Bosbok Ontginning keeps the timber flowing

November 1, 2012

Bosbok Ontginning has developed a highly successful mechanised harvesting operation in the Mpumalanga highveld with an innovative and disciplined approach that points the way to the future.

bosbok harvester
Bosbok Ontginning's harvesting operation in full swing.


Bosbok currently does all the clear fell timber harvesting for York Timbers' Mpumalanga highveld plantations, which are planted to pine in a sawlog rotation. Bosbok have two harvesting teams in operation, each of which is equipped with a purpose-built John Deere tracked harvester and forwarder, two Bell loaders and three trucks to haul the timber to mill. Each team produces 500 cubic metres of timber per day, which translates into a total of 21 000 cubes a month for the whole Bosbok operation.

Five years ago, the Bosbok team made the switch from traditional motor-manual harvesting to a mechanised system. At the time, the plantations they were working in were owned by Global Forest Products, later acquired by York Timbers.

Their motivation for opting for a mechanised harvesting system are familiar: the difficulty of recruiting young people for manual forestry work, the impact of HIV/Aids on the workforce, the difficulty of maintaining discipline in-field with increasing emphasis on safety from forestry companies, and the struggle to fulfil contract targets in adverse weather conditions.

"It took a year to make the decision to go the mechanised route and to convince GFP, and then it took a year to get the machines here," said Koos Scheepers, owner and founder of Bosbok Ontginning.

"My son Danie went to Australia to see the capabilities of the harvesting and forwarding machines in action – the Australians were 20 years ahead of us in terms of mechanisation," said Koos. "We did our homework".

They eventually bought a John Deere 759JH tracked harvester with a Waratah HTH 622B head, and paired it with a JD 1710 forwarder. The harvester was the first model of its range in operation anywhere in the world, let alone in South Africa.

A different approach

Right from the start, Bosbok's approach was a little different from other South African mechanised operations.

Danie and his younger brother, Chris, learnt how to operate and maintain the machines themselves first. "We needed to know what the machines could do and to get to international levels before we let anybody else operate them. In the beginning, we were working 14-hour days to get our volumes in," said Danie.

After a year, they reached a point where they were comfortably harvesting 500 cubic metres a day. They then selected two trusted employees from their team and started training them as back-up operators.

Thulani, the first harvester trainee, was a truck driver at Bosbok. The first forwarder trainee, Douglas, had operated a chainsaw, Bell logger, skyline and a high lead.

"We didn't select them only for their skills," explained Danie. "We chose guys who have the right attitude, are disciplined and work consistently." Both of them were already Bosbok employees. "We'd rather give our own staff opportunities as we know who we're dealing with," said Danie.

Thulani and Douglas are now experienced operators, and another two employees have been selected to train as back-up operators.

Meanwhile, an opportunity arose to double their tonnage for York, so Bosbok purchased a second John Deere harvester and forwarder. With two teams in the field, they are now doing all of York's clear fell harvesting in the Mpumalanga highveld.

The Bosbok harvesting teams start work at around 5 am every day to make sure they get in enough hours before the afternoon thunder-storms (in summer) or the fire-danger rating gets to red (in winter), and by around 2 pm, they've hit their target. They spend an hour servicing and refuelling the machines, and then the trainees take over under the watchful eyes of the experienced operators.

"For the first year, we don't give the trainee operators tasks to complete, they have no production targets. We want them to get used to the machines without pressure. You have to think and concentrate all the time when you are operating these machines – as soon as you force it, you will break something," explained Danie.

You need to have 'cubes in the bank'

Bosbok's philosophy is that you always need to have 'cubes in the bank', so they work really hard to reach their production targets by mid-month and then they put something in the bank to make sure they're comfortably ahead.

Routine servicing and maintenance work on the harvester and forwarder is planned meticulously and performed by the machine operators themselves. This way the operator takes full responsibility and takes 'ownership' of the machine. The company's in-house mechanic is there to help the operator when needed.

