BUCKLEY, Michigan –
Just how much more productive is cut-to-length logging compared to tree-length logging? Consider two people harvesting the same amount of timber in a day as four people once did with chain saws and skidders. Then, look ahead to exceeding that production. Skylar Olmstead does.
Skylar owns Pro Cut Logging. When he was interviewed for this article in late July, his company had fully implemented cut-to-length logging for two months. Skylar made the transition by investing in a pair of used Ponsse logging machines; he bought a 2012 Ponsse Bear harvester and a 2003 Ponsse Wisent forwarder.In the past, doing tree-length logging, he and four employees used chain saws to do all the felling, limbing and bucking, and the company had two skidders to get the wood out and a wheel loader at the landing. Now, with the two Ponsse machines, Skylar operates the business with only one employee, his brother, Austin. Skylar operates the harvester, and Austin runs the forwarder.
Pro Cut Logging is based in Buckley, Michigan, a community of about 700 people located in the northwest quadrant of the lower peninsula. The eastern shore of Lake Michigan is about 30 miles away.
Skylar mainly does contract timber harvesting for Silver Leaf Sawmill, about 70 miles further north and east. “We mostly do select cuts,” he said, usually on private land although some jobs are on state forest land. The company works in stands consisting mainly of mixed hardwoods. Maple is the dominant species and others include oak, ash, beech, and cherry.
Pro Cut Logging harvests and processes the trees into 8-foot and 10-foot logs for the sawmill. Silver Leaf has its trucking operations to haul the wood. Skylar occasionally buys standing timber if he gets a lead on a good job, but he stays busy enough working for Silver Leaf that he doesn’t have much time to look for timber.
Skylar had been keen to switch to cut-to-length for some time before he purchased the two Ponsse machines. He talked with other loggers in the region about their cut-to-length logging operations, and some of them owned Ponsse equipment.
Nevertheless, Skylar did not jump to the decision to purchase Ponsse machines. “I shopped around,” he said. Ultimately, he worked closely with Bruce Broden, the territory manager for Ponsse, a Finland manufacturer whose North American operations are headquartered in Rhinelander, Wisconsin.
Skylar was attracted to Ponsse for several reasons. One was the roomy operator’s cab of the Bear harvester. “I like the cab room – the most cab room of any on the market,” he said. “You can stand up in them.” The cab keeps the operator comfortable and able to focus on harvesting operations, he added.
He also liked other Ponsse features, such as air-conditioning for the cab and pre-heating to warm up the engine prior to starting. Both harvester and forwarder also have controls that can be customized by the operator. “Very user friendly,” said Skylar. The customization even allows the operator to decide which buttons control which functions. Finally, the machines have the power to perform quickly and efficiently.
How difficult was it to learn how to operate a harvester with all its technology? “Actually, the machine is very easy to learn,” said Skylar. “They have a tech guy that comes out and rides in the cab with you.”
Another reason Skylar chose the Ponsse Bear harvester was because it is a wheel machine, not a track machine; both the Bear and the Ponsse forwarder have eight wheels. “They’re a lot more comfortable than tracks,” said Skylar. “They roll over stumps better.”
A wheel machine has another advantage over a track machine, he added. “You can drive to the back woods faster with wheels. I can drive down a dirt road to the next job” if it is nearby. “No one wants to get a lowboy to drive one mile.”
Both the Ponsse harvester and the Ponsse forwarder will be fitted with bogie tracks in winter. The snow can reach three feet deep in winter in this region of the Michigan lower peninsula.
The Ponsse Bear harvester is equipped with a Ponsse H8 HD harvester head. The HD stands for heavy duty. “I knew I’d need a big head,” said Skylar. “It’s the biggest harvester they (Ponsse) make.”
The Ponsse H8 HD harvester has a maximum cutting diameter in the range of 36-40 inches. Most of the timber that Skylar works in is 30 inches or less, so the Ponsse Bear can handle that comfortably, and he rarely needs to use a chain saw. “The harvester does really well” in select cuts, said Skylar, noting that it can “turn around” with ease in a tight fit.
