BERLIN, New York – A few years back, Ryan Sweeney had a difficult time keeping good quality help for his logging business, Sweeney’s Tree and Land Management. A long-term Caterpillar customer, he found the answer in changing over to cut-to-length logging technology.
Now, Sweeney’s company cuts and processes at the stump with a Cat 522B track harvester equipped with a Log Max 7000XT dangle head, and he couldn’t be happier.
“Buying that Cat 522 with that Log Max was the best move I ever made in this business,” said Ryan.
A Family Business with Deep Forest Roots
Sweeney’s Tree and Land Management and its affiliated log yard, New England Forest Products, are located in Berlin, New York, where Ryan grew up. The company includes, Ryan, his father, Pat, and two other employees.
Ryan, 34, has been working in logging since he was a teenager. His father, now 64, was a logging contractor, harvesting timber during the winter and doing excavation work in the warm weather. After high school Ryan attended Paul Smith College in upstate New York and earned two associate degrees in forestry. Pat eventually transitioned his business to 100% excavating.
Ryan started his business after graduating from college in 2005. He began investing in logging machines and eventually acquired his father’s excavating equipment.
Berlin is less than 30 miles east of Albany, which puts it within spitting distance of the northwest corner of Massachusetts and the Southwest corner of Vermont. Ryan’s work takes him into all three states, although he works mainly in New York, on both sides of the Hudson River.
The Right Equipment Eases Labor Strains
Ryan has been a Caterpillar customer from the start, always buying new machines from New England-based Milton Cat with the exception of two used machines. Milton Cat has 12 locations. The company has dealerships in every New England state except Connecticut and also four locations in New York.
“They’re a good main brand,” said Ryan. “Outstanding performance, good fuel economy. Parts and service is, handsdown… they’ve had my back 100%.”
Sweeney’s Tree and Land Management has a fleet of nearly a dozen machines. With one exception, all of them are Cat. For felling and processing at the stump, he has the Cat 522B with the Log Max harvester attachment. There are two Cat forwarders, a 574 and a 564, for getting the wood out, as well as a Cat 525C skidder that is used for skidding tree-length logs that eventually will be processed into utility poles. The company is equipped with two truckmounted log loaders, a Cat 519 and a Timberking 560. Rounding out the fleet are a Cat D6 bulldozer, Cat 320 excavator, Cat 315 excavator, a Cat IT 24-wheel loader used in the log yard, and a Cat 299 skidsteer with a Cat 315 mulching head that can be used in forest management and land reclamation work.
The most recent addition was the Cat 564 forwarder, purchased new in 2014. The wheel loader is the oldest machine; the rest of the fleet consists of machines manufactured in 2007 or newer.
When he initially changed from treelength logging operations to cut-to-length, Ryan started with a Cat 501 track harvester and a Cat 574 8-wheel forwarder. Labor was a big factor in his decision to change to cut-to-length, he indicated. For his treelength logging operations he’d had a fellerbuncher, two skidders, and a knuckleboom loader with slasher system — an approach that required more employees to operate. More labor equals greater business stress, especially when the labor market is tight.
“I couldn’t find good help at the time,” Ryan said, “And I had a lot of irons in the fire, a lot of overhead in the equipment. I liked the idea of having one cutter and one forwarder.”
In fact, when he first invested in the Cat cut-to-length equipment, he worked alone for a couple of years, taking turns at running the machines one at a time.
When he decided to make the transition to cut-to-length logging, he considered other equipment manufacturers, but he decided to stay with Caterpillar. “One reason is they are the closest to my home base for parts and service,” said Ryan.
Even with the relative higher price of specialized cut-to-length machines compared to tree-length logging machines, Ryan knew he would reduce his overhead, saving on fuel and other costs associated with numerous machines as well as labor.
Timber Acquisition Strategy Aided by Cat Equipment
Ryan has been buying standing timber for about five or six years. “We do very little subcontracting,” he said. He has one mill customer he contracts to but has only cut for them once in the past three years.
His education and experience gave him a good background for buying timber, but he needed the working capital in order to begin. He was able to obtain a small line of credit to buy the timber for his first job, paid it back from the wood products he sold from it, and was on his way. “I didn’t take the shovel and dig myself a hole,” he recounted.
The average tract of timber that Ryan buys is 70-100 acres. He has bought parcels as small as 20 acres while the largest was 500 acres.
