Planting the Future

Cheryl Quinn
Monday, 24 November 2008
By
Visitors to the first Bracke P11a site were (from left): Remi Lefebvre, GFC foreman; Serge Simard, a former harvesting superintendent who manages GFC’s extensive silviculture program, Rejean Fontaine, contractor and machine owner; and Bracke’s Canadian start-up and training rep Jean-Luc Hudon.
Visitors to the first Bracke P11a site were (from left): Remi Lefebvre, GFC foreman; Serge Simard, a former harvesting superintendent who manages GFC’s extensive silviculture program, Rejean Fontaine, contractor and machine owner; and Bracke’s Canadian start-up and training rep Jean-Luc Hudon.

If one of the first rules of kindergarten is to put things back where you found them, the management and staff at the Coopérative Forestière Girardville (CFG) have learned their lesson well. Thanks to two new mechanical planters from Sweden, the silviculture specialists seven hours northeast of Montreal are working closely with Quebec’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Wildlife (MNRW) to put even the most extreme and nasty sites right back into production. Given the recent reductions in allowable cuts across Quebec, that’s good news for everyone.


CFG is a major player in northern Quebec’s silviculture scene. In 2008, it will treat over 15,000 ha with a variety of old and new site prep tools and will plant 22 million seedlings, a record year thanks in part to the new planters, as well as a large volume of burn salvage sites to recover. It will also harvest close to 200,000 m3 and build some 100 km of forest roads. The co-op brings together some 200 members, hires 500 employees at the peak of the season, and has annual revenues of over $22 million. It also runs an innovative and soon to explode biomass business, selling essential oils and culinary ingredients gleaned from the forest and understory. Still, silviculture superintendent Serge Simard admits that its fleet of site prep gear was getting a little long in the tooth.


“We’re like almost everyone else in the silviculture business in Canada – we’re relying on gear bought in the 80s for our site prep program. You don’t see that in other sectors in forestry, like logging, so we made a decision a few years ago to start modernizing our fleet to take advantage of some of the advances that have been made in site prep equipment. Hey, 25 years is a long time in the equipment business, especially when you think of changes in computer controls during that time.”


The first step was to make several trips to Sweden to see the latest in site prep and planting gear in action, most of that supplied by Bracke. Once they were convinced the new tools were worth trying out in Canadian conditions, they worked with some members of their local MNRW, who also spent some time studying tools, techniques, and results in Sweden.


“We have been lucky to have some very proactive players here in our local ministry (MNRW),” Simard explains. “They see the need to improve, to do a better job of growing trees in the current climate, and have put in the time and effort to investigate new machinery, like the planters, and new technology, like raised site (mound) planting. They are encouraging us to move forward with these, and helping us to work while the new regulations around these techniques are being created. It has been very positive for us.”


These advocates include Jean-Pierre Girard and Jean Chouinard, both of whom see the benefits of options not typical in Quebec conditions, like mound planting, and have decided to support the co-op and others like it to embrace the technique and new tools to get it done in range of sites.


CFG’s investment in new silvicultural tools started in 2006, when the co-op’s machine owners tested the new series of Bracke T26a disc trenchers. Sporting advanced controls and the ability to respond to changing site conditions almost instantly, the new machines did a noticeably better job than the old trenchers, improvements noticed by both the MNRW and the co-op’s industrial client, AbitibiBowater. Spurred by this success, and curious of some comparative regular and raised site plantings they had seen on a trip to Sweden, the co-op added an M36a three-row mounder in 2007, still the only one of its kind in Canada according to Canadian sales agent, Montreal-based Silvana Import Trading. Results and feedback on this project from MNRW were also positive (see article in the next issue or today at www.canadianforestindustries.ca). Finally, this past season, the co-op and two of its machinery owners tested two Bracke P11a mechanical planters.


Plant anywhere
The Co-op’s planters are two of five working in the Lac St. Jean region of northern Quebec. Industry and government’s motives are simple – to maximize regeneration. With a province-wide reduction of 20% or more in AAC coming out of the Coulombe Commission and the recent hammering the industry is taking, the push is on to create the highest possible harvest volumes from remaining stands. And that is directly tied to the growth that can be expected from stands being put back into production after harvest, fire, or insect damage.


“The goal is to put as much terrain as possible back into production the best we can,” comments Simard. “These planters allow us to treat sites that would otherwise be inaccessible, like the burn sites we’re doing here. That much we’ve seen already. The key is we can do it in way that does not put our manual planting crews at risk. That’s the big plus with these machines.”


