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Mississippi Logger Goes to Cut-to-Length
Jimmy Elkins Logging makes transition to C-T-L with Valmet 921 Harvester and Valmet 890 Forwarder.
By Jack Petree
Date Posted: 2/22/2002
HICKORY, Mississippi – Through his 30-plus year career in the woods, Jimmy Elkins has seen the end of an old forest products industry and the creation of a new one.
When Jimmy began logging with his father in 1969, the two men used chain saws, skidders, crawlers, and large doses of back-breaking labor to make their living.
Today, working with his own son, Jimmy ‘Boo’ Elkins Jr., Jimmy harvests the forests of south-central Mississippi using the most modern technology available from Partek - a Valmet 921 cut-to-length harvester coupled with a Valmet 890 forwarder.
According to Jimmy, the change has benefitted his business tremendously. The modern technology incorporated in the Valmet machines has made a physically tough job easier, and it has allowed him to harvest material he could not have before under conditions that, in the past, would have shut him down. In addition, it has made it possible to operate his business more efficiently at a time when profitability is a challenge throughout the industry.
At the same time, some things have not changed, Jimmy noted. Today, perhaps more than ever before, successful logging depends on people, too. Jim has counted on Partek for top of the line equipment, but he has also depended on people associated with the supplier for advice, assistance in integrating the equipment into his company’s operations, and support.
"Without the help of people like René van der Merwe, or Charlie Morgan of International Paper, or George and Charlie Donald of Charles Donald Timber Co., none of this would have come together," said Jimmy. "No story of my company would be complete without recognizing how important the people who have helped me along the way have been to making all this work." Charles Donald Timber Co. is a major forest products company that does business throughout Mississippi and parts of Louisiana, and René is a dealer-rep for Modern Machinery, an equipment dealer in Washington.
Jimmy Elkins Logging Inc. is based in Hickory in the heart of Mississippi’s mixed pine and hardwood forest region. Jimmy contracts for a wide variety of landowners, large and small. Most of his jobs are within a 150-mile radius. In the past the company has performed mainly clear-cuts or select harvests. The work is changing, however, as owners of plantation pines and other landowners that require thinning discover the capabilities of cut-to-length equipment.
Jimmy worked with his father for nearly 20 years until his father’s death in 1984. ‘Boo,’ 33, "has been working with me in some way or another almost since the day he was born," he said.
While Jimmy’s experience has been oriented to conventional harvesting, he has been tracking advances in the industry for some time, analyzing them for applicability to his own business. Three major factors led him to finally step out and make the move into cut-to-length logging. One was the difficulty of finding and retaining good help — and the high cost of labor. Another was the tough physical demands of logging. The third factor was his interest in doing a better job of harvesting a wider range of forest lands under varying conditions. All three factors played a part in Jimmy’s decision to seriously investigate the new technology.
Cut-to-length logging has taken the industry back to its roots in the South, Jimmy observed. When he first came into the trade, he noted, most logging involved cutting to length in some way. "In the 1970s everyone moved away from that and into tree length logging because of the labor problems," he continued. "It became difficult to find and keep good help, and it was tremendously expensive, so we began to take trees out of the woods in whole lengths." Today, he added, labor is once again a tremendous problem for logging contractors. It is a challenge to find and keep good employees, and labor and its related expenses are a considerable cost to a logging business.
With the Valmet 921 harvester and a 890 forwarder, Jimmy solved a lot of the labor challenges. With the two machines, he and his son can do the same amount of work as a crew of five or six men equipped with conventional equipment. At the same time, the cut-to-length logging has been more productive for him in terms of merchandising the fiber for enhanced value.
The difference in the physical demands on the men in cut-to-length versus conventional logging is like night and day, Jimmy said. Conventional logging is more strenuous and tiring; it grinds away at the body over time, he noted. "You come home so tired every night that all you can think about is cleaning up, getting something to eat, and falling into bed so you can get up early the next morning and do it all again," said Jimmy. "It’s totally different after a day on the harvester or the forwarder. It’s work alright. Don’t mistake that. But you come home in a totally different mood because you aren’t all beat up. When I get off the machine at the end of the day, I’m as happy as I can be compared to the way it used to be."
The Valmet machines have brought other tangible benefits to Jimmy’s business. Some of the benefits are the result of the equipment being designed to be ‘environmentally friendly.’ Features of the machines that are good for the environment are good for Jimmy’s business as well. "These things are so gentle on the land compared to the old equipment we used to run," he said. "As you move forward with the harvest, you’re not only taking logs out. You’re laying down a mat of limbs and small stuff to travel over. That means you’re not getting the ground compaction you use to get, and you aren’t leaving the woods full of skidder trails and mud puddles."
That kind of machine performance benefits the environment because it reduces detrimental impacts to the forest floor, but it also benefits Jimmy’s business. Since logs are not skidded through the dirt and mud, they are clean. The clean wood is highly desirable to sawmills, particularly those that may not have debarking equipment, because the lack of debris reduces wear and tear on the saws and blades. The ability to supply clean wood to mills has led to Jimmy getting referrals for additional business, he said, and he believes it is an important factor in winning contracts.
