Fuel Chips Add Profit for Virginia Logger, And a Plus for Landowners: Sickal’s Logging Relies on Powerful Bandit Machine to Chip Slash and Debris

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SHACKLEFORDS, Virginia — Ray Sickal decided to add chipping operations to his logging business a few years ago to produce fuel chips. There were two main reasons.

“We decided to look into our first chipper to take advantage of by-products instead of leaving brush and tops on the ground,” said Ray, 58.

“It helps the bottom line,” he added, particularly if the chips can be hauled short distances to a customer.

Besides having markets for whole tree chips, having the capability to chip all the slash material on a job makes the work more attractive to a landowner. “It’s definitely a plus,” said Ray, because landowners want a cleaner landscape after the contractor is done.

He eventually invested in a Bandit Industries whole tree chipper, ultimately purchasing a model 3590 from Forest Pro, an equipment dealer with a location near Richmond, Va.

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“We are well satisfied with it,” said Ray.

Ray grew up in King and Queen County, which is less than 50 miles from Richmond and located east and slightly north, on Virginia’s Middle Peninsula. His father was a logger, although he got out of the industry when Ray was still a boy. Ray’s brother-in-law, William Green, was a logging contractor, and Ray worked for him for a number of years. He later opened his own auto body repair business, which he operated for 16 years.

Ray decided to try his hand at logging in 2000 and bought some used equipment and began harvesting timber for F&P Enterprises, which is based in Amelia, about 75 miles west. He began working at it part-time while he continued to run his auto body repair business.

“It didn’t take me long to decide,” recalled Ray. He enjoyed both working outside and the challenge. “After a year or so, I finally decide to discontinue running the body shop and started logging full-time.”

He continued harvesting timber for F&P for about eight years. Then he began buying timber, supplying hardwood saw logs to Pembelton Forest Products, which operates a sawmill in Nottoway, which is about 60 miles southwest of Richmond, and pulpwood to F&P, which provides pulp and saw logs to various mills throughout Virginia.

Some of the biggest changes have occurred with the addition of Ray’s two sons to the company. Since then Sickal’s Logging has upgraded equipment and also begun purchasing land in addition to timber.

Both sons, Anthony, 30, and Chris, 26, are graduates of Virginia Tech. Anthony majored in business management with a minor in forestry, and Chris majored in wood science and forest products. Both men run equipment for the company, among other things. “Whatever we need, they can do it,” said Ray.

Ray lives in Barhamsville, off the I-64 corridor between Richmond and Hampton Roads and less than 15 miles to the shop. Sickal’s Logging is based in an industrial park in Shackelfords, just a few short miles from West Point, which is home to a WestRock paper mill. The company owns 34 acres in the industrial park, including the shop where most of its mechanical work is done.

Sickal’s Logging has six employees, and an affiliated trucking business, ANC Trucking, which only hauls wood for Ray’s timber harvesting operations, has three. The company ships about 65-70 loads of wood per week, depending on weather and logging conditions, trucking and the hauling distance, and mill receiving operations.

Beside the Bandit chipper, the company is equipped with a combination of Cat and Tigercat forestry machines. Ray has been doing business with Forest Pro to purchase Tigercat equipment and his Bandit chipper, and he relies on Carter Cat for Cat logging equipment. He has three Tigercat machines for felling: a Tigercat 855 track harvester with dangle felling attachment, two Tigercat feller bunchers, a 724E and a 724G. The company has four skidders: two Tigercat 635E models and Cat 525C and 545C skidders. Rounding out the equipment are two Cat 559C loaders and a Prentice 2383 loader. The company also is equipped with a Cat D5XL bulldozer for building logging roads.

Since he was new to chipping, Ray talked to several manufacturers as well as loggers with chipping operations. “I looked at other chippers, and I think they (Bandit) build a better one,” he said.

Initially he purchased a Bandit 2590 whole chipper, but soon he decided to upgrade to the 3590. In the course of that decision, Ray and his sons visited the Bandit factory in Michigan. “We liked how the machines were built, and the Bandit employees were customer service-oriented,” he said.

The Bandit employees “take a lot of pride in what they do,” added Ray.

The 3590 was a 2016 model that had not been sold. Ray purchased it in January of this year. The 3590 is “quite a bit bigger,” acknowledged Ray, and is equipped with an engine that generates more than 200 hp above the model 2590. “It works faster and produces more.”

“It does a great job…we can load a truck in half the time,” added Ray.

