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Calif. Contractor Serves Orchard Industry

Morbark Model 6600 Wood Hog Horizontal Grinder a Good Match for Growing Business

By IRI Staff
Date Posted: 10/1/2006

DURHAM, California — Although it is hard to tell it at first glance, many rural areas of north-central California — those areas traditionally covered with full, lush orchards — are disappearing. The reason is the economics of agriculture and real estate development. Land that once was valuable for the crops it would yield now is worth more for development.

      Clearing orchards is not what Randy McLaughlin set out to do when he established Old Durham Wood Inc., but it is a niche that he has established for himself and one that has served him well for more than 16 years. In that time he has seen the need for increased productivity. Thanks to continually upgrading his grinding equipment, he has met that challenge and continues to grow.

Started in Firewood

      Despite his success, Randy did not start out as a grinding business; initially he launched a firewood business.

      “We began clearing and harvesting trees for firewood for sale locally as well as for some in-state shipment,” he recalled. “In fact, we still do a fair amount of that kind of work. That, of course, generated a good deal of wood debris, so we purchased a Morbark 60-36 whole tree chipper which served us very well. However, during the course of that work, I began to realize what a problem roots were to process and knew we needed a tub grinder. We purchased a Model 1200 — again from Morbark — and later traded that in for a newer, more powerful Model 1300, which we still operate today.”

Growth in Grinding

      The grinding service grew rapidly, eventually becoming the primary thrust of his business. During this time, Old Durham relied exclusively on its chipper and tub grinder to handle all its wood waste processing. The wood grindings were supplied to two co-generation plants. However, a change in economics coupled with steady growth in the area eventually changed the direction of Old Durham.

      “We had already begun to establish ourselves as a good resource for orchard clearing,” said Randy. “Orchards are continually in need of thinning, clear-cutting for crop rotation or disease elimination, and so on, so our business really grew in that area. However, we’ve really seen things take off in the last few years. A number of economic factors — rising taxes and insurance rates, a change in import/export quotas, for example — have had us clearing huge tracts of orchards at levels we never would have imagined as little as five years ago.”

      Clearing orchards for commercial growth has exploded even more recently as the move to develop once seemingly-untouchable rural areas progresses. “We’ve recently been involved in some really huge clearings for one of the country’s largest home builders. And many of those clearing projects are in areas in which the risk of debris exiting a tub grinder became a bit of a concern for us. We thought we should look into a horizontal hog-type grinder and called the local Morbark sales representative.”

      Randy’s needs were simple. He wanted a powerful grinder that could handle a wide range of material, particularly some of the troublesome trees they encountered. He also wanted a machine that was mobile and fairly light-weight.

      “Many of these sites can become extremely soft,” he said, “particularly in late winter, early spring — our rainy season. A heavy grinder, while capable of doing the job for us, would be constantly getting mired in mud. Given our tight schedules and tighter profit margins, we simply couldn’t afford to have that happen.”

Morbark 6600 Wood Hog

      Morbark’s sales rep met with Randy to discuss his options, most notably the company’s Model 5600 and 7600 wood hogs. Randy feared he would have some trouble getting the more difficult material through the 5600, yet he knew the 7600 ‘Boss Hog’ was far too heavy for his needs.

      “At that time, the rep said Morbark was introducing a Model 6600, which he thought would be perfect for us. He felt it could deliver the power we needed yet it weighed about 9,000 pounds less than the 7600. I respected his knowledge of machinery, and he understood my needs, so if he felt the 6600 would be right for us, that was good enough for me.”

      The Model 6600 is one of Morbark’s latest additions to its line of wood hog horizontal grinders. Powered by a 1,000 hp Cat engine, it features a 66x50 feed opening and a 40-inch wide stacking conveyor with the capability for discharging material as high as 18 feet, 6 inches.

