Montana Loggers Know Need For Speed: ‘Amazing’ Log Max Harvesters Used for Processing at the Landing

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TBC Timber Inc. relies on its new Log Max 7000XT to process tough limbs.

LIBBY, Montana — Speed and power are important to Paul Tisher and Paul Brown, partners in TBC Timber Inc., especially when it comes to processing trees.

Their company works in relatively small timber that is also known for tough limbs, so speed and power are critical to get production where it needs to be in order to stay profitable.

They have come to rely on Log Max harvesters used at a landing to process stems into logs that are ready to go to the mill.

Tisher, who — like his business partner — has more than 30 years of experience in logging, described their new Log Max 7000XT as nothing short of “amazing” in an interview with TimberLine.

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The men, both 56, grew up in Libby in the northwest corner of Montana, and they went to high school together. They went into the logging industry after high school.

They formed TBC Timber Inc. with a third partner – who left a few years later – in 1981 and are embarking on their 33rd year in business together.

Today their company operates three crews — which it has been doing since 2000 — and employs 25 people. It conducts logging operations mainly within about 75 miles of Libby.

Two of the crews perform mechanical logging operations. The third crew runs a short line or tong operation with some shovel logging.

Neither man was steeped in the logging business from youth – grew up in a logging family – as many are. Paul’s father was a farmer and a miner, and his partner’s father was a biology teacher.

However, they had a good friend in high school whose father was a logger, Bill Crismore. “He took us under his wing…sort of mentored us in this whole process,” recalled Paul. Bill, now 80 and retired, also was instrumental in getting the men involved in the Montana Logging Association.

Paul went to work for Bill after high school, and his future partner went to work for another logger, Bill Taylor. They got their start the same way, felling timber by hand with chain saws and learning the ropes for about six years. When they decided to go into business, they bought cable skidders and other equipment from Taylor.

It was pretty much all hand work back then. One of them worked with about six other men felling trees with chain saws, topping the stems, cutting off the limbs, and bucking the logs. Seven skidders removed the wood to a landing to be loaded onto trucks.

It was a lot of work, Paul agreed. “Oh, boy. It sure was.” And using chain saws – dangerous. “Very dangerous.”

Now, the two mechanical logging crews use essentially the same equipment. Felling is done with a Timbco self-leveling feller-buncher with a hot saw. On particularly steep terrain they use a CAT 527 track skidder to move the stems to less sloping ground. John Deere skidders are used to form up the stems in bunches, and they are removed with Caterpillar skidders to a processor at the landing. For processing – delimbing and bucking – the company relies heavily on Log Max 7000 machines mounted on Komatsu excavators. Each mechanical logging crew has about six men, each running a machine. “Sometimes we have to bring in an extra feller-buncher to cut more wood,” said Paul.

They bought their first Timbco self-leveling feller-buncher in the early 1990s, recalled Paul. “As soon as everybody started to go mechanical here, you had to have a self-leveling cutter to work on this steeper ground,” he said.

The industry’s development of the self-leveling equipment “was the best thing that ever happened,” added Paul.

The third crew does all felling by hand with chain saws. “We’re picking up those little corners that are too small for a yarder,” said Paul. The crew also works in creek bottoms, areas too far for a skidder to reach with a winch line, and sensitive areas not suitable for heavy equipment.

The third crew is equipped with a modified Timbco feller-buncher; the cutting head was removed and replaced with a tong-throwing apparatus and drum in order to skid the logs with a cable. There is a 20-pound weight on the end of the line so the tong thrower can hurl it down the slope. That crew also has about six or seven men – one felling, one setting the four chokers, and one each operating the Timbco and CAT 527 skidder. For processing the stems, this crew uses a Kobelco track carrier with a Denis slide boom (or stroke boom) delimber.

TBC Timber bought a Log Max 7000 in 2004 and added another one the following year. They replaced the 2004 unit with a new one in the spring of 2013. “The one we traded in was a really good processor,” said Paul.

“It was a tough decision,” added Paul, “because it was still running good.” The old Log Max had more than 14,000 hours of running time on it, he said. They had not bought any new equipment since 2007, he noted, given the recession, and there were some tax advantages for investments in new equipment in 2013.

“We really like ‘em,” said Paul of the Log Max harvesters.

Log Max, with headquarters in Sweden, has been manufacturing forestry equipment since 1980. The company, with its North American subsidiary based in Vancouver, Washington, specializes in single-grip harvesters that grip a tree, fell it, delimb the stem, and buck it to desired lengths. It produces about 400 harvesters annually, with its biggest export markets being North America, South America, and Russia. Log Max harvesters are operating in more than 30 countries.

Log Max manufactures a wide range of single-grip harvesters for various applications and timber. It offers harvesters with the capability of thinning young stands of timber to those that can harvest a 40-inch diameter tree and applications in between. The Log Max 7000 models can handle trees of 30-31 inches in diameter.

The Log Max 7000XT is a heavy-duty harvester specifically designed for track carriers. It has been developed to provide loggers with a productive, durable head for the toughest applications and to produce wood at the lowest cost per ton.

Log Max harvester heads are now able to measure diameter with four points instead of two for greater accuracy. The floating top knife controls and adjusts the amount of friction between the log and the harvesting head’s frame, reducing fuel consumption and improving timber quality. The harvester’s computer system provides various reports and monitors and optimizes harvester performance.

