Advantages and Limitations of Small-Scale Logging Technologies
By Jon Williams

Many woodlot owners are fascinated by the small, relatively low-cost logging equipment they see from time to time at fairs and in magazines. The idea of being able to do your own harvesting with your own equipment has a great deal of appeal and merit.

Most owners contemplating a commercial cut of some kind are faced with the problem of finding a dependable logging contractor to do the work for them. Trying to find someone who is honest, conscientious, knowledgeable, and open to the ideas of the property owner is usually an exercise in trying to pull reliable information out of the local grapevine. The results from working this way are not always successful. Many a woodlot owner has been greatly disappointed with work done by someone who seemed to have a perfectly good reputation. The size of conventional commercial logging equipment is daunting to start off with, and in the hands of the contractor’s new inexperienced skidder operator, major damage can be done in a couple of days that will take half a century to heal.

Thinning or release operations in tightly spaced stands are extremely difficult for the best operators with conventional skidders. As well, using a large expensive conventional skidder to handle small stems is not economically feasible. A scattered partial cut that yields only pulpwood and small logs will not allow load sizes that pay the cost of such a machine. This type of work requires either very low-cost logging or a specialized system that handles individual trees at a very rapid rate and goes from handling single stems to handling bundles of wood very early in the production process.

Single grip harvesters can do this work. They are large machines equipped with a boom that has a processing head on the end of it. The head grips the tree, cuts it off close to the ground and drops it to a horizontal position. Then the same processing head delimbs the stem and bucks it into small piles of wood along the extraction trail. In a matter of seconds a tree growing in the woods becomes part of a little pile of wood awaiting transport and manufacture. A forwarder equipped with a clam loader picks up the wood and carries it to roadside on trails that are normally parallel and about 40 feet apart. Damage to the residual stand is usually minimal, as is site impact. To work well, this system needs fairly even terrain and a uniform stand, such as a plantation. The capital cost of a single grip harvester and a forwarder is close to a million dollars. Thinning small plantations or isolated stands is not feasible with this kind of equipment.

This leaves the owners of small plantations or highly variable forests, which are in need of thinning, looking for some kind of low-cost logging method. The idea of doing the work yourself (or even hiring someone) with small scale equipment is immediately attractive. The risk of Armageddon in the woodlot is eliminated because the small equipment simply hasn’t got the power and weight to smash everything in sight. Small stands are operable. The cut can be designed more to fit the needs of the forest and its owner rather than the needs of the equipment. Besides, many woodlot owners want to be involved in the management of their property beyond the stage of making plans and decisions. They plant their own trees and often do at least some of their own release work and pre-commercial thinning. They yearn to do some of their own logging.

There is a wide range of equipment designed to fill this niche. Winches that fit on the three-point hitch of a farm tractor are very popular, and there is equipment that can be used to convert an ATV for logging. Both farm tractors and ATVs have one basic drawback. They are not logging machines. Continued use for pulling timber out of the woods will result in their early demise. Even tractors that are fully equipped with radiator protection, belly pans, valve stem guards, engine screens and rollover protection end up with broken hydraulic lines, snapped axles and punctured tires. ATVs suffer the same fate if they are used any more intensively than for casual weekend hobby logging.

Besides being prone to damage, farm tractors have a lot of trouble maneuvering. Even four-wheel drive tractors are likely to slide sideways just at the time when you are trying to line up the best angle to winch out a piece with the minimum of damage and the least strain on equipment. A tractor that seems compact and maneuverable out on the field turns into a slippery multi-cornered monster when you are trying to turn it around in the woods without banging into trees. Articulated vineyard tractors, such as the Holder, are much more maneuverable, but they are still farm tractors and they still end up broken. A four-wheel drive ATV is certainly maneuverable. However, some kind of arch or trailer needs to be added to the back to elevate one end of the log so that it won’t snub on roots and rocks. Now the maneuvering advantage is gone.