The Bandit 3590, with a capacity to chip wood up to 30 inches in diameter, is available with engine options ranging from 755 to 1,050 hp. It features a slide box feed system with five feed wheels and a standard feet rate of 120 feet per minute. The machine can fill a 45-foot trailer in about 15 minutes without the need for auxiliary chip accelerators while at the same time providing excellent fuel economy, according to Bandit. It is available as either a towable version on tandem axles or a track machine, which is more suitable for operation on rights-of-way.

(For more information on Bandit chippers, visit the company’s website at www.banditchippers.com.)

Ray’s company chips slash and other logging debris to produce fuel chips, not ‘clean’ chips for pulp and paper production. Set up on a job recently in the Richmond area, the company’s Prentice knuckleboom loader fed material to the Bandit machine.

The chips were being delivered to a plant in Hopewell, only about 30 miles away. With a close haul like that, one truck can deliver five or six loads in a day. “That helps a lot,” said Ray.

Fuel chip prices have fallen a little bit, he noted.

Ray began investing in new Cat machines in 2004 and began adding new Tigercat equipment around 2013-14, when Forest Pro became a Tigercat dealer. “I always knew it was good equipment,” said Ray, referring to the Tigercat brand. Previously, the closest Tigercat dealer was in North Carolina.

“They’re good people to deal with,” Ray said of the Forest Pro staff. Since buying his first Tigercat machine from the dealership, he has purchased seven more.

Forest Pro is a family-owned business that started in logging in 1983. The equipment dealership was launched in 2001. The company offers new and used equipment and serves loggers throughout central Virginia with sales and service. It has two locations, one in Ashland, a short distance north of Richmond, and another in Scottsville, which is further west and about 20 miles south of Charlottesville. Forest Pro represents Bandit, Tigercat, Barko, CSI, CTR, Rotobec, Quadco, and Big John & Evans Trailers.

Ray operates one crew but occasionally sets up on more than one job at a time. The company buys land and timber and does not contract to harvest timber. It normally operates within about 75 miles of West Point.

Timber harvesting operations are managed according to species and market conditions, as well as weather and terrain. The landscape is generally flat to gently sloping hills although they encounter some steep slopes now and then.

Ray focuses on buying stands of hardwoods and some pine. He always looks at a tract himself, but if he has done business with a certain forester and knows his numbers are accurate and trustworthy, he will skip the step of having someone cruise the timber to ascertain the volume of wood.

Ray is on the job every day and normally operates a skidder; Anthony runs a harvester most of the time he is on the job, and Chris alternates between a skidder and a loader. He and his sons also do all the mechanical work on the equipment. Ray looks at land and timber on the weekends.

The current job was 80 acres of pine and hardwoods, a final harvest of a natural forest being cleared for a building development project. The first week on the job, the crew did 83 loads of wood, the second week, 93, the third week, 85. Ray predicted the week he was interviewed the company would do “close to 80.”

Besides supplying hardwood grade logs to Pembelton, Ray’s company supplies tie logs to Charles City Forest Products. Pine saw logs are sold to Ball Lumber in Millers Tavern.

All pulp wood is sold to F&P Enterprises and is delivered to the WestRock mill in West Point.

Fuel chips are supplied to the WestRock mill and another WestRock mill in Hopewell and to Dominion Virginia Power in Hopewell.

“We keep the hauling distance for chips under 40 miles, and the maximum hauling distance for any logs is 125 to 130 miles,” said Ray.

Hardwood markets are strong, he noted, although pine prices have weakened. “Pine ain’t doing real good at all,” he said.

Hardwood markets held up surprisingly well after the economic downturn of 2008-09, said Ray. He had a market for logs that were milled to cut material used to build heavy equipment mats for Virginia Dominion Power.

Two of Ray’s employees are certified Virginia SHARP loggers, and another will be certified within the next year. SHARP-certified loggers must undertake training in sustainable forestry, logging safety, harvest planning and best management practices.

SHARP stands for Sustainable Harvesting And Resource Professional. The training program is administered by Virginia Tech. It was developed for coalition of Virginia organizations that embrace the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, including the Virginia Loggers Association. Ray’s company is a member and sponsor of the association.

Safety on the job is a priority for Ray. Safety concerns are addressed on the spot and monthly tailgate safety meetings are held. His prayer every day is that everyone leaves the job and goes home to their family the same way they come to work.

In fact, at the 2017 Virginia Loggers Association Conference, Forestry Mutual Insurance Co. named Sickal’s Logging, Inc. the 2016 Virginia Logger of the Year and presented Ray with the “E K Pitman Safety Award”.

Ray enjoys hunting deer and ducks with his son, and his family likes to spend time at property he owns on the water in Mathews near the Chesapeake Bay.

“Our family has worked hard to get to this point, but we always thank God for our success,” said Ray.