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Louisiana Contractors Busy Clearing Land

Company Grinds Stumps, Other Debris, and Vail Stump Shear Boosts Production

By April Terreri
Date Posted: 4/1/2007

PRAIRIEVILLE, Louisiana — When Charlie Hughes, 52, got involved with the big clean-up effort in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina’s wicked devastation, he discovered that a new piece of equipment paid big dividends to his company’s bottom line.

        Charlie and Ronnie Ocmand own Performance Equipment, LLC, a land-clearing contract services company. They operate a few sites dedicated to grinding stumps and other land-clearing debris, so Charlie decided to purchase his first Vail stump shear.

        “As people cleaned up the area, they would haul it over to our sites, and we would unload the tree trunks, grind them up into chips,” said Charlie. “We did that for six months and had two grinders operating.”

Shear Boosts Grinding

        Charlie has used the Vail shear for about a year now. “It is great! I would never not have one again. My production is way up using the shear, and it saves a whole lot of abuse on my grinder, which is a very expensive machine.

        His Vail model 4050 stump shear attaches to excavators in the 40,000-pound to 55,000-pound range.

        Before buying the Vail equipment, Charlie knew practically nothing about shears. He sought advice from Garth Cook, a representative of Peterson-Pacific, which supplied his grinder.

        “I have a good relationship with Garth and Peterson-Pacific,” said Charlie, “and they recommended the Vail shear. I went by their recommendation, and I am glad I did.”

        “It’s a great shear,” he added, “and Vail is good to work with. They stand behind their shear 1,000 percent. In fact, they called me several times after I purchased the shear to ask me if I had any problems or if they could help in any way. They have been fantastic.”

        Before he invested in the Vail shear, grinding big stumps was a challenge. “Everyone who has a grinder really does need a shear because it saves so much wear and tear on your grinder,” Charlie said. “Instead of putting a huge chunk of wood into my grinder, the shear will bust the trunk into several pieces so my grinder can handle them better. Before, I would put a big stump into my grinder and then I would have to watch over it and help it along. It might have taken my grinder about three or four minutes or more of fighting and struggling, trying to work with huge hunks of solid wood. Now the shear busts the stump up, and it takes my grinder just a matter of seconds to grind it up.”

        When clearing land, the trees Charlie removes average about 30 inches in diameter. “So I have to work with a pretty good-sized stump ball. And the shear is really good for getting all the dirt out of the bottom of the stump ball, which is very important for two reasons. First, if dirt remains, the stumps will not burn. Also getting rid of the dirt is important if you are sending chips to a paper mill. They don’t want dirt in the chips they buy from you.”

        The Vail shear is easy to install or remove from an excavator; it takes about 45 minutes to attach or detach. “My excavator has hydraulic lines that run a hydraulic piston, and the bucket cylinder on the excavator activates part of the shear,” Charlie explained. “The knife blade part of the shear is actuated by an extra hydraulic piston that comes on the shear.”

        Maintenance is easy; the shear has a few pivot points that need to be greased regularly. “You have to keep it greased,” noted Charlie, “and because you have to grease your excavator every day anyway, while you are doing that you can grease your shear as well.”

Fast Work Required

        Charlie works for all the major contractors in the region. “Say someone will get a contract to put in a subdivision or a retail store, or they might have to widen an interstate highway,” he explained. “I work on these kinds of projects, and I have a great network of people and companies to work with. We have lots of repeat business. When we do a job for someone, they almost always call us back again. So we don’t ever have to advertise.”

        As the owner of his company, Charlie is always the first one on the site of a new job. “We bid a job and sometimes we don’t hear anything for about a year or two, and then when we do hear from them, they want the job done yesterday,” he said. “We are always under the gun, and we have to get our work done quickly so everyone else can get in there behind us. Everyone else is dependent on us to get on the site. Whoever is developing the project has…millions of dollars at the bank they are paying interest on, and we would hold up the whole deal if we didn’t work quickly.”

        Because time is of the essence, Charlie stays focused on clearing the land, not timber harvesting. “I have a few local loggers that work with me, and if there is good saw timber on the job or good pulpwood, they come in when I begin a job,” he explained. “I knock down the trees with the excavator, stump root ball and all, because that’s the easiest way.”

        The loggers process the good stems, removing the branches and bucking off the stumps and tops, and haul away the logs. Charlie’s crew takes care of the logging debris – the limbs, stumps and tops. “We clean up any debris because the site has to be clean when I leave,” Charlie said.