The most practical tool for small-scale logging is probably a good team of horses, even though they are limited to short skidding distances. They are cost effective, flexible and durable. Capital cost is low enough and portability is high enough that small jobs and harvesting small diameter wood are feasible. On the other hand, it is a pretty large log that a good team can’t move. A good horse, which is well cared for, can last as long as most skidders. The drawback is that a good team needs a good teamster. Such people are very hard to find. It is often said that the main reason that horses disappeared from the logging camps in the first place is that there were no horsemen. Being able to win the drawing match at fall fairs does not make a good teamster. Good skidding horses concentrate solely on the wishes of the person handling the reins. No matter what the situation, they need to respond instantly to a single word. Otherwise there will be foul-ups, poor production and accidents. It is a rare person that can build up a trusting relationship with their animals so that they understand and respond immediately to every sound and movement.
The Gignac CM 2000 is shown operating in a red pine plantation.
A mechanical tool for small-scale logging that bears careful consideration is the Gignac CM 2000 or its successor the Forcat 2000. It is sometimes called the mechanical horse. Load size is comparable. Capital cost is higher; about the same as the cost of a four-wheel drive tractor of similar horsepower. Site impact is comparable to that of a horse. It doesn’t have the same limitation as a horse in skidding distance, although anything over seven or eight hundred feet is too far to be economic for the size of the load it can pull.
For its size, the CM 2000 can handle large loads and it doesn’t have the same skidding distance limitations as a team of horses.
The machine is slightly less than four feet wide and about ten feet long, with a weight of about 2,800 pounds. It runs on rubber tracks that are equipped with a U-shaped steel cleat at intervals of about three inches. Power comes from a two-cylinder, air-cooled Onan engine of 24 horsepower. Transfer of the power from engine to tracks is completely hydraulic. A hydraulic transmission and two hydraulic pumps are mounted directly on the engine drive shaft to send a consistent flow of oil to the hydraulic motors, one powering each track. The second hydraulic pump powers the winch, the blade and the hydraulic back plate. In spite of the machine being completely hydraulic, the only exposed hydraulic line is on the cylinder that controls the blade on the front. The hydraulic drive system means the design is very simple and trouble-free because there is no clutch, mechanical transmission, drive shaft, differential, axles or brakes. Steering, ground speed, forward and reverse are all controlled by the hydraulic flow direction and rate to the two motors. Thus the machine is totally controlled by a simple tiller. The Onan engine is built in Minnesota, and most of the other components are Canadian made. Construction is done in Thetford Mines, Quebec. This means that parts can usually be obtained locally at reasonable cost.

In terms of field performance, the machine has a number of distinct advantages over alternative equipment. First is ruggedness. Its weight compared to its size gives some idea of how heavily it is built. There is nothing on the bottom that can get snagged or broken. Many of the damage-prone parts on agricultural or recreation equipment just don’t exist. Those that do are built to stand up to work in the woods.

Maneuverability is a major advantage of the Gignac CM 2000. It will easily turn in its own length, then reverse direction without a pause, even if it is perched on top of a slash pile. With just over a foot of ground clearance, and with the engine, transmission and winch all mounted between the tracks, the center of gravity is low, providing for excellent stability. One hundred and eighty-degree turns on 80-percent slopes are not a problem. Because the machine is mounted on tracks, the ground pressure is low, allowing you to skid tree lengths over soft ground where walking would be difficult. The close spacing and the U-shaped configuration of the cleats on the track means that there are always enough gripping surfaces to ensure traction. However, the cleats on the track are only about half an inch deep, and even on soft ground the Forcat scuffs the ground rather than making ruts in it.

Guy Gignac, who designed the Gignac CM 2000 and the Forcat, is not an engineer. He is a logger. He knew what he needed and built the machine to fill his needs.

This type of equipment is not the answer to everyone’s dreams. The price is high enough that unless the skidder is working full time, at least four or five months of the year, the capital cost cannot be justified. It is a logging machine so there is no PTO or three-point hitch. Its use for other jobs is pretty well limited to light bulldozing and dragging things around.

Load size is a limiting factor. Although the machine can handle a very large load for its size and power, skidding old-growth pine or oak veneer is just not a practical option. Because of load size, skidding distances must be kept fairly short if a reasonable amount of wood is going to end up on the landing each day. This can mean a lot of very expensive roads, or require some kind of forwarding equipment. As with any logging system utilizing chainsaws, profitability is largely dependent on how hard the logger is willing and able to work.

About the author – Jon Williams is a forestry consultant and logger working in the Renfrew County area. For the past four years John has operated a Gignac CM 2000 that has been modified with a conventional-type logging arch as part of his harvesting operations in pine plantations and mixed wood stands. For more information about using this type of small logging equipment, you can write to John at 80 Old Bridge Road, Golden Lake Ont., K0J 1X0 or call him at (613) 625-2677.

This article appeared in the Fall/Winter 2002 (Volume 29) edition of the S&W Report the newsletter of the Ontario Woodlot Association.
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