New York Logger Enjoying Change to C-T-L

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Timbco and Risley Rolly II, TimberPro Fowarder Work Well for Couture Timber Harvesting

CORTLAND, New York — Sawmill managers and loggers complain about international competition making it hard for them to stay in business. Couture Timber Harvesting Corp has turned the tables. The upstate New York company has created a niche by exporting lumber to Canada for processing into wood products.
Couture Timber Harvesting is based in Cortland, a small city of about 25,000-30,000 people roughly 30 miles south of Syracuse. Cortland also is home to Gutchess Lumber, which operates a large hardwood sawmill.
Bruno’s father worked as a contract logger for Gutchess Lumber back in the early 1970s. During high school, Bruno took a vocational course of study and trained to be a carpenter. Once he graduated, he went to work for his father.
“First I put a roof on my father’s garage,” he said. “Then I did the mechanic work on all the equipment for three or four years until I got tired of it.” At that point, he started driving a log truck for his father and maintaining the trucks for his father’s logging business.
“Finally my dad got tired of owning all the trucks and sold them to me,” Bruno said. “I ended up with seven trucks and had a hard time finding enough wood to truck.”
By this time the elder Couture had started buying logs instead of cutting timber, and he no longer needed his skidders and other equipment. Bruno took over the skidders and began buying timber and cutting it himself.
“It finally got to where I had trouble finding people who wanted to work in the woods,” he said. “So I laid off a bunch of people and bought a grapple skidder and a Timbco 2000 with a Risley Rolly head on it. Then about a year and a half ago, we got rid of the skidder and went to a cut-to-length operation.”
Today, Bruno has ‘graduated’ to a Timbco 425 EXL with a Risley Rolly II processing head and a TimberPro 810 forwarder. The company also has three trucks to haul logs to his wood yard.
“Now I buy my own wood lots and cut them and sell the timber in different markets,” Bruno said. “I sell most of the wood to Canadian mills and the rest to some local mills. We haul pulpwood to Weyerhaeuser in Johnsonburg, Pennsylvania or to Glatfelter in York, Pennsylvania. When I have a truck going to Weyerhaeuser or Glatfelter, I try to find a load of spruce in that area to bring back to my yard in Cortland.”
Bruno cuts about 90% softwoods, including red pine, Scotch pine, and a lot of Norway spruce.
“I cut probably 50 percent red pine, and most of the rest of it is spruce,” he said. “The trees I cut are anywhere from three or four inches up to a couple of feet in diameter. So some of it is going for paper and some of it is going for saw logs. A very little bit goes for core stock for plywood.”
All the spruce that is 4 inches in diameter and above goes to a sawmill in Canada to be processed into dimension lumber.
Why Canada?
“There aren’t any American mills that will buy spruce,” Bruno said. “I buy a lot of spruce from other loggers and sell it in Canada. Being in Cortland, it’s pretty easy to get Canadian trucks to pick it up.”
It doesn’t hurt that Bruno is Canadian himself. “My mom and dad were both born in Quebec,” he said. “The two of them and my sisters and I speak French around the house, although my wife, Ann, and my two girls don’t speak French.”
It is efficient for Canadian companies to pick up wood from Couture Timber Harvesting, Bruno said, because their trucks deliver lumber to the U.S. “There are a lot of places in Pennsylvania that build modular houses,” Bruno explained. “A truck will bring a load of 2x4s or other dimension lumber down to Pennsylvania, and on the way back it will pick up a load of logs here to go back to Canada.”
Bruno has found that it is easier to load the Canadian trucks in his wood yard instead of on a job site. “I don’t load any Canadian trucks in the woods,” he said. “I only load them here in the yard. I don’t want the aggravation of having to meet truck drivers in the woods. They tell you what time they’ll be there, but sometimes it’s an hour or more later. With the wood at the shop, I’ll load a truck at nine or ten o’clock at night if that’s what it takes. It’s just a lot more convenient to load it at the shop.”
The small volume of hardwood that he cuts usually is sold to Canadian mills, too. The Canadian hardwood mills usually do the same thing — have their trucks pick up a load of logs from Bruno after delivering hardwood lumber to a customer in the U.S.
Some of the Canadian mills that Bruno supplies are near Montreal and Quebec City, about 600 miles away. “With the price of fuel, it makes sense for the trucks to go back with a load on,” Bruno noted. “We’ve had some guys carry a load of spruce lumber from Canada all the way down to Florida, pick up a load of something in Florida and take it to Virginia and unload it, and then come here and pick up a load of logs and take them back to Quebec. It’s amazing how wood gets moved around.”
Although Bruno said it’s hard to quantify exactly how much wood he handles in a year, he tries to cut between 25 and 30 truckloads a week. “We usually take one week off during the summer, and then the guys like to take a few days off and go hunting in the fall,” he said. With two weeks off during the year, that works out to between 1,250 and 1,500 tractor-trailer loads of logs a year.
Bruno buys timber on private land and state land. He prefers to cut on state land when he can.
“A lot of private landowners want to clear-cut everything,” he said. “They want to high grade it and take the best and get the money for it. But on state land I can go in and do a nice job so that I can drive by the area years from now and say, ‘This is the way it is because I did it.’”
State foresters are more concerned with managing — and harvesting timber — to produce a healthy forest than just making money. “They mark everything out according to a management plan,” said Bruno. “For instance, the state is trying to convert a lot of red pine stands over to hardwoods stands. So the forester will take out more red pine to encourage the hardwoods, and the hardwoods they leave are the higher quality hardwoods. Money drives the private land sale, but conservation drives the state land sale.”