Although they get good support from Bell when they need it, they have learned to rely on their own resources and ingenuity to keep their machines running as they are situated 160 kms from Nelspruit and it's costly to bring mechanics to Warburton.

The benefits of the mechanised system for both the contractor and the grower company whose trees they are harvesting, are now clearly apparent.

"The machine optimises the timber for optimum value," explained Danie who has only good things to say about the harvester's Timberite control system.

A control system second to none

Clearfelling a 25-year-old compartment, they are producing plywood and industrial timber for York's Sabie mills, sawlogs for York's mill in Warburton and smaller diameter logs for pulp. The control system is programmed to measure and cross-cut the stems according to the mill's daily requirements. As soon as the head grabs a tree, it calculates the length and taper of the stem based on its diameter and compartment data, optimising it according to the specs of the various products required by the mills. The harvester delimbs and cross-cuts in one pass.

The operator places the sawlogs, industrial and pulp logs in neat stacks for the forwarder, which hauls its 17-ton+ load to the landing at roadside, compacting the slash in the process. Most of the compartments are fairly flat, but the neatness of the harvesting operation is still a surprise.

The forwarders operate a day behind the harvesters, ideally over a maximum lead distance of 500 metres. The timber is hauled to the mill within two days of being cut so it is very fresh – which is the way the mill wants it. Consistency is also crucial.

Bosbok supplies a stump-to-mill service, transporting the timber from roadside to the mills at Warburton and Sabie, so they are able to synchronise the entire operation.

The Timberite system on the harvester captures all relevant info from the harvesting process and summarises the compartment data.

Another major benefit of the mechanised system is the very high utilisation of timber. There is so little waste left in the compartment after the harvester has finished its work that the scavenging operation has had to find work elsewhere.

Average tree size is one cubic metre, which equates to 1 to 1.3 tons because of the freshness of the timber when it reaches the mill. Bosbok must process three trees every two minutes so the flow of the entire operation is crucial. Most of the trees on the plantation are Pinus patula, with some Pinus elliottii and Pinus taeda.

Both Danie and Koos said they have received a lot of support and co-operation from York since introducing the mechanised system.

"York has been very open to our ideas. There's got to be a lot of trust between grower and contractor for this to work," said Danie.

Neater and environmentally friendly

York's district manager, Jerry Drawe, concurred. "It's a neater and more environmentally friendly operation," he said. "All movement in the compartment is on the slash, there is less compaction at the roadside loading deck, and no skidding ruts.

"Another advantage is that there is no wastage. We used to have five to eight cubic metres per ha picked up by a scavenger operation. Now the only timber left is dry timber from lightning strikes."

Of course, safety is another huge advantage as there are so few people working in-field compared to a motor-manual system.

With the benefit of hindsight, Danie and Koos are convinced they made the right decision to go for mechanised harvesting.

"The production figures are there to prove that this is the way to go for harvesting systems in the future," concluded Danie.

Bosbok Ontginning recently tried out Waratah's new HTH 623C series head on the John Deere harvester, and were suitably impressed. Danie says it's a bigger, heavier head with more torque than the B-series they are currently using, and they have decided to invest in one for the new harvester they are buying next year. Bosbok's first John Deere harvester and forwarder will be five years old and it is time to replace them.

Bosbok fam harvester
Bosbok Ontginning is a family business (left to right) Chris, Koos and Danie Scheepers. Danie Scheepers discusses harvesting operations with Thulani.
bosbok truck Gilbert
Bosbok provides a stump to mill service for York Timbers. Gilbert Khumalo has been operating Bosbok's second harvester for two years now.
arial forwarder
Aerial view of Bosbok Ontginning's harvesting operation in the Mpumalanga highveld. The John Deere 1710D forwarder works one day behind the harvester.

field day

 Foresters at a recent Bell field day scrutinise the new Waratah HTH 623C pine harvesting head being tested by Bosbok Ontginning.

Published in August 2012





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