Semi-mechanised harvesting systems: best of both

October 31, 2010

Forestry harvesting practices go hand in hand with various site and tree growing conditions. In southern Mpumalanga, these conditions are good for cold-tolerant eucalyptus species, variable growing sites and relatively small tree sizes. They have a bearing on how harvesting systems are designed and what they cost. Not the easiest area to work in given inherent limitations; however, the terrain is relatively flat.  

Story and photos by Rory Mack, forestry development consultant

Welverdiend team Welverdiend machines

Welverdiend foresty team members (left to right)
Klaas Stevens, Peet Coetzee, Sfiso Lushaba, Jaco
Potgieter, Meshack Msimango and Hendry Sukazi.

Three Volvo and Hyena debarker units.

 

 One of the most experienced contractor businesses in the Mpumalanga area is Welverdiend Forestry. This business specialises in semi-mechanised timber harvesting. In discussion with owner Jaco Potgieter, it emerged that he started working for Eckart Kusel, a timber contractor after leaving school. Küsel mentored him and gave him the grounding to grow and build enough confidence to set up his own contracting company in 1998.

The first contract he secured was a healthy 36 000 tons per annum based on a motor-manual harvesting system. However, with time and experimentation, the semi-mechanised system came into being. This was mainly driven by difficulties maintaining a consistent labour force in the area of manual timber debarking. In cold-tolerant eucalyptus, this is an arduous task and not a sought after type of work.

Since 2004, the semi-mechanised harvesting system has evolved to a point where it is seen as the ideal option for processing eucalyptus pulpwood in this area. Initially, the debarking machinery used was a Bell four-wheeler with a modified boom and a debarker head. The first heads used by Welverdiend were Bell types, later replaced by the locally developed Hyena head.

From 2009, Potgieter changed his production machinery base from the Bell four-wheeler and Hyena MkII debarkers to three 20-ton Volvo excavators with Hyena MkIII debarking heads. An important consideration for a carrier base is backup, and to date, Volvo has given a good backup service.

Welverdiend's production target per annum is 216 000 tons of eucalyptus pulpwood produced by an experienced team of 230 people. The basic harvesting system is sequenced as follows:

  • Motor-manual felling;
  • mechanical debarking – tree lengths;
  • motor-manual cross cutting;
  • manual stacking for extraction to depot.

When talking forestry productivity rates, one needs to bear in mind that they are relative to combinations of species, tree size and in eucalyptus, 'stripability'. In the case of the Volvo and Hyena combination, Potgieter says his average production rate is 13,8 tons per hour based on a tree size of 0,085 tons. An advantage of the excavator-based machines is the increased reach which allows for more productive timber handling. Trees are debarked and lined for cross cutting in every fifth to seventh row.

Welverdiend is successful because of the continuity of key staff members having grown with the business. All key personnel and workers have been with the business from small beginnings, through the learning curve of early semi-mechanised systems until today. Hence, the transition from Bell machines to the Volvos did not result in dropped production as the Hyena heads remained the same; it was only the Volvo carrier that the operators had to get used to. So within four weeks, the teams' production was back on track.

Training was carried out by Volvo with the two best operators who further oversaw six more operators. Two extra operators have been trained to fill in should the need arise. There are now ten trained operators in the business.

The availability of the machines, chainsaws and other vehicles are core to production being achieved. To this end, Welverdiend requires a mechanic who can deal with all these sometime complex machines and keep them close to 100% operational. The key person in this field is Peet Coetzee. With six years experience, Coetzee has seen the business grow and he ensures that preventative maintenance and repairs are carried out as required. This is no small order as the operation works 24 hours a day, six days a week. Felling, crosscutting and stacking take place in daylight hours while machines work effectively 18 to 19 hours per day.

The Hyena debarker heads are routinely refurbished every two years in order to prolong their serviceable life. A mobile workshop, office and sleeping quarters are placed in-field together with other maintenance equipment such as lubrication and fuel trailers. To ensure that there is minimum loss of production when a Volvo debarker goes down, one of the Bell four wheeler machines has been refurbished and is ready on site to fill in for unexpected breakdowns or extended maintenance time.

Risk management and safety-related matters are non-negotiable within the harvesting environment. A second key person, Klaas Stevens, is responsible for all matters related to safety and loss control. The neat and orderly operational area indicates a well-managed working environment. Good people management and relationships count extensively in this business and Potgieter maintains an open relationship with all employees. The business is lean with low overheads and as he states: "You make money in the field and you lose it there."

Hence, he and his key staff spend their time in the field, constantly planning, monitoring and keeping costs under control. All staff members are responsible for their own areas of work. The supervisory staff take control of production and costs while all production staff have daily targets and are measured against them.

The success of Welverdiend can be attributed to a number of factors. These include employing reliable and skilled people, being entrepreneurial, delivering timber orders timeously, maintaining quality work and keeping costs under control. The basis of achieving all of this is through learning and gaining experience in the field – starting small and growing progressively. Welverdiend is a Level 3 BEE compliant entity – Potgieter is currently working on sourcing a partner who would add value to the business and be willing to work under the difficult outdoor conditions that this type of work environment presents.

Looking to the future, Potgieter foresees the cost of the services to the corporate clients coming under pressure. In turn, as labour costs increase, the likelihood of full mechanisation will become more viable. From a social point of view, this would exacerbate the already huge unemployment rate.

More importantly, Potgieter has worked with many of his people for a long time and appreciates their predicament. One such person is 40-year-old chainsaw operator Isaac Sukazi. He has been with the company for nine years. Sukazi has four school-going children who rely on his income. He would like to see them educated and enjoying fruitful careers.

Essentially, we have the best of both worlds here. The semi-mechanised system balances the issue of labour versus mechanisation and is a good solution for general adoption under similar circumstances.

Published in October 2010

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