Of course, doing a select cut on a state forest or other land requires more skill and expertise than doing a clear-cut. In addition, it is easier to deal with foresters because they are knowledgeable about the forest products industry.
“With the management cut, you know from the beginning what you need to do,” said Bruno. “With the private landowner, every day you have to explain why you’re doing what you’re doing, and why you’re sending these trees for pulpwood but those for saw logs. There’s a big difference between cherry logs that are worth $8 a foot and pine logs that are worth a couple dollars a ton. Private landowners don’t understand that.”
Bruno practices forest management on land that he has been buying the past 10 years.
“My dad was an old-time logger,” he said. “If the tree was over a certain size he would cut it, regardless. Now he is 73, and when he walks on the land that I own, he says, ‘If I had done this when I was your age, now I’d really have something.’ He can see the result of doing it this way versus doing it the old way.”
The equipment he uses enables him to manage his own forest lands and to perform select cuts on state forest lands.
“With the TimberPro forwarder and the cut-to-length operation, I can work more days during wet weather,” Bruno explained, “and I can utilize more of what I’m cutting. At this point, about 97 to 98 percent of what we cut makes it to the road. We utilize that much of the tree. We can cut out the defects in the wood, and we’re getting higher quality yield out of what we cut — with fewer people and less aggravation. And we’re not so much in a ‘hurry-up’ mode. We can be more concerned about quality than about speed.”
Cut-to-length logging requires more planning, but the advantages of the machinery outweigh the extra effort, said Bruno. “The reason we went to the forwarder is that a lot of state jobs require one. They don’t allow us to skid Norway spruce because it may damage the bark on the trees that we’re leaving. I was a little hesitant at first because it was a lot of money, but now that I’ve done it, I’m happier than heck that I’ve gone that way. I should have done it when I first got in the woods.”
Bill Bourgeois, the salesman at CJ Logging Equipment from whom Bruno purchased his equipment, said one of the important features of the TimberPro 810 forwarder is the 360-degree cab rotation.
“With that 360-degree rotation you can pick up things behind you, put bridges in front of you, or work on either side,” said Bill. “Let’s say that you have to put a bridge in and you’re carrying it on your forwarder end. When you come to the river, you just swing your cab back, pick up the bridge, swing it around, and put it into place. With a conventional forwarder, you’d have to get the forwarder sideways to put the bridge in place.”
One reason Bruno prefers the Risley Rolly II is that it is a fixed processing head and enables him to have greater control of the tree during felling. “With a dangle head, once the tree is cut it’s going to fall pretty much where it wants to fall,” he said. “But with the fixed head, I can physically put 99 percent of the trees I cut where I want them.
“Let’s say I have several nice cherry trees in front of me,” he continued. “I can set the tree I’ve cut off to the left or the right, or I can swing around and put it behind me so I don’t damage any of those trees. That’s what the state foresters want. They want to protect the residual trees.”
Even on clear-cuts, the cut-to-length machines have advantages over a tree-length approach to logging. “I can reach up to the boundary line and drop a tree behind the machine so I don’t drop it across a boundary line,” Bruno explained. “Before I had a Timbco, we used to have one guy with a chainsaw, and it was a lot of extra work and a lot of confusion that was dangerous.”
The Timbco and TimberPro also produce wood that is clean when it comes out of the forest. “The mills buy wood by weight, so they don’t want to buy half a ton of mud,” Bruno noted. “Plus, a lot of times when the trucks would cross back into Canada, they would be told that the wood had too much mud, and they would have to turn around.”
At this juncture Couture Timber Harvesting has a total of four employees: Bruno, another worker who operates the forwarder, and two truck drivers. The company has a group health insurance plan and pays half the premium for employees. “We’re also working on something for retirement,” said Bruno.
“Of course, we have workmen’s compensation insurance,” he added. His agent for workmen’s compensation insurance, W.J. Cox and Associates, helps Bruno with safety training. “Cox has done some safety training for us. They brought up a tractor-trailer simulator so a driver can sit in the truck and ‘drive’ while looking at a big TV screen.” The training simulator presents difference scenarios, such as a car coming straight at the truck, so drivers have to react or have a virtual ‘accident.’ The crew also gets safety training through the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, a program of the American Forest & Paper Association.
“I have a step-daughter who is 24, and twins, a step-son and another step-daughter, who are 22,” he said. “The older one works in TV production. One of the twins helps me a little in the woods, greasing the trucks and jobs like that. I have a seven-year-old daughter, but it’s too soon to tell what she’s going to do. And I have a 2 ½-year-old son who’s definitely going to be in the business. He loves this stuff. When I take him to a logging show, he wants to see every piece of equipment there is. If a logging magazine comes in the mail, he’ll have snagged it and will be looking through it and making comments before
I get home that day. He can’t talk very well yet, but he’ll still be making a lot of comments.”
Over the next few years, Bruno said, his most serious challenge is likely to be labor.
“The biggest competition seems to be government social programs,” he said. “A lot of people know they can stay home and get food stamps and other benefits without having to work, and sometimes they live better than people who are working. I think you’ve got to find younger people just getting out of school and train them the way you want them.”
That challenge aside, Bruno said, one of his goals is to expand into the firewood business. “I would like to eliminate selling the hardwood pulp to the pulp mills and put more of it into firewood so there’s less trucking involved,” he said.