The land that the company harvests can vary significantly in slope and elevation. The terrain of surrounding Rensselaer County is flat and level near the Hudson River to the west, but the landscape rises as you go further east to the Taconic Mountains along the Massachusetts state line.
Sweeney’s Tree and Land Management encounters plenty of steep terrain. Ryan traded in his Cat 501 for the Cat 522B, which is a machine that enables him to work more efficiently on slopes. Ryan bought the Cat 522B with the Log Max attachment new from Milton Cat in 2013.
The support after the purchase is a major reason the Cat equipment has worked out so well. Ryan praised the equipment for its productiveness, efficiency, and reliability. Thanks to service and support from Milton Cat and Log Max, his down time has been minimal. Milton Cat distributes parts for Log Max, although for technical support and troubleshooting, Ryan deals directly with Log Max. “Top notch,” he said. “They’re a phone call away.”
Cat track harvesters help loggers boost production in the woods, and their efficiency and durability help increase profitability. They are designed with the best combination of lift capacity, swing torque, and tractive effort ratios for high production.
The Cat 522B is a near-zero tail swing machine, which is more attractive for harvesting in select cut and thinning applications because they help reduce damage to the residual stand. It is equipped with the Cat C9 ACERT™ 226 kW (303 hp) engine, which has a proven track record of reliability and durability.
Power management software is tailored for the unique engine-hydraulic interactions in a forestry application and delivers a high level of machine performance. The leveling mechanism features a unique patented three-cylinder system design which provides simultaneous forward and side-byside tilting. in the industry that significantly reduces stress loads into the leveler structure, lower frame and track frames.
About 75% of Ryan’s work is harvesting softwoods, and 25% is hardwoods. Dominant softwoods are white pine, hemlock, red pine, spruce, and fir. Common hardwoods are hard maple, yellow birch, red oak and beech. Ryan’s goal is to produce 25 truckloads of wood per week. About 70% of production currently is saw logs, and 30% is pulpwood.
Log markets for both hardwood and softwood have been strong the past year, reported Ryan, although pulp markets have been struggling.
Beyond the logging operations, Ryan’s company offers forest management services. He consults with landowners to provide plans that enable them to create healthy forests and maximize the value of their timber. Consulting services generate about 10% of the company’s revenues.
Although he only has a handful of employees, Ryan may run two or three jobs at a time, tapping other loggers with cut-tolength harvesters and contracting them to fell the timber and process the logs. In some situations, he may finish the harvesting work on a job and move on to the next one while his crew finishes extracting the logs with the other machines.
Care for the Land Is Important, Especially in Wet Weather
Sweeney’s Tree and Land Management takes great care to minimize the impact on the land. Ryan frequently uses bogey tracks on the forwarders. He does some work on state forests, and those contracts require bogey tracks. On jobs on rocky ground that drains well, they’re not needed.
“This winter has been brutal,” said Ryan. “It’s been an on-going mud season.” In February, temperatures briefly warmed up to 70 degrees, and there was rain, too. The combination pulled the frost out of the ground and melted the snow. That was followed by a series of Northeasters that have pounded the Northeast U.S. with snow. The region around Berlin received between 3-4 feet of snow from those storms, noted Ryan, but it has melted quickly from the sun and warmer temperatures and the warm ground. The result: lots of slush and water. “Mother nature makes us pay for what we do,” said Ryan.
An advantage of the cut-to-length approach and using the slash to create a mat for the machines is that the equipment does not cause rutting, and mud is minimized.
Treating Employees Like Family
Sweeney’s Tree and Land Management recognizes that each employee is different, and the company tries to make it easier for them to do a good job.
All employees have a company vehicle, a pickup truck or service truck. “They get very well taken care of,” said Ryan, who takes a custom approach to providing benefits. One employee, for example, may be more interested in investing money toward retirement, but not necessarily another employee. It’s hard to establish one benefit plan that appeals to all age groups, he noted. “I pretty much do an employee benefit package for what suits them at what time they need it.”
“They work hard,” added Ryan. “You’ve got to take care of them” in a way that suits their lifestyle.
Ryan and his girlfriend, Laurie, have a daughter, Finlei. In his spare time, which is not much, he enjoys hunting deer, snowmobiling, and riding an ATV.
Ryan has been able to continue to prosper his business with the right mix of equipment and a crew of engaged, hardworking employees.