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S.C. Logger Makes Change to Cut-to-Length

F.G. O’Neal Jr. Co. moves into 2nd thins of pine plantations with Valmet harvester, forwarder

By Diane Calabrese
Date Posted: 2/1/2005

HAMPTON, South Carolina — There is more than a single way to start a new business. After operating a conventional logging business for 12 years, Chip O’Neal, the owner of F.G. O’Neal Jr. Co. Inc., changed to a cut-to-length approach in March 2004.

        Making the conversion to cut-to-length was in many ways equivalent to launching an entirely new business, said Chip. After all, in the process he had to sell the equipment he previously used – a feller-buncher, skidder, and loader.

        He replaced them with just two machines, a Valmet harvester and a Valmet forwarder that he purchased from Pioneer Machinery’s dealership in Walterboro, S.C. (Valmet machines are manufactured by Komatsu Forest LLC in Shawano, Wis.) In making the change he also was able to reduce his labor costs, going from five workers to two.

        F.G. O’Neal Jr. Co., an enterprise that bears Chip’s given name, contracts for paper companies and mills. The company uses the Valmet 911.1 harvester to fell trees and process them, and the Valmet 860 forwarder moves the cut-to-length wood to a landing area and puts it on another contractor’s logging trucks.

        Although Chip switched his company to a cut-to-length approach in one step, he did not simply wake up one morning and decide to change the way he ran his business. “About two years ago, the main company I contract for, Collum Sawmill LLC in South Carolina,” began the process, he explained. Chip has had a long business relationship with Collum Sawmill, which is located in Allendale.

        “The owner took me and the other fellows out to look at an excavator with a processor head,” he said. The introduction to cut-to-length got Chip interested in learning more. He began to look at cut-to-length machinery systems and to crunch numbers. He had certain criteria in mind in selecting machines if was going to change to cut-to-length logging, and he figured out the production he would need in order to operate profitably.

        He chose Valmet for several reasons. For starters, the more research he did, the more certain he was that the Valmet harvester and the Valmet forwarder met two of his most important criteria: they had a proven track record and were fuel efficient. Valmet machines had been used successfully by loggers in the North for years and had proven to be fuel efficient.

        The performance of the Valmet equipment has been excellent, said Chip, who does most of his own maintenance. He expected that kind of superlative performance because of his interaction with the dealer’s staff. “They back me up,” he said, with strong technical support and service.

        “A lot of people came together” to give him the preliminary information and support that figured in his decision to invest in Valmet equipment, said Chip. “Tom Hirt with Valmet — he’s the one that talked with me about the machine.” Michael Dodson, branch manager, and Mike Huff, sales manager at Pioneer, were also crucial players, he said, as was Mickey Scott, president of Collum Sawmill.

        When Chip talked with TimberLine in December, he had to think hard to recall when he had last used a chain saw since putting the Valmet 911.1 harvester to work. “I think we’ve cranked up a chain saw three times in nine months,” said Chip, “ to take a stray branch or something.”

        Cut-to-length equipment is better suited for the kind of work that Chip is doing now. There is a “glut of pulpwood” in the region because of government programs that paid landowners to plant pine trees, said Chip, and F.G. O’Neal Jr. Co. now is set up to perform second thinnings.

        The Valmet harvester and forwarder are a good fit for his company for several reasons, explained Chip. Besides the reduced fuel consumption, said Chip, the Valmet equipment offers a way around another fact of business life. “The labor force is dwindling,” he noted. It is increasingly difficult to hire and retain reliable employees. Machines that reduce labor yet improve production help loggers to counter that trend.

        The benefits of the Valmet machines and cut-to-length logging equipment are evident on the job sites. “The aesthetics of the way it leaves the forest” is remarkable, said Chip. “And silviculturally, it helps the land.”

        Another thing that cannot be overlooked when weighing the advantages of cut-to-length logging: the approach is “a whole lot less headache” than conventional logging, said Chip.

        A graduate forester, Chip can offer his clients a full spectrum of services, from timber cruising to thinning and timber harvesting. Fifty percent of the work his company does is for private landowners; the rest is under contract for Collum Sawmill. In certain instances, Collum Sawmill buys wood from F.G. O’Neal, which purchased the original standing timber from private landowners.

        When Chip’s company performed tree-length harvests, he relied on three pieces of equipment: a feller-buncher, a skidder, and a loader with a delimber.

        Today, with just two employees, each man generally focuses on one aspect of the operations. “I mainly run the harvester,” said Chip, although the two men cross-trained on both machines.

        There is a big difference between conventional and cut-to-length logging, Chip noted. In tree-length logging, after a day’s work, Chip would be exhausted. Now, he said, it is his mind that gets the tougher workout.

        “It’s a whole different mindset when you’re running the machine,” said Chip. “The (Valmet) harvester has two joysticks and a foot control, with eight functions on each control. You can’t bulldog these machines. You’ve got to finesse them.”

        Komatsu Forest provided training that was invaluable in getting up to speed quickly; the company provided training at the factory and on-site. “We spent three days in a simulator at Shawano, Wisconsin,” said Chip.

        The simulator experience gives harvester operators a good grasp for the way the Valmet 911.1 functions before they climb into the machine in the woods. The simulator training is especially important for workers who have not operated a harvester before.