When CFI was on site the last day of September, both planters were finishing their season working a massive burn site just 30 minutes from Girardville, a rare treat in a region known for two-hour drives on logging roads to get to the site. The first machine, owned by Rejean Fontaine and run by Simon Fortin was working what Simard says is close to typical terrain for the planters, maybe even a little too good – rough, broken ground with plenty of rocks and slopes, along with lots of spear-like charred poles sticking up in all directions and slippery soils, all making it a tree planter’s hell. Just walking through the site requires constant attention, and today is a good day says CFG foreman Remi Lefebvre.


“It’s alright today, but add a bit of rain, and then look out. We wouldn’t be able to walk through it like this. It’s very easy to lose your footing, then you fall flat on your face in this,” he cautions, pointing to the endless bed of sharp sticks. “There are times I have been very happy to be wearing my safety glasses, that I can tell you.”


While the new generation Bracke P11a planter was years in development, and is a marked improvement over the early models CFI first saw working at DEMO International 1992 in Kelowna, BC, the actual operation is simple. The two units working for CFG are mounted on used Caterpillar 320 bunchers, allowing the units to go pretty well anywhere a tracked buncher can (guarded excavators can also be used, but would depend on the sites being planted). The operator works his way through the site, planting around a dozen seedlings before inching forward.


Once a suitable spot is chosen, the articulated scarifying section at the base of the planter is used to create a raised micro site. The sturdy attachment was also frequently used to push over or crush down remaining burnt material or competition. Once a site is prepared, the planter sits flat on the site and a container seedling is inserted and packed down, all in one motion. The operator then swings over to the next site.


To ensure maximum planting success, the coop uses larger seedlings (45s) in the planter. They have tried smaller seedlings (67s), but they are more fragile and can more easily get planted too deep. The planter’s seedling carousel holds 72 seedlings, enough for 25 minutes of work in the rugged sites the machines are used to plant in. The operator then refills the carousel from seedlings in one of two on-board seedling bins, protected by either hard cover or heavy rubber flaps to keep hydraulic oil or other contaminants out. The process takes a few minutes, and while Bracke’s local start up and training representative Jean-Luc Hudon says the company is testing a much larger carousel in Sweden, neither Simard, nor operator Eric Doucet seemed all that concerned when we discussed this at the second visit site.


“It lets you get out every 20 minutes or so, move around, stretch out, and clear your mind,” explains Doucet, who prior to this ran a feller buncher. “I think it actually improves production over the day, since it keeps you fresh.” He adds that it is part of the reason he can stay productive for as long as a 12-hr shift, something he found impossible on the buncher. Typically, the machines are run during daylight hours only, meaning two 8-hr shifts in mid summer, but just one long 11 or 12 hour shift in late September this far north.


On burn salvages like this, CFG plants around 1,800 trees/ha depending on the site. In normal areas where the logger was successful in meeting Quebec’s area-based site disturbance regs and protection of advanced regen rules, they would typically only plant in extraction trails and poorly-stocked areas. Simard says that production from the P11a can range anywhere from 120 seedlings an hour to over 200, and Bracke puts the upper limit at 225 or more. On the sites we visited, the first rugged, rocky site was allowing production closer to 125 trees an hour, while the better site being worked by the P11a owned by contractor Guy Harvé and run by Doucet was giving over 180.


“But that second site wouldn’t normally be done with the planter,” Simard cautions. “It’s gravy and we’re only on it to finish up our seedlings for this last day of the season. A manual crew can do it easily – so you have to be careful with numbers. We got the two planters specifically for the worst sites, so their production will fall accordingly. Over the entire season, which are the real numbers, we averaged 135 to 139 seedlings an hour, with everything included. That’s a fair number for what we’re doing. Maybe we’ll get better with experience, and with fewer interruptions, since this was a trial year, where we in fact tried all kinds of things just to see if they can be done. We did one 8-yr-old burn site that had competition to six feet high we were knocking down, and in the end it looked like this,” he says sweeping his arms across the “gravy” site. “But it effects production. I would say if we’re doing a range of sites, a fair number moving forward once we’re experienced and including downtime, will be closer to 150 seedlings an hour, but we’ll have to monitor it as we go.”


He adds that the machine is doing both site prep and planting in one pass, so he feels the numbers are reasonable for these extreme sites. In the coming year, the ministry will be using these numbers, along with Feric studies and field studies of the actual planting performance to create guidelines for the planting machine, and of course to establish rates. But Simard adds that in the meantime, the local ministry staff has been good at supporting the trials on the planter, like on the other new site prep gear, as works in progress.


Uptime good
As for reliability, Simard says the planters and carriers have worked out very well. Other than greasing and the odd hose damaged while crushing debris, the planters have just worked. “We identified a few areas that need to be re-inforced, and early on Jean-Luc (Hudon) came in and made some adjustments inside to avoid things working loose. But the machines are just a part of it. We also made some adjustments of our own, like having operators do more pro-active maintenance – tighten things as they work loose. So we’ve had very little downtime, even with the old bunchers.”


Hudon says that Bracke’s