Small and mighty: NB loggers adapt to be lean and efficient

Maria Church
May 31, 2018
Richard and Michel Plourde divided the assets of their joint New Brunswick logging company, M&R Plourde, in 2016 to begin their own ventures.
Richard and Michel Plourde divided the assets of their joint New Brunswick logging company, M&R Plourde, in 2016 to begin their own ventures.
May 31, 2018 - Contractors in Atlantic Canada are among the smallest in the country. Canadian Forest Industries 2016 Contractor Survey confirms that 58 per cent of loggers in Atlantic Canada have five or fewer employees compared to the national average of 24 per cent.

For the Plourde brothers in New Brunswick, small is the best model for them to efficiently run their contracting businesses. Richard and Michel Plourde divided the assets of their joint logging company, M&R Plourde, in 2016 to begin their own ventures.

With just one or two pieces of iron each and both employing just one or two operators, the contractors managed to bring in a combined 110,000 cubic metres in 2017 for AV Group NB — the owner of two dissolving pulp mills in New Brunswick.

Darrell Patton, operations manager for AV Group (AV) in New Brunswick, says the Plourdes’ ability to adapt to the most efficient system of the day is what makes them so valuable among AV’s 30 plus contractors.

“When I first came in under AV in 2013 the Plourdes were subcontractors. In my experience not everyone adapts well moving to a single-grip, cut-to-length system from a single-shift operation with an older grapple skidder/slasher system, so twice the equipment to cut half the wood they are cutting today. They had to start from scratch and it’s a big learning curve, but they are very open to change.” Patton says.

Over a four-year stretch the Plourde brothers went from cutting 30,000 cubic metres a year to cutting well over 100,000 cubic metres a year. Michel brings in about 60,000 cubic metres a year and Richard cuts between 50,000 and 55,000.

They harvest both hardwood and softwood in the cut blocks. The softwood heads to Twin Rivers dimension lumber mill in Plaster Rock, N.B., and hardwood to AV’s pulp mill in Nakawick, N.B.

“Some of the blocks we are cutting now have been previously harvested.  This can make it more difficult to achieve higher production,” Richard says.

They cut minimum four-inch stems, with an average of between eight and 10 inches. All harvesting is cut-to-length, processed at the stump and forwarded to roadside.

Family history
Michel and Richard had their start in the industry as youths working for their father’s logging business during summer break. After graduation they worked full time for various loggers and mills, and in January 2001 they went into the contracting business together under the name M&R Plourde.

“We had a Timberjack 230 cable skidder and we were buying private land and stumpage and in 2002 we bought our first harvester; it was a Case carrier 930 with a Quadco head,” Michel says.

From there the Plourdes began building up their equipment roster, adding a second harvester, a grapple skidder and a log loader as well as a log truck, all second-hand. In 2007 a third Plourde sibling, Jean-Guy, came to work for M&R as the first employee. Shortly after they hired another operator.

The Plourdes worked under this model with the same equipment until 2013 when they purchased their first new machines — a Landrich HC-310 and a Ponsse Buffalo forwarder, both from local dealer A.L.P.A. Equipment.

The brothers split in May 2016 to run their own contracting companies: Richard under the name R&C Plourde, and Michel under Plourde Logging. Michel’s sons, Matthew, Anthony and Isaac, all work for him in some capacity. Matthew and Anthony operate machines and Isaac files chains and bars. Richard employs Jean-Guy and is planning to add another forwarder and harvester to his complement.

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New-Brunswick built
For a small contractor purchasing new iron is no easy task, and it’s more important than ever it’s the right machine for the job.

For the Plourdes, the ideal harvester to lower their costs long-term is the Landrich HC-310, a purpose-built track harvester optimized for the cut-to-length method of mechanized logging.

The Landrich boasts excellent fuel economy with independent hydraulic circuits for the head, crane and tracks, and large displacement pumps for low engine revolutions. A Ponsse H7 single-grip harvesting head and Ponsse Opti5 electronics allow the operator to easily switch between products, an essential feature when the fibre diet is so varied and the product requests can change on a dime.

“The Ponsse Opti5 allows the operator to easily change matrix setting and prioritize the assortment, for example logs, pulp and stud wood. It is very efficient,” Richard says.

But most importantly for the Plourde’s, the harvester is manufactured in New Brunswick and sold by A.L.P.A. Equipment.

“Their extended hours of operation, plus extensive parts inventory is crucial when operating equipment sometimes 24/7. They go above and beyond to provide excellent customer service,” Richard says.

“I find they have very good service. If we’re down, we call and we don’t have to wait so no lost time, which is money,” Michel says.

A.L.P.A. Equipment branch manager James Cooper says they have no plans at the moment to sell the Landrich west of Ontario. Any further and A.L.P.A. would not be able to offer the quality of service their customers expect, he says.

Training needed
Operator shortage is the biggest challenge lean loggers face in New Brunswick, the Plourdes explain. “There’s a lot of pressure to get more efficient and to lower our costs,” Michel explains. “We’ve got good fibre, but we’re in competition with South America. It’s a global market now. The challenge is to cut cubic metres for the cheapest you can —  to be the most efficient. Good operators are key.”

Both companies are running two 60-hour shifts, and aiming for 90 to 95 hours of productive machine time a week. It is difficult to increase that without adding to the roster. But brining in new operators is a risky option, Richard explains. “Without adequate training the cost to hire a new employee is approximately $100,000. Time spent training by the employer could be significant depending on the employee’s past experience and their mechanical expertise, production decreases significantly, breakage of bars, chains, etc.”

The Plourde brothers, like many New Brunswick loggers, look for outside help to train the next generation of operators, and eventually, owner-operators. Their employer, AV Group NB, offers training for all their contractors through A.L.P.A. and operator training body Forest Liaison. But to help bring on new hires, the Plourdes and many other New Brunswick contractors turn to the Canadian Woodlands Forum (CWF), which holds training sessions for brand new operators.

The CWF’s entry-level Forestry Machine Operator Program involves three weeks of in-class simulator training, followed by four weeks of basic training with harvesting equipment. A final 13 weeks of advanced equipment operation involves on-the-job training with a local contractor. There is student tuition and a fee for contractors to participate. Ten new operators were recently trained in Nova Scotia under this model by the CWF, eight of which found full-time employment in the industry.

CWF executive director Peter Robichaud says the program is offered only when there is a demand and a solid commitment and engagement from the employers (contractors). “In other words, we have a job for candidates that wish to pursue a career as a forestry machine operator before the training starts,” Robichaud says.

The program takes significant risk away from the contractors by pairing them up with willing students who have already invested in training themselves. While Michel has his sons to carry on the company, for Richard the program might mean a long-term future for R&C Plourde.

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