Mulching continues to gain traction in the South African forestry industry as growers around the country are realising that the high cost of the operation is more than justified by the many benefits that it brings. But choosing the right equipment is key …
A few years ago the pioneers of mulching were mainly the private farmers in northern KZN and Piet Retief who were prepared to bite the bullet and follow their farming instincts to protect the soil on which their livelihoods depend.
Now mulching has gained wider acceptance and has been adopted by a number of big corporate growers. This trend has gained momentum throughout the South African forestry landscape as the process of mechanizing (modernizing) of forestry operations such as pitting, planting and harvesting, has taken off.
The fact is that mulching the slash and stumps behind the harvesting operation provides ease of access to forestry compartments for a whole range of modernized systems. This – apart from numerous other benefits it brings – provides an opportunity to maximize the productivity gains that modernized forestry systems can offer.
The recent landing in South Africa of two top of the range, heavy duty Tigercat mulchers, is a clear sign that mulching has well and truly arrived. The big boys are in town.
The first is a Tigercat 480B tracked mulcher, acquired by Grand Bridge Trading. The company has secured a contract from Sappi to mulch 800 ha this year, and 800 ha next year – at Lothair in Mpumalanga.
Alastair Fagg of Grand Bridge says the company has years of experience operating heavy earth moving equipment in the mining industry, and saw an opportunity to diversify into mulching and land care several years ago.
The Sappi contract involves mulching post harvest slash and stumps in pine and gum. The Grand Bridge team works 24 hours around the clock, mulching up to six hectares in a 24-hour cycle.
Alastair says his team has learned a lot of hard lessons, settling on the Tigercat 480B tracked machine after careful consideration.
“Conditions here are quite rough,” he said. “When we started off in the mulching game we were using a smaller unit, but we soon realised that for this job you need more grunt.”
Alastair said that a lot of R & D went into re-configuring the drum and teeth on the mulching head to adapt it to local conditions.
“We’ve done that and we now have 100% impact across the face – it misses nothing.”
Alastair says sand and dust is a killer, so maintenance is a big issue. The object is to mulch all the slash and stump material above the ground level without disturbing the soil. He refers to it euphemistically as “composting the plantation”.
The other mulcher that landed in SA recently is the Tigercat M 726 G wheeled machine, acquired by Savithi Trading, working for Sappi in Zululand.
Deon Redinger of Savithi Trading comes from a timber and sugar farming background, and saw an opportunity several years ago to move into land clearing and mulching to provide alternative solutions for farmers and foresters in the face of looming climate change.
Following extensive consultation with overseas experts and their own R & D process, Deon settled on the Tigercat wheeled mulcher.
“For me the wheeled machine is a better option,” said Deon. “It’s easy to move to the next job site without needing a lowbed trailer.”
Deon says his team has mulched 700 ha in three months with two machines. He’s done lots of R & D with the teeth on the mulching head to configure it right.
“We have to get the brushlines and stumps down to ground level to create a covering that allows easy planting,” he said.
Productivity is around 2.5 to 3 hours per hectare. He’s been running the Tigercat for a while now and is “very impressed” with it.
“The machine runs behind the mulching head so the tyres are running on the mulch layer, so compaction is not an issue,” he said.
When it comes to mulching large areas, Deon is in agreement that size counts.
“You cannot go under 350 horse power – if you do you’re in for a hiding.”
No more burning slash
Sappi’s Forestry manager stationed at Kwambonambi in Zululand, Jeffrey le Roux, is a firm believer in the benefits of mulching. A few years ago Sappi management decided that there would be no more burning of slash in Zululand – it would all have to be mulched.
There have been a lot of lessons learned along the way, but Jeffrey has seen the benefits of mulching in the productivity of the Zululand plantations. MAI is up, TUP is significantly reduced, improved access to compartments for modernized equipment has resulted in improved productivity across the board, there has even been a reduction in wildfires.
Before they started mulching, the turnaround time between harvesting and re-planting was 3-6 months. Mulching has extended the planting window and reduced that to a month.
Before the advent of mulching, the young seedlings were planted in exposed soil left behind after the burning of slash, and would be sand-blasted in the strong winds that blow in Zululand. Mortality was high and blanking is a costly operation. Now the young plants are protected by the mulch ‘carpet’ that also locks in moisture and nutrients.
The elimination of stumps – a favourite home for beehives – has helped reduce wildfires because there are no honey hunters around lighting fires carelessly to smoke out bees.
AfrEquip and Tigercat get their teeth into mulching
The Tigercat mulchers – like all Tigercat equipment – are supplied and backed up throughout southern Africa by local firm, AfrEquip.
The AfrEquip team – as always – was present on site to hand over the new mulchers to the customers, making sure they are running smoothly and meeting their high expectations.
“Both machines have rugged, Tier 2 engines and massive cooling systems which you need for the hot, dusty conditions,” explained AfrEquip Business Development Manager, Brendan Moore. “They’re built strong and are well suited to local conditions.”
In the past the Tigercut mulchers were equipped with outsourced mulching heads, but no more. The Canadian manufacturer now designs and builds their own mulching heads to meet their high standards of rugged reliability and productivity.
“The reaction time for research and development, and for spares and maintenance on the equipment must be quick. That’s what the customer needs in a new application like this,” added Brendan.
He said feedback received from customers on the equipment is a key factor in the design and build of all Tigercat machines.
In order to ensure adequate backup for customers, AfrEquip has established well equipped and staffed depots in forestry areas around the country, including Pietermaritzburg, Richards Bay, Piet Retief, Ugie and Nelspruit.
AfrEquip also supplies and services customers in Zimbabwe and Namibia.
“For us it’s all about customer service,” said Brendan. “We only supply reliable, premium brands and we make sure that we can provide adequate backup of spares and knowhow so our customers can be successful.”
Brands supplied by AfrEquip include Tigercat (mulchers, skidders and harvesters), Log Max (harvesting heads), Morbark (chippers and de-barkers), Nokian (tyres) as well as Gierkink (felling saw) and Olofsfors (tyre chains).
The Tigercat 480B tracked mulcher (546 hp) and M726G wheeled mulcher (370 hp) are equipped with powerful Tier 2 engines and high capacity cross-flow cooling systems. An automatic reversing cycle purges dust and debris, and there is clear access to engine and working components for easy maintenance routines.
They are equipped with Tigercat 4061 mulching heads which automatically follow the terrain countours. Operator comfort and safety is paramount, and the cabs conform to the highest standards of all Tigercat forestry machines.
The wheeled unit can be easily switched from a mulcher to a feller buncher, proving its versatility in forestry applications.
*First published in SA Forestry magazine, Sep 2018
If you liked this article, check out Reducing fuel loads inside timber compartments.