Forestry Mulcher Benefits Oregon Ranch

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SUPERTRAK Machine Follows Loggers, Mulches Slash; Treatment Provides Numerous Benefits

LAGRANDE, Oregon — “There’s a little bit of an environmentalist in all of us, and this SUPERTRAK mulcher represents a rare convergence of the environmentalists with the logging and ranching industries,” said Rex Christensen, manager of the MC Ranch Inc.
Knowing a little bit about Rex’s work can provide some insight as to why he’s such a fan of SUPERTRAK equipment. The MC Ranch, located just southeast of LaGrande, Ore., is owned by Harry Merlo, former chairman of Louisiana-Pacific and executive vice president of Georgia-Pacific. Harry hired Rex, a semi-retired former employee who worked his own ranch, to find and manage this new ranch. Rex started his search in 1996, and the property was purchased in 1997. It consists of 12,500 acres, about 8,500 acres of it in timber.
“We do our personal logging, run cattle five months of the year, and utilize it for wildlife as much as anything else,” Rex said. He lives in a house on the property and manages the ranch about nine months out of the year. (The MC Ranch also employs one man working full-time on the ranch year round and one who works part-time about nine months of the year.) Rex also owns a 1,000-acre ranch where he raises cattle and hay.
The MC Ranch is a model for the creative interplay of logging, ranching and conserving natural resources, including wildlife. In fact, the World Forest Institute, based in Portland, Ore., has for several years designated the MC Ranch as a place for its summer interns to visit for about a week. This past summer the visiting interns came from countries as diverse as Mexico, China, Brazil, Australia and Lithuania.
“We had thought about buying a SUPERTRAK machine in the past, but burning wood waste was not that big a deal until major forest fires became a real issue in eastern Oregon and other parts of the West Coast,” Rex said. It has become more difficult to obtain permits to burn logging slash and other debris.
“Smoke management has become one of the biggest issues,” said Rex. “With the fires they’ve been having, the smoke could not he controlled.” Now, two government agencies have to be called to get a permit to burn wood residue. “Last year we called in 45 days and only 10 of those days were burn days, and they wanted the fires out the next day,” said Rex. “The smoke can stagnate the air 30 miles away. It’s especially bad for the cities in the valley…the smoke can settle there instead of being blown away.”
SUPERTRAK, based in Florida, is an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) company utilizing Caterpillar® components. SUPERTRAK designs and manufactures a complete line of vegetation management and land-clearing machines, from 100 hp to 400 hp, rubber-tired, track and excavators. The machines are equipped with FECON shredding attachments to process standing vegetation and logging debris into mulch.
Rex saw an advertisement for SUPER­TRAK over a year ago at a time he was looking for a way to remove woody debris without burning. “They showed up a week later with the machine; they were that responsive,’ Rex said. “They were happy to work with us. To my understanding, this was their 17th machine. They had some working in the Southeast, but this was their first on the West Coast.”
The SUPERTRAK owned by the ranch is the model SK200TR. The base unit is a CAT® D5G bulldozer with a 200 hp engine. The machine is used on the ranch to follow logging operations. Equipped with a FECON Bull Hog shredder, it processes the logging slash into mulch.
The treatment provides several benefits. It eliminates the need for burning and the associated risk of forest fire and nuisance smoke. Converting the logging slash to mulch also significantly reduces the risk of forest fire. Also, it speeds the process of the wood fiber decomposing and returning nutrients to the soil.
“We logged in December, mulched in January on the frozen ground, then planted trees through it in April — just a four month process,” Rex said. “We found that this mulched fiber goes back into the soil…acting just like a fertilizer. It returns the nutrients to the earth and accomplishes right away what it takes Mother Nature a generation to do.” When wood burns, nitrogen is released into the air and is lost; when wood decomposes, the nitrogen is returned to the soil.
The mulch also holds moisture, another benefit. “We had a drought for about a year, but the ground was still moist and green where the SUPERTRAK had mulched,” said Rex. “About a week ago we had a storm. It has remained moist where we had mulched but has dried up in other areas.” The ability of the mulch to hold moisture is also another barrier to forest fires.
In the past Rex used control burns as a management tool in the fall. “Now we’re thinking even this won’t be necessary,” he said.
Another benefit of the mulching process is that, between the nutrients being returned to the soil and the moisture-holding capability of the mulch, new vegetation sprouts quickly. “Every time the pine needles and other wood material goes hack into the ground, we see grasses and other growth,” said Rex.
Another thing Rex likes about the SUPERTRAK machine is that it can be used to perform multiple tasks by replacing the mulching head. “We can take the mulcher head off and replace it with a CAT dozer head,” he noted. “As a manager of a piece of property I can’t very well afford to buy a $300,000 tool to use just six months of the year. As more and more logging is being done on private land, the landowner, to make ends meet, has to depend not just on logging or ranching or growing but will need multi-tasking equipment, just as logging companies do.”
