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Bay State Logger Stays Small, but Works Steady: J.D. McKinney Logging Makes Transition to Cut-To-Length
Logger has worked in logging all his life with no family connection to the industry and previously only cutting timber for firewood for home heating At 18 he went to work for a local logger who taught him the ropes and howto log.”
Date Posted: 9/4/2018
WARREN, Massachusetts — You might not think of central Massachusetts as a hot spot for logging, but Justin McKinney has been able to earn a satisfactory living harvesting timber in the region.
Justin, who has deliberately kept his business small through the years, has only purchased new machines in the past 18 months or so as he transitioned into cut-to-length logging: a TimberPro track harvester and a Log Max cut-to-length harvester attachment, and a TimberPro forwarder.
Justin grew up and still lives in Warren, Mass., which is about midway between Springfield and Worcester along Interstate 90 in south-central Massachusetts. When he was 12, a neighboring dairy farm sold some timber, and Justin spent some time watching the logging crew at work. It made an impression. “I just thought it was the greatest thing ever,” recalled Justin, whose attention was drawn to the logging equipment.
Justin, 39, has worked in logging all his life. “It’s the only thing I’ve ever done,” he said. He had no family connection to the industry. His father was a dairy farmer who eventually exited the dairy business and became a truck driver. The only familiarity Justin had with logging was helping his father cut timber for firewood to heat their home each winter.
When he turned 18 he went to work for a local logger, Christopher Bradway, and they have continued to have a relationship. He’s a great guy,” said Justin. “Taught me the ropes. Taught me how to log.”
Justin was working for him when Chris suffered a bad accident while working in the woods. Chris was felling a tree with a chainsaw when a dead branch fell on him. Justin’s quick response to the accident helped save his life. Chris was carried out of the woods on a stretcher and evacuated by helicopter to a hospital. He recovered, but later turned to the construction industry for work as an equipment operator. Chris and Justin still work together. When the construction company is not able to work in the winter and Chris is idle, he goes to work for Justin.
Justin worked for Chris for three years and then did stints with a couple of other logging contractors, learning how to operate their equipment.
Justin launched his business, J.D. McKinney Logging, 13 years ago. He did the felling by hand and bought an old cable skidder at a junk yard. The timing wasn’t great. It was about a month before Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Log markets took a nosedive while prices for diesel fuel skyrocketed. “Everyone told me it was the worst possible time to go out on my own, but I had nowhere to go but up,” said Justin, and he has enjoyed slow but steady growth since then.
Justin buys 99 percent of his stumpage from private landowners. He harvests the timber, merchandises the logs, and sells the wood on the open market. “I think in 13 years in business, I’ve only done three contract jobs for mills,” he said.
He usually is able to work close to home, within 15-20 miles. “I’ve built up a nice little word-of-mouth niche,” said Justin, who does no advertising and does not even have any company signage or lettering on his truck or equipment. Most of his business comes from referrals from landowners whose timber he purchased and harvested. And he usually has about a year’s worth of jobs lined up in front of him.
The terrain in south-central Massachusetts is generally hilly but “nothing too radical,” said Justin. However, the landscape is very rocky.
He cuts about 80 percent hardwoods, 20 percent softwoods. Of those hardwoods, about 80 percent is oak — red oak, white oak, and black oak. About 70 percent of his production is saw logs, and 30 percent low-grade logs for pulp or firewood. On an annual basis, he sells about 1.5 million board feet of logs, 2,000 cords of tree-length hardwood firewood logs, and 500-1,000 cords of softwood pulp. His markets for saw logs are Canadian sawmills, some sawmills in Maine, and log brokers in New York state.
Justin added a loader over the years, but he switched to mechanized felling only about seven years ago, buying a used TimberPro 620E wheeled harvester with a feller buncher head. He did all the work by himself for five or six years. He would run the TimberPro and fell the trees, get on the ground with a chainsaw and remove all the limbs and top them and buck them, skid them to the landing, then stack and load them.
“When I started, I never realized I was starting a business,” said Justin. “I just wanted to work for myself. It’s great when you’re small and young.” Chris would help him in the winter months. As the business grew and he added equipment, “It finally got to the point where I needed some help.” When he hired someone to work for him, Justin ran the TimberPro and his employee processed the logs with a chainsaw, and Justin continued to do the skidding and loading.
Justin’s first foray into cut-to-length logging was September of last year, when he bought a Log Max harvesting attachment from Anderson Equipment in Lancaster, New Hampshire, and had it mounted on his TimberPro. It was a used attachment the dealer had repossessed. “I got my feet wet with cut-to-length and really saw that was the direction I wanted to go in,” said Justin. He was familiar with cut-to-length logging equipment and methods over the years. “It took me that long to get there,” he said.
Justin had laid the groundwork by investing in a forwarder earlier in 2017. He bought a TimberPro 830C 8-wheel forwarder from C.J. Logging Equipment in Boonville, New York. “A harvester was the next logical step,” said Justin.
When he weighed his options for a harvester attachment, Justin whittled down the possibilities to Log Max and one other manufacturer. He watched a few demonstrations of Log Max and was impressed. Just as importantly, or more, he was impressed by Josh Fallon, the Log Max representative.
“He’s very sharp,” said Justin. “He can talk you through anything. He knows the machine and the systems inside and out.” That kind of support was important for Justin since he had no prior experience with a cut-to-length harvester attachment.
“Log Max itself is a great product,” said Justin. “Josh is what makes it even better.” Josh provided him with initial training and start-up and has continued to provide technical assistance.
There was a learning curve, as with any new machine, acknowledged Justin. “There were some challenges at times.”