In deciding to stay with Log Max harvesters, the equipment’s speed, power, and clean delimbing all were factors, according to Paul.

“We have to have something that’s really fast,” he said. “Log Max, as far as we’re concerned, was the fastest one we saw, and it does a real good job on the limbs.”

“This new one is amazing what it’ll do and how fast it is. It just has a real positive grip on it when it pulls the wood through. It just does a fantastic job of getting the limbs off.”

The company works in a lot of second growth timber, noted Paul. “It has a lot of limbs,” big limbs. “So you’ve got to have a good processing head so you can shave them off instead of pulling them out of the tree.”

“The speed is what cuts the limb off,” observed Paul. “It’s not brute force. If you don’t have the feed speed,” it impacts the quality of the log. “When those limbs hit the knife, it cuts them off, shears them off, instead of pulling them out of the three. If it pull it out of the tree, you’ve got a hole in your log.”

“Out in our country, our wood isn’t real big,” said Paul. “It’s not small-small, but it’s not real big wood, either…We do a lot of merchandising.” The crews do about 12-14 sorts.

The company works primarily in Douglas fir and tamarack, which also is known as Western larch, and ponderosa pine. “Those are the three main ones,” said Paul.

Trees average 10-12 inches in diameter, 60-70 feet in height. “That’s why you need something really fast,” said Paul. They get into larger trees, too – some 24-30 inches. “We also cut trees that are 8 inches,” he added. “A lot of them.”

The company contracts for Plum Creek, which has several mills in Kalispell, which is almost 90 miles east.

The company supplies two Plum Creek plywood mills, which will take a log down to a 7-inch top and 17-35 feet long. They merchandise a lot of short logs to get that 7-inch top for a plywood log, explained Paul. At the mill, the logs are bucked to 8-foot bolts before being peeled for plywood.

In addition to its two plywood mills, Plum Creek also operates a stud mill, a sawmill, and a plant that manufactures medium density fibreboard – all located in Kalispell. TBC Timber usually works between Libby and Kalispell. Normal haul distances are about 50-70 miles one-way.

Paul and his partner did not consider other manufacturers when they decided to invest in a new processor last spring. “You know, we really didn’t,” he said. “We’ve had such good luck (with Log Max), we didn’t look.”

They purchased the new Log Max from Modern Machinery, an equipment dealer almost 200 miles south in Missoula. Modern Machinery provides all service and parts for the Log Max.

“We’re plumb happy with it,” said Paul. “It’s a great machine.”

Paul and his partner had some experience with cut-to-length logging and processors prior to purchasing their first Log Max. They previously had owned a Valmet harvester and forwarder. “We had some valuable experience with a processing head,” said Paul. However, they had used the Valmet harvester in the woods, harvesting and processing at the stump, not processing wood at a landing as they now do with the Log Max harvesters.

Felling the trees with a cutter and bringing them to the processor at a landing is more productive and efficient, said Paul.

The forest products industry struggled for a year or two when the economy nose-dived in 2009, noted Paul – mills and loggers both. The industry fared somewhat better in 2011-12. “Two thousand thirteen started out really good,” said Paul, but it “just kind of fizzled toward the end.”

“We were working for a lot less money those two years,” 2009-10, said Paul, “but we paid our guys the same wages all through it,” and did not lay off any employees. “It was a blood bath.” However, if they had not kept wages up, “We wouldn’t be here today. I’m quite certain of that.”

Another thing the partners have had to contend with is the competition for labor spurred by the oil industry boom in neighboring North Dakota. “We lost some truck drivers” who went to North Dakota for better-paying jobs, he said, although they were able to retain men who worked in the logging crews.

Plum Creek is “definitely making an effort to keep their contractors healthy,” said Paul. “They’re trying. I think more has to be done.”

“It’s not an easy business to be in,” he added, whether you’re a logger or a mill. “I understand it. I’ve been in it a long time.”

“We’re all in this together,” said Paul.

“We’ve lost a lot of mills in the last 20 years,” said Paul, “as has everybody, I’m sure.”

“We’re all depending on private lands and industrial lands to wood these mills up,” he said. The state of Montana has a good timber sale program, he said.

However, it is no secret the federal government has greatly reduced timber sales on national forest lands. The Kootenai National Forest cut 250 million board feet of timber in 1981, he said. “Now they cut 35 million board feet…Therein lies the state of the timber industry, basically.”

The mortality in the national forest is over 300 million board feet a year, and the federal government is only harvesting about 10 percent of that, he observed.

“We could have four or five more mills going in this part of the state and all kinds of jobs, putting money into the economy,” said Paul.

“Our timber supply is running out,” he added.

Both men have been very active in the Montana Logging Association, which they joined when they started in the industry. They have served on the board of directors, and Paul also served as president. They also have been active in the Intermountain Logging Conference.”

The crews will work until about the end of February, early March, when they experience their spring thaw. The wet conditions will force them to close down until about the beginning of May.

Of particular concern to Paul is the aging of the logging industry. The average age of his employees is in the upper 40s, he estimated. “Criminy. We’re just not getting these young guys to come in this thing. There’s definitely a reason for that.” Mills need to be able to rely on stable workforce of loggers into the future, he noted. “They’re going to have to start addressing that right away.”