All About Adapting: Family-run logging company shifts its approach to help deal with the ever-changing price of diesel

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The volatility in the diesel fuel market—ranging from a low of $2.05 a gallon in 2009 to its current price of $4.14 and everywhere in between—can wreak havoc on equipment-intensive logging operations. To cope with this necessary evil, Crooksville, Ohio-based Alfman Logging, has chosen to make all new equipment purchases with a focus on maximizing those fuel dollars, either through more efficient machines or a re-thinking of end-markets. Today, the family-owned and operated company is working harder than ever to keep what it has, but it has a steady clientele for its products and, by nature of changes it’s made, is better poised to deal with whatever the economy throws at it.

Changing of the Guard

Originally founded in 1973 by Butch and Jeanette Alfman, today’s Alfman Logging is headed up by sons Scott and Jeff who took over the business in 1991 when Butch assumed a lesser role in the company.

“When Jeff and I graduated from college, coming to work for the family business was just a natural thing to do,” says Scott Alfman. “But while my dad had been content keeping the operation small, Jeff and I wanted to grow the business. So we started adding equipment, doing different work, taking on additional jobs. We’ve really come a long way since then.”

That last comment would be something of an understatement, as Alfman’s equipment inventory has gone from his dad’s single skidder to one that currently includes a pair of John Deere 648H Grapple Skidders, a John Deere 437C Knuckleboom Loader equipped with a Rotobec sawbar, a Tigercat 220 Loader, a Komatsu D39 dozer, a TimberPro TL-735B feller buncher, and a Morbark 40/36 NCL Whole Tree Chipper.

“We actually have enough equipment to run two separate operations, but we generally focus on one job at a time,” he says. “We are also very fortunate in that we rarely take work far from home; all of our jobs tend to be within a 20-mile radius. That eliminates any long-haul transportation costs and, as a result, helps us be a lot more competitive.”

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Fuel Makes Its Mark

When Scott and Jeff initially took over the business, their focus was on mulching and grinding, a strategy that they maintained for better than a decade and a half. The rising cost of fuel over that same period changed things considerably.

“For the first 15 years or so we were running tub grinders, then horizontal grinders, to create a mulch product, and that was working out just fine,” Scott says. “However, diesel at that time was just over $1.00 a gallon, so we weren’t overly concerned about how much we were using. But when the price of diesel started rising—with no end in sight—we knew we needed to rethink things.”

Indeed, as anyone running diesel-powered equipment will attest, a new mindset is needed to cope with those spiraling costs. For the Alfmans, it took the form of changing their method of processing material and, in turn, the product they would eventually create.

“There’s no denying that our move from grinders to a chipper was based on fuel consumption,” says Alfman. “We knew that, as a rule, chippers are much more fuel-efficient, and that was exactly what we needed. So we contacted the people at Columbus Equipment, and, working with Butch McCaleb, their area sales representative, we took delivery of the Morbark 40/36 chipper last July. We were proven right in our decision: we went from burning about 16 gallons of diesel per load with the previous grinder to eight gallons per load chipping. That’s a huge savings in anyone’s operation, but particularly so in a smaller company like ours. Our monthly fuel bill for all our machines is in the $22,000 range, so any time you can save 50% per truckload in diesel costs, it’s a big deal.”

Exercise in Efficiency

To see Alfman’s logging operation is to see efficiency at work: while Jeff runs the TimberPro, cutting timber and passing off materials to skidder operator Dale Klinger (and occasionally Butch Alfman), Scott runs the loader, sorting and sizing the material and feeding the chipper. Logs are sent to area lumber mills and a pallet manufacturer, while chips are trucked to an area paper mill—which uses them for either paper chips or as boiler fuel—as well as to Columbus-based Ohio Mulch for use as playground chips.