Earlier this year Justin had an opportunity to sell his old TimberPro 620E to another contractor along with his skidder. When that opportunity arose, he decided to upgrade to a new harvester. He was able to buy a TimberPro TL735C, from a dealer in North Carolina, in virtually new condition with only 100 hours on the machine. He paired it with a new Log Max 7000XT-FH fixed head harvester acquired from Anderson Equipment.
“I love it,” said Justin, referring to the TimberPro. “It’s a great machine. I never had a track machine before, so I had to get used to that. Maneuverability is great, stability is great...Overall, the machine has been impressive.”
Justin selected the 7000XT-FH because he wanted a fixed head harvester that could pick up the trees and place them where he wanted. “It works well and it’s very easy to maintain,” said Justin, who has been operating the new TimberPro and Log Max since the beginning of June.
The Log Max 7000XT-FH has a maximum cut of 28 inches. Justin uses the harvester to cut and process trees that are about 20-22 inches even though the TimberPro and Log Max can handle bigger timber.
Log Max is a Swedish company that has been manufacturing forestry equipment since 1980. The company’s main product line is a range of cut-to-length grapple harvesters, also called single grip harvesters. Its North American operations are based in Vancouver, Washington.
Log Max manufactures more than 400 harvesters annually. The company’s biggest markets are North America, South America, and Russia. Log Max harvesters are working in more than 30 countries.
Log Max manufactures a range of harvester attachments for various forestry applications. The harvesters are dangle head attachments except for the 7000XT-FH fixed head model. The fixed mount configuration utilizes the design and durability of the 7000XT series and also gives the operator the ability to control felling and bunching.
The Log Max 7000XT-FH allows the operator to control fall, bunch, and process timber up to 28 inches in diameter with a maximum cutting capacity of 31.5 inches.
(For more information about Log Max and its product line, visit www.logmax.com, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call (360) 699-7300.)
The TimberPro “handles the head very well,” said Justin. The new track harvester has more power and operates more smoothly as it performs multi-functions, whether it’s running the Log Max harvester or maneuvering the tracks or boom. “It has independent hydraulic pumps for everything,” noted Justin.
The TimberPro is a self-leveling machine, and Justin uses the feature frequently. “When you can level the machine, it’s easier to process the trees with the head,” he noted. “The trees go through better.”
The new TimberPro features an upgraded leveling system, too. The old system featured four buttons to manipulate. The new system features a gyroscope, and one button levels the machine in all four directions. “Which is very handy,” added Justin.
Justin learned about Canadian saw log markets while working for other loggers over the years and also became familiar with them from their ads in trade magazines. Now that he’s been established, “They come to me,” said Justin.
Business has been good up until the last year or two. This spring, however, “They pulled the rug out from under us,” said Justin, over the tariffs imposed by President Donald Trump and the ensuing trade wars, particularly with China.
Prices for red oak saw logs have dropped three times since May 1, who was notified of another price drop the day he was interviewed for this article. He is getting $750 less per load of red oak saw logs compared to just three months ago. “It’s kind of scary,” said Justin.
“The last three or four years, the log market has been driven by China buying hardwood logs,” noted Justin. After Trump imposed tariffs on China goods, China retaliated by, among other things, cutting back on log imports. The Canadian domestic market has been flooded with red oak logs that would have been exported to China.
Tree-length firewood logs are sold mainly to firewood businesses in Massachusetts as well as individual homeowners. Justin’s customers include about four or five companies that have firewood processing machines.
He has one market in Connecticut that buys roundwood pulp and hauls it. “Prices aren’t fantastic,” said Justin, who used to send some pulp to New York.
The Canadian mills provide the trailers and hire contract drivers to haul their logs. The brokers from New York have their own trucks. All Justin’s jobs are accessible for log trailers, and he loads them. For some of his firewood log production, he hires a local trucker to make deliveries.
Justin’s employee is a nephew, Brandon Frazier, 26. “He started coming around,” said Justin, and wanted to work with him. Brandon, who goes by the nickname ‘The Squirrel,’ worked part-time with Justin on his days off and on weekends for almost a year. “I wanted to make sure he really wanted to do it,” said Justin.
Brandon has been working with him now full-time for more than two years. Justin prefers to have Brandon fell and process big timber by hand with a chainsaw to save wear and tear on the equipment. Brandon also operates the forwarder.
“They say young people don’t want to work. He’s always the first one there in the morning, and he never misses a day,” said Justin.
Chris operates the forwarder during the winter and also builds access roads and landings. “He’s been instrumental in helping me the whole time I’ve been in business,” said Justin. “No one has helped me more than him.”
The cab and boom of the TimberPro forwarder swing together so it can pick up and handle logs in front of the machine — the only forwarder on the market with the capability. It is equipped with bogie tracks that Justin uses generally year-round. “It’s more sure-footed,” observed Justin. “I just like it.” Justin uses the harvester to collect the logging slash — tops and limbs — and sets it down to create a mat trail for the forwarder to follow.
At the time he was interviewed for this article, Justin was working on a 45-acre sale near his home. He purchased the timber two years ago.
His average job is 40-50 acres, although he has worked on jobs as large as 200 and as small as 10. Most of the harvests are select cut. Justin works with an independent forester. After contacting a landowner, he obtains permission for the forester to cruise the property and make an inventory of the timber. If the landowner agrees to a sale, the forester writes a prescription for the harvest, marks stream boundaries and crossings, and obtains the necessary permits for Justin.
Justin described himself as a “workaholic.” He usually works 50 hours a week, including a half-day on Saturday. During the winter he may work seven days a week. He has no hobbies. “There isn’t much spare time,” he said.
Justin enjoys a reputation for doing good work. As one forester told him, “I do what I say I’m going to do. Hard work and honesty. That’s all it is.”
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