        After the three-day course with the simulator, a trainer spent about two weeks on a job site with the men. By the end of the two weeks, Chip was right on track with running the Valmet 911.1. In fact, he apparently got up to speed faster than most new operators. “They said I was one in 1,000 that caught on that quick,” he said. He had been advised to plan on at least two months before he was handling the harvester at its optimum efficiency.

        Chip has worked with machinery his entire life. He grew up on a farm that grew vegetables and watermelons, so he had experience with farm equipment as a teenager. “I’ve always liked machines,” he said.

        Between the experience in farming and starting F. G. O’Neal Jr. Co., Chip tried a few other businesses in the wood products industry. He operated a chip mill for a time. He also owned and operated a Wood-Mizer portable sawmill, which he sold recently in order to focus on his logging and forestry consulting business.

        Chip earned a two-year degree in forestry from Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College (ABAC) in Tifton, Ga., which is a branch of the University of Georgia. Chuck Bennett, who runs the Valmet forwarder, graduated from the University of Georgia with a bachelor’s degree in forestry. They met while working for International Paper Co., where Chuck was Chip’s supervisor.

        “You’ve got two graduate foresters at all times,” said Chip of his company. Their forestry education enables F.G. O’Neal Jr. Co. to provide a full range of services to client landowners. For example, they can select and mark trees according to a landowners’s management objectives, and return and perform the select cutting service. They are able to perform the work using the most up-to-date forestry methods and equipment, leaving the site managed to the owner’s objectives and looking aesthetically pleasing. The Valmet machines reduce ground compaction, helping to minimize disturbance to the  forest floor; landowners like the result.

        When Chip changed to cut-to-length logging, he also changed the kind of timber and species he worked in. In tree-length logging, he cut about 40% hardwoods. Now he cuts nearly 100% pine. Seventy percent to 80% of the pine grows in plantations, and the remainder is natural growth.

        To keep his business profitable, Chip cuts trees between 7-20 inches in diameter although the Valmet 911.1 harvester can handle larger wood. Volume processing is the key to profitability with the cut-to-length equipment, said Chip.

        The wood is sorted at the landing according to destination. “We set out log trailers and separate by log trailers,” said Chip. The contract hauler supplies and moves the trailers. Chip is happy not to be involved in trucking. “I want to sleep,” he said.

        F.G. O’Neal Jr. Co. supplies three types of log products to its mill customers: chip and saw, fence post, and pulpwood. The chip and saw logs go to Collum Sawmill. Fence post logs are sold to a number of different mills. The pulp logs are sold to International Paper in Eastover, S.C. or Weyerhaeuser in Oliver, Ga.

        Mills that buy the fence post logs are enthusiastic about the results of the Valmet 911.1 harvester, according to Chip. “They love our product because the machines are so accurate,” he said.

        The Valmet harvester measuring system is accurate within 1 inch 98% of the time in bucking to length, according to Chip, while diameter measurements are accurate within ¼-inch to 1/8-inch 98 percent of the time.

        The financial aspects of running a business are more than a passing interest to Chip, who regularly assesses and reassesses his company’s financial performance. His appraisal centers on taking a realistic view to making a profit.

        “In 1995, I was moving 100 loads a week,” said Chip. “We move 40 loads a week now. But the name of the game is not how much money moves through your hands, but how much you keep.”

        A native of Fairfax, S.C., Chip is a member of the South Carolina Timber Producers Association. Fairfax is ten miles west of Hampton, where F.G. O’Neal Jr. Co. is based.

        F.G. O’Neal Jr. Co. normally works on jobs within a 70-80 mile radius of Hampton, a  region that usually experiences mild weather. “The only thing we have to worry about is hurricanes,” said Chip. “Weather is a factor less than one percent of the time.”

        Chip’s company follows best management practices and practices established under the Strategic Forestry Initiative (SFI) of the American Forest & Paper Association. He believes that cut-to-length logging and the Valmet machines help advance the goals of the SFI as well as the objectives of best management practices.

        The results from his cut-to-length operations get noticed. “Every landowner I’ve cut wood for so far has liked it,” said Chip. “It looks so pleasing to the eye.”

        When he runs the harvester, Chip leaves the tops on the ground. They provide a natural ground cushion as the machines maneuver through the woods. The tops, broken under the machines, eventually decay and contribute to the enrichment of the topsoil.

        When Chip purchased his Valmet 911.1 harvester and Valmet 860 forwarder, he got each machine equipped with 14 halogen lights. He anticipates he might want to gear up to do more work at night. “As soon as I find more operators, I’m going to run 24 hours a day, six days a week,” he said.

        Although cut-to-length is fairly new to his region, Chip is convinced it is a good fit. It requires the machinery operator to tap into computer, mechanical and forestry skills.

        The results and impact to his business have been worth the investment of time, energy and money, said Chip. “I welcome anyone that wants to come out and talk with me about it,” he added.

        The Valmet 911.1 harvester comes standard with full circle slewing and self-leveling. Komatsu Forest offers a number of optional features on the machines. For example, the owner can choose a harvester head to match the type and size of wood that he will be working in and the production speed he wants to achieve.

        Chip does not have much leisure time, but he enjoys fishing when he has some free time.

        He enjoys every aspect of his business. He gets satisfaction from harvesting the trees at each job and also enjoys the solitude of working in the woods. And Chip knows he is part of a vital industry. “I just take pride” in the results, he said.


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