        “Some places down here allow burning, which is the cheapest way out for my customers,” Charlie noted. “We do a controlled burn where we build a small fire and we slowly add material to it. We use the excavators in building the fire. If we need to let the fire go out, we just quit feeding it, and within two or three hours it will go out.”

        In areas that do not allow burning, Charlie uses the Peterson-Pacific machine to grind everything the loggers do not take away. “I grind that material into chips and haul the chips off in one of my trucks.”

        Charlie has five Caterpillar 320 excavators and two Caterpillar D6N LGP track dozers. “These are the biggest machines I can use down here because otherwise I will sink out of sight,” Charlie chuckled. The terrain usually is quite flat and may be swampy. The company also is equipped with wheel loaders for moving material on job sites.

        The Peterson-Pacific machine is a model 6700 B grinder. The chips usually are sold to paper mills or for material to cover landfills.

        The last phase of work on a job involves leveling off the site. “We make sure there are no stump holes, and we rake the ground to make sure we get rid of at least 95 percent of the debris,” explained Charlie. “Then we make sure the land will drain properly. There is usually a crew right behind us, pushing us so they can come in and do the site work. They need to put in roads and build pads in order to be able to pour concrete so they can get on with their work.”

        Most job sites are 20-50 acres, but Charlie also contracts for jobs as small as five acres and as large as 100 acres. “That is a tremendous amount of chips we are talking about,” Charlie said. “Some of the trees down here are huge.” Some oaks grow to three to four feet in diameter, he said. “This is where the Vail shear really helps me out a lot.”

        The most common species Charlie works with are red oak, white oak, gum, pine, and hackberry.

        Pushing trees down with an excavator requires a certain amount of precision, according to Charlie. “You have to dig around the base of the tree, and you have to break off the roots and get down deep enough so the tree will push over. The stump shear is narrow, so you are digging a narrow trench around the tree. With some trees, you might have to go three feet deep so it will push over. If you don’t go deep enough, when you go to push on the tree, you will bust it off and destroy the log, and you will still have to dig out the stump. So the shear is a real time saver.”

Wet Conditions

        Charlie is very dedicated to his business and its work. It is not unusual to find him working on weekends to ensure that the company meets its deadlines.

        Before working as a land-clearing contractor, Charlie was employed in construction as an industrial mechanic. He and Ronnie teamed about five years ago to start Performance Equipment.

        “Ronnie was in this business already, and he had a couple of yards where he would receive trees, brush, and wood debris that he would dispose of,” said Charlie. “For example, tree service companies would bring their debris to Ronnie’s sites. He also had a contract with the city, and they would do the same thing.”

        Then Ronnie expanded his business, contracting to perform land-clearing services. “We are personal friends, and I would work for him when he needed help and when I wasn’t working for the union,” Charlie reported. “I would go work ‘turnarounds’ for four or five months of the year, and I really liked the work. So I bought an excavator, then another one, and one thing led to another.”

        Charlie and his crew work within a radius of about 100 miles. “Most of our guys have campers, and we move into a camping spot to stay during the duration of the job. Sometimes we just stay in hotels or motels.”

        Depending on the amount of work involved in any given job, Charlie has a crew of between five and 10 men who operate equipment. “I have my office in my house. Because we stay so busy all the time, our equipment moves from job to job. Our weather down here is not bad, so we stay busy throughout the year. We have a yard where we keep our equipment when we are not using it, but that is almost unheard of as we are constantly moving from contract to contract.”

        The company owns two trucks for hauling operations. “It’s really a matter of time,” said Charlie. “I am more in control in being able to move material anytime I want even though it’s a lot more expensive than hiring contract truckers. Sometimes I will have two or three jobs going on at the same time. I usually need to move material from one job to another, and I need to do that immediately. But sometimes trucking companies can’t do the job until a day or two after I call them. Many times I work on weekends, when it’s hard to find someone to do the trucking I need.”

        At the time Charlie talked to TimberLine, the region had been subjected to almost two months of rain. He was not deterred. “We are still working.” In wet ground conditions, Charlie’s experience comes in handy. “In these cases, we cut in ditches to drain the excess water. If we find we are beginning to rip up the ground, we will let it dry out for a few days. We always try not to make a big mess because if you don’t make a mess, you don’t have to fix that mess. If you spend a day doing something you have to do, but it takes you three days to fix it afterwards, it’s not worth doing right away, and you’re better off waiting for the ground to dry. Every job is different, and you have to use your experience to make it work most efficiently and cost effectively for you and your customers.”

     Charlie attributed the success of Performance Equipment to a simple, old-fashioned reality. “We really do a very professional job for our customers in a timely manner and at a competitive price.”


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