Environmental sensitivity goes beyond the impact on the land, according to Jimmy. The Valmet 921 harvester is accurate. It can make cuts to close tolerances, which allows Jimmy to deliver shorter wood to the mills than a conventional logger. No matter how good a saw hand is, Jimmy explained, it is difficult to cut a log straight and true to length. In fact, it is standard practice to add 6 inches to the length of a log when preparing it for transport to a mill. Because of the accuracy of his Valmet equipment, Jimmy convinced his sawmill customers to accept logs cut only 2 or 3 inches longer.
The difference may seem small, but the ramifications for logger and mill are greater. For the sawmill, shorter wood means it produces less waste, and wear and tear on machinery is reduced. For the timber harvester and the landowner, the extra few inches can mean an occasional extra grade log out of a stem that might have otherwise gone to pulp. The extra log requires no additional effort; it is gained simply because of the accuracy of the Valmet equipment. The result is additional revenue from a log that cost nothing to produce. "When you figure that out over a year, it can be a big deal," Jimmy noted.
The Valmet cut-to-length equipment also is able to harvest timber on land and under conditions where conventional loggers cannot work. That gives Jimmy an additional leg up to bid on jobs where other loggers cannot compete. He has access to a broader base of timber. Even in areas where conventional logging machinery can be used, Jimmy has found his equipment has been preferred because it reduces impacts on the land. "This thing makes so much difference that people will drive out just to look at the job," he said.
The Valmet cut-to-length machines give Jimmy another advantage over conventional logging equipment. During certain months of the year in Mississippi, wet weather can make the woods all but impassible for conventional loggers. "We used to be shut down for weeks or even for months," said Jimmy. "That is all changing with the new equipment. We can be out in the woods almost every day of the year, and that means we’re being productive in conditions we couldn’t have worked in before. It makes a big difference when you can work every day of the year that you want to."
When you consider all the advantages and benefits to his company from the Valmet machines, the equipment represents a very significant advance for his business. "This thing will pay for itself at eight loads per day," said Jimmy. "I’m still learning, so I think that in the right timber, after I’m able to fully utilize the advantages of the machine, I can do 12 to 15 loads per day. Right now I can do 10, and that is every day I’m in the woods. I could do that with a
crew before, but we couldn’t be in the woods every day. When you took away the days we missed, we were probably looking at 30 loads per week on average before we got this machinery."
While enthusiastic about his new machinery, Jimmy strongly emphasized the vital part that people also have played in contributing to his company’s success. "René Van der Merwe is a legend in the business," he said. "I think she knows more about the business of cut-to-length logging than anyone in North America. It’s impossible to overestimate the importance of the help she gave me in figuring out how cut-to-length logging could work for me in Mississippi."
Partek also was a tremendous help, he said. "They went out of their way to help me get the machines and then get them down here and operating," he said. "It takes some real commitment on the part of the machinery supplier to work with someone like me in learning how the machines operate, how they can be used to do certain things, and then follow up with prompt answers to questions and solutions to problems. Partek has stood by us all the way through all that. Their concern for my operation has meant a lot to me."
Mikael Frimodig of Sweden has been an invaluable asset as operator-trainer and "fix-the-problem guy," Jimmy added. "Without him, we’d still be standing still. The life of any machine is keeping it clean and maintained, and my son, ‘Boo,’ is top-notch in that capacity besides all the other jobs he takes care of. My wife Jeanette, my main support and strength, takes care of the bookkeeping. Without her, I’d be in a mess."
Some of Jimmy’s most emphatic praise was reserved for George Donald and the Charles Donald Timber Company. The company operates a number of wood yards that buy long and short pulpwood and saw logs from logging contractors. It has several registered foresters on staff to manage its own lands and assist other forest landowners with management and selling decisions. Each year the company produces more than 1.6 million tons of pulpwood and tens of millions of board feet of saw logs.
According to Jimmy, the Charles Donald Timber Co. of Port Gibson, Miss., is known throughout the South as being a major company with an environmental bent -- and for doing business honestly and openly. "These guys really went to bat for me," he said. Another major company had made a verbal commitment for timber that allowed Jimmy to go ahead with his plan to purchase cut-to-length equipment. Then managerial changes within that company forced Jimmy to re-group and re-think. "I was pretty worried about how this could work," he recalled.
When the Charles Donald Timber Co. learned about the potential problem, it went to work to find a solution. The company wants to see cut-to-length logging succeed in the South because it is dedicated to environmentally sensitive management of its properties, Jimmy explained. It has gone so far as to become a Partek dealer. "They really supported me. When they discovered the problem, they went to work to get me the timber I needed to make it," Jimmy continued. "It really means a lot when you’ve got those kind of people on your side, but that’s nothing new for them. I’ve known the Donalds for years, and they’ve always been special
A harvester-forwarder combination represents a substantial investment for a contractor like Jimmy Elkins. But there is a premium in the forest products industry today to harvest timber efficiently and in an environmentally sensitive way.
In less than a year, Jimmy has seen that cut-to-length logging has the potential to allow a company like his to excel at timber harvesting and improve profitability in challenging times. When you combine the benefits of his Valmet machines with the help of good friends, Jimmy said, "This business can be a lot of fun."
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