“We average about six trucks a day—that’s anywhere from 800 to 1,000 tons of material a week—throughout the year. The chipper is a real workhorse for us; we can load a 30-ton chip van in about 20 minutes or so. To maintain that kind of performance, we work hard to keep the knives sharp.”

That effort recently took a major step forward with the purchase of a Bevel Buddy™ Chipper Knife Sharpener. This unique handheld tool from Precision Sharpening Devices, Inc., (and dealer-marketed through a special arrangement with Morbark), allows Alfman to sharpen their chipper’s knives in place, without removing them from the unit. Doing so increases production by minimizing maintenance-related downtime. Knives can be sharpened as many as three times using the innovative new product before a traditional blade removal/sharpening is needed.

“Having sharper blades gives us a better product and affords the best possible fuel economy out of the machine,” says Alfman. “Bevel Buddy is a really nice addition to the process.”

To further underscore its push for efficiency, the company also owns a Blockbuster Model 18-20 firewood processor, which, says Alfman, has been a nice addition to the operation.

“We run the firewood machine right next to the chipper so we can use the Deere loader to feed both at once,” he says. “It’s not a huge money-maker for us, but it’s really grown over the years. We now do about eight cords of wood a day and sell it to area residents and businesses—it’s a great supplemental income.”

Still About Fuel

While many believe that, in challenging times, it’s better to forego new capital equipment purchases, Alfman Logging has found that replacing its machinery every few years is far better than trying to keep older units up and running.

“It’s really basic business sense,” says Scott Alfman. “You can eventually get to a point where you are paying more to keep a loader or skidder or grinder operational than you would be making payments on a newer unit. With today’s still-low interest rates you literally can’t afford to run old equipment, so we replace things around here every three years or so.”

As if operationally-based fuel costs weren’t troubling enough, companies like Alfman are also at the mercy of outside influences such as the cost of natural gas. While the current high prices are encouraging the mills’ use of biofuels, when those prices drop—as they have in the past—demand for biofuel drops and, along with it, demand for chips.

“When natural gas prices drop, the mills cut back on boiler fuel from us, knowing they can burn gas for the same cost or less. Right now, those prices are high and, unfortunately for many, still rising, so the demand for our product from the mills remains high. But when the price drops again, we have other options open to us for additional work, we have great customers, we feel we have a good handle on things, and, at the end of the day, we are still a family. That’s not a bad position to be in at all.”

Morbark, Inc., Partners with Precision Sharpening Devices, Inc., to Provide Bevel Buddy through Dealer Network

Morbark, Inc., a leading manufacturer of durable, high-performance wood waste reduction equipment for more than 50 years, is proud to announce that it has signed a contract with Precision Sharpening Devices Inc. to sell the Bevel Buddy™ Chipper Knife Sharpener through its authorized dealer network.

Since 1988 Precision Sharpening Devices, Inc., has been manufacturing counter grinding/back beveling equipment for knives used by a variety of industries, mostly for the pulp and paper, sawmill, plywood, and whole tree chipping markets.

The Bevel Buddy handheld sharpener allows the knives to be re-sharpened without needing to be removed from the machine. The knives can be re-sharpened this way two to three times, reducing customer downtime.

“The partnership between Morbark, Inc., and Precision Sharpening Devices, Inc., with their line of Bevel Buddy™ Chipper Knife Sharpeners will offer our customers a product that helps them operate their equipment at the highest levels of efficiency,” said Mark Mills, Precision Sharpening Devices, Inc. “The results are fuel savings, meeting production quotas, less down time, and greatly reducing their overall costs while maintaining a quality product and a safer work environment. Both parties view this as a ‘What’s best for the customer’ focus.”

“We’re always looking for ways to make our customers more productive, more efficient and more successful,” said John Foote, Morbark VP of Sales and Marketing. “Partnering with Precision Sharpening Devices, Inc., to offer the Bevel Buddy through our worldwide network of authorized Morbark dealers gives our customers easy access to another tool to help them be more productive, and ultimately, more successful.”