The SUPERTRAK machine also has impacted Rex’s outlook on logging and the ranch’s logging operations. “In the past, when I worked for Louisiana-Pacific and ran a 30,000-acre ranch, I would not allow in-woods pro­cessing,” he said, or cut-to-length logging. He preferred tree-length logging in which trees would be skidded to a landing and processed. The slash would be collected at the landing, pushed into piles and burned. The problem with cut-to-length logging, Rex noted, is that limbs and tops are left in the woods, creating a fire hazard. “It really wasn’t feasible to try to take a 16-foot log out of a 40-foot tree and leave the rest there.”
Being able to use the SUPERTRAK machine to convert the slash into mulch changes the picture dramatically. “Now, we can recoup that 16-foot log and make money off of it and mulch the rest of it, so the nutrients go right back into the earth and the land is reclaimed. It’s no longer dead, unproductive wood and a fire hazard.”
Rex estimated that the ranch more than recovered the cost of the investment in the SUPERTRAK machine in only 18 months. “We reclaimed about 600 acres of land,” he explained. “This land is now good for replanting trees and grazing.”
The mulching operations have benefited wildlife, too. “We have 250 head of elk living in the mulched areas,” said Rex, feeding on the new vegetation. Elk have inhabited the ranch in the past, but they are drawn to the mulched areas that are sprouting new grasses.
Mulching with the SUPERTRAK also protects against soil erosion and helps conserve water quality. Ordinarily, when soil is disturbed by logging equipment, rain may carry loose soil down slopes and into streams. The mulch helps hold the soil in place. In addition, cattle previously were drawn to grasses that grew along stream banks. Now, mulched areas that support grassy vegetation attract the cattle, keeping them away from the streams. Conserving water quality also helps to conserve fish and other wildlife, too.
The SUPERTRAK can mulch an acre of ground in about an hour, said Rex, and costs about $200 per hour to operate. The cost is less than conventional methods of dealing with slash — paying a worker with a machine to pile the debris, paying another worker to haul it to a site to be burned, and paying another worker to come back in the winter and burn it. “We’re just beginning to see the savings resulting from this machine,” Rex said. “You can’t put a price tag on it.”
“We’ve had real good luck with the machine,” Rex added. “It’s been down only once or twice. The next day we get the parts. If you have any problems, you can get a SUPERTRAK mechanic on the phone with you right away to help you work it out. They do an excellent job with service.”
Rex visited the SUPERTRAK factory. “I was absolutely amazed to see what went on. They start with a Cater­pillar machine, but then they strip it apart down to a bare frame. Then they rebuild it. Actually,
their warranty is better than the one you can get from Caterpillar, which offers one for six months. The SUPERTRAK warranty is for a year.”
“When we started looking at other companies starting to make these type machines, we found real differences,” said Rex. “For instance, the dust fans tend to go out at about 80 to 90 degrees. We’ve run ours in 105-degree heat, and last year we were running at 22 below (zero) in the winter. No problem.”
Any one can take a pickup truck, Rex noted, and add a winch to it and a lift gate or other accessory equipment. The truck can be adapted, but it still amounts to taking equipment intended for one purpose and adding something else. The adaptation may work fine, but it would not be surprising if the modified vehicle later developed unique performance problems.
Not so with SUPERTRAK, according to Rex. “SUPERTRAK strips it to a bare piece of iron, then builds everything from the ground up, so it’s all in balance. For instance, to minimize the environmental footprint, the machine is built so all the weight is not in the front. Their technology is so advanced that the number of pounds per square inch in the back is the same as in the front.”
In fact, SUPERTRAK is developing a custom machine for Rex. He was interested in a mini-excavator with mulching capability. Usually his logging equipment works on trails that are 8 feet wide. Rex wanted a small, light-weight excavator that could work in a 2-foot-wide path and have a boom to reach out.
“A few others and I took the idea to SUPERTRAK and started talking about it in February,” Rex recalled. “The president is a very personal man, Tom King. He’s been a great benefit to us. Make a phone call to him, and he returns it. In June we worked with their engineers to get down what we wanted. It’s a brand new piece of equipment which will be off the line in October.”
Rex’s existing SUPERTRAK machine is a model SK200TR; it is powered by a CAT 200 hp engine. SUPERTRAK makes machines starting with a 100 hp engine and up to 400 hp.
SUPERTRAK machines work in a variety of environments — for local governments, in agriculture and forestry, and commercial development. They are used for creating fire breaks and fuel breaks, reducing fuel loads in forests, managing wildlife habitat, maintaining rights-of-way, and other vegetation management projects. In the area of custom machinery, the company has taken on such projects as monorail work tractors, drill rigs, utility vehicles, and more.
Although first establishing itself in the Southeast, SUPERTRAK has grown to sell and service customers throughout the U.S., including Alaska, and Canada. The company also has provided specialized tractors and equipment for countries as remote as Australia, Brazil, Chile and Venezuela. Traveling technicians go on-site to these customers to provide service when needed.
SUPERTRAK also provides GPS (Global Positioning Satellite) technology. For example, a forestry mulching machine can be equipped with a GPS system to track the work it has accomplished.
Rex has worked with the Oregon Department of Forestry to put on demonstrations with the machine. “About 120 people showed up for the two day program to learn how to safely remove the biomass without burning.”
When asked about the future of using machines like SUPERTRAK to process logging residues, Rex responded, “It’s going to spread.”