The Ponsse H8 HD harvester head is designed and built to work in large hardwood and softwood timber and tough conditions. It features high power and a wide feed roller designed to support large stems; the feed roller geometry enables using lower pressure on delimbing knives, which improves fuel economy, feeding speed, and measuring accuracy.
As for his decision to purchase used machines, Skylar said he had no reservations about them because Ponsse tracks service performed on its machines. “They keep all the service records,” he explained.
He bought the Ponsse Bear harvester directly from Ponsse. “It’s a good machine,” said Skylar. “It’s a one-owner machine (with) all the service records.” He purchased the Ponsse Wisent forwarder from Deering Tree Service in Maple City, Michigan.
“I originally started out with a chain saw and grapple skidder,” said Skylar, who established Pro Cut Logging six years ago. Then, as now, he has relied on one brand of saw. “I only use Husqvarna,” said Skylar.
Although Skylar may encounter some exceptionally big trees now and then that require felling by hand with a chain saw, he does not anticipate needing his Timberjack and John Deere cable skidders or his Volvo log loader again.
He reflected on the fact that just a few months ago he and his crew were still working on the ground, manually felling timber with chain saws. “Now I cut (trees) down and cut them up in the woods,” he said. “My brother takes them to the landing.” Two men, two machines, doing the entire work of felling, delimbing, bucking to length, and moving the wood to the landing.
Skylar had experience as a logger before he launched Pro Cut Logging. “I was previously logging as a partnership company. I wanted to be on my own.”
He began working in logging in 2001. “I started skidding for my friend,” he said. “My friend showed me how to cut and skid.”
Before becoming a logger Skylar worked as a cabinet maker and carpenter, building cabinets and installing hardwood floors and trim. That work experience in the late 1990s gave him some understanding of the secondary processing segment of the wood products industry as well as sawmills and lumber production.
Skylar is more than satisfied with his decision to transition to cut-to-length logging. “I can work in all kinds of weather now,” he explained, including deep snow and wind that would slow down or halt loggers working on the ground with chain saws.
In addition to being able to work productively regardless of the weather, mechanical harvesting and processing is much safer than using chain saws, noted Skylar. “Cutting with the harvester is far less dangerous than cutting by hand,” he said. Working in the harvester operator’s cab, he also is protected from falling limbs.
Foresters mark the trees to be removed on a lot of the select cuts, typically marking smaller timber and damaged timber. In the past, felling those trees by hand and removing them with a skidder often was difficult. The Ponsse Bear harvester, with its capability to control the felling process and handle and move and process the tree, can do the job much more productively. Skylar compared it to weeding a garden. “Harvesters can weed a woods more efficiently than a chain saw,” he said.
Pro Cut Logging follows logging practices of the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, and the Ponsse cut-to-length logging machines help the company abide by those practices.
Skylar’s only employee now is his brother, Austin. When Austin retired from 23 years in the Coast Guard, Skylar asked Austin if he could work for him.
Although Austin had no experience in the wood products industry, he had other qualifications. “He’s very disciplined from the Coast Guard,” said Skylar. “He knows about safety. He knew about hydraulics – he used cranes to lift buoys.”
Things have gone smoothly with Skylar running the Ponsse Bear harvester and Austin running the Ponsse forwarder. “We’ve always gotten along well,” said Skylar, who is older by one and one-half years.
As the two-person team at Pro Cut Logging, Skylar and Austin expect their current production to grow. “I’m still learning,” said Skylar, citing his determination to get the most from the Ponsse harvester.
“I’ve already done what I had to do in production,” said Skylar. His initial goal, which he achieved, was to produce the same amount of wood as his previous four-man crew did by hand felling.
Skylar is very happy that he decided to go into logging and eventually start his own business. “I like the freedom of being my own boss – the freedom of working outside.”
People notice a job well done, said Skylar. “I always do a good job because it always rewards me.”
In his free time, Skylar enjoys hunting, fishing, and riding a stand-up jet ski.