“But so far this year has been really slow,” he said. “I think a lot of the mills ran low at the same time; I think they went into a panic and over-bought. Now, all the mills are full at once.” In addition, one mill that is a very strong, consistent customer had a three-week layoff while part of the mill was renovated, which hurt WJZ’s sales. “They didn’t buy any timber for three weeks,” said Bill “Along with all the other mills being over-stocked, that didn’t help us.”
Another thing that is adding to the slow year, Bill said, is that two mills in Lower Michigan recently went out of business as well as another one in Wisconsin. “I believe that the overseas paper that’s coming in is…cheap enough that American mills can’t compete with the price,” he said.
Bill said that one thing WJZ & Sons Harvesting does the best is to use every part of the tree that is feasible. “We take every stick out of the tree and then some,” he said. “We buy the timber as a lump sum, so we pay for every stick.” The more he can use, the lower is his unit cost to harvest the timber and haul the logs. The crews work methodically through a tract.
“We just make sure that we cut everything that’s usable,” Bill said. “We sort pretty extensively because we can’t send the top stick to Potlatch for them to try to cut a 2×4 out of it when it’s too small.”
The trees are processed at the stump. The forwarder takes logs to a landing and the operator sorts them there, stacking the logs in different piles. “We run mostly loader trucks, but we load trailers in the woods also,” Bill said.
WJZ & Sons also processes limbs and tops. “I have a Rotochopper horizontal grinder,” Bill said. “If we’re close enough to the mill for it to make sense, we grind the branches and make fuel out of it. We also haul that out. Right now it’s going to NewPage in Escanaba, Michigan.”
WJZ & Sons runs late model equipment and keeps it in good operating condition. “With the tree-length operation that we used to use, we had to have at least four operators out there,” Bill said. “With what we’re using now, we only need two. With the Timbcos, we have one man running the harvester and one on the forwarder. So we have two men doing just about the same number of cords that the four-man operation used to do with a lot less fuel and labor costs.”
Bill normally has the Timbcos with the Risley heads operating in brushy, harder-to-cut timber. “They’re more rugged machines, and the underbrush doesn’t really affect their productivity that much,” he said. “They have a lot stronger built head and are more foolproof than the dangle heads are. I have the disk saws on them. With the bar and chain, if you’re in smaller stuff like that, it’s tough to keep the chain on the saw. With the big circle heads, you can pack the brush down instead of cutting it all off.”
Overall, Bill said, he has been very happy with the Timbcos and the Risley Rotosaw heads. “I’d say that switching to the shortwood system has lessened the headache of a lot of employees,” he said. “It has also reduced fuel costs. Right now we’re burning about thirty percent of the fuel we were in the past. That’s great, because the way fuel costs are now it’s hard to make any money.”
The rising cost of fuel isn’t the only challenge WJZ & Sons is facing. “Employees are a challenge to deal with,” Bill said. “The young kids these days have no work ethic. I’m 42 and have been cutting pulpwood since I was 14 or 15 years old, and from the time I was 16 I could drive a log truck. These kids come into the business right out of high school, and none of them even knows how to run a lawn mower. They just don’t get exposure to work any more.”
Bill holds monthly safety training meetings, and he sends new hires out with his most experienced operators. “They ride with the experienced operators for a while until they learn the machines,” Bill said. The company has about 30 employees at any given time.
Bill’s two sons, Eric, 19, and D.J., 21, work at WJZ & Sons Harvesting right alongside him, just as he did with his father. He also has a daughter in high school.
Over the next few years, Bill would like for WJZ & Sons Harvesting to maintain its size and market share. “I’d like to stay about the same size but be a little more financially sound,” he said. “We basically just want to maintain what we’re doing right now.”
The best thing about what he does, Bill said, is being able to be outdoors most of the time.
“I meet a lot of landowners and develop friendships with them,” he said. “I also really enjoy doing what my father did, and expanding on it.”