      “That discharge conveyor is an important feature to us,” said Randy. “Our operation centers around grinding and loading material directly into large, high-side trucks for shipment to the co-gen plants, and the Model 6600 fits into that scheme well. Each truck, when full, can weigh as much as 24 tons, depending on the moisture content of the material we are grinding.  The manner in which they are loaded can be critical, and Morbark helped us in that regard as well. They saw that adding a simple metal deflection plate at the top of the discharge conveyor made the load spread out smoothly and evenly. The material just seems to spread itself out in the truck, making loads fairly uniform.”

      To put the productivity of the Model 6600 into perspective, Randy offered a comparison. “When we first started out in this business, we really felt we had an extremely productive day if we got seven or eight truck-loads. Today we get a minimum of 12-13 truck-loads a day. It’s just a whole new ball game.”

Clearing an Orchard

      Clearing an orchard is not a scientific process, Randy admitted. But it does take a fair amount of planning and execution, and getting the trees down is truly just the start of the process.

      “We use one of two techniques for removing trees from an orchard,” Randy explained. “In some cases, we bulldoze the area, a technique that, while it is good for large blocks of trees, tends to break off and leave behind some of the root. The other way is to use an excavator to claw around the tree, expose the root ball, grab it, and, using the excavator, shake a lot of the dirt off. That makes the material better for use by the co-gen plant and also reduces wear on our grinder.”

      All processing is done directly on-site. Smaller trees, like peach trees and prune trees, are simply pushed over and then fed to the 6600. “With larger trees, like almonds, we use a Morbark Wolverine cutter, saw them off at the ground, and then run the top through the chipper. That works out well since the co-gen plant that’s closest to here demands a cleaner chip for their process. We will then come back with an excavator, get the rest of the tree from in the ground, run it through the grinder and send that material to the other plant. It’s not uncommon for us to get into a seven- or eight-acre orchard at 7:30 in the morning and leave behind a clean site by late that evening. That’s due in large part to the performance of the equipment we use. ”

More Work, More Machines

      The volume of work taken on by Old Durham Wood has progressed to such a degree that Randy invested in two more Morbark 6600 wood hogs to keep pace with the added business.

      Because the way in which material is fed to the grinder is critical to the overall operation, he considered a number of options.

      “Our other horizontal unit is being fed using excavators, and that method has been very effective,” said Randy. “However, a good, dependable excavator can easily cost $150,000. It’s tough to make up that kind of outlay. My initial thought was to have the unit configured as a self-loader with a boom and grapple mounted right on the machine, much like the 1300 tub grinder, but weight became an issue. We eventually settled on having a separate loading unit, which is light, easily towable and, with a rotating grapple, gives us the flexibility we need. For most jobs, we simply have loaders bring material from the areas in which they’ve been felled and piled to the loading unit, and it in turn feeds the grinder. It has really worked out well.”

Equipped for Anything

      Frankly, Randy is amazed at how busy his company is given the peaks and valleys that many other businesses go through. He attributes the steady growth to the fact that he is equipped to handle most any type of land clearing operation that comes his way.

      “That’s one reason why, even after I bought my second horizontal grinder, I never got rid of my tub grinder. It allows me to do walnut stumps and large almond stumps — which are typically very large in diameter — as well as green waste. The 6600s are great for smaller almond stumps as well as the full range of fruit trees. And, I still have the chipper in the event that I come upon a large old walnut or almond orchard and the rancher wants everything chipped. So any tree removal job that comes about, I am equipped to handle.”

      As the economy has become more global, the U.S. is exporting more of some crops and importing more of others, Randy observed. “For example, because we are importing plums from South America, growers have been saying there is an excess of 17,000 acres of plums. We’ve been working to take those out. The U.S. has also been importing peaches from Greece and South America, so last season we had a 70,000-ton excess of yellow peaches. To bring that number down, many of the orchards will be cleared and either replanted with another crop, or, as is the case near Yuba City, sold for residential development. That site alone is over 200 acres that we are clearing in increments for home site development. Simply put, there is always flux in the market, a need to improve tree spacing, to improve variety, and urbanization. It’s kept us busy for a while now, and I’ve found that if you work hard and pray hard, good things will happen. For us, thankfully, there’s no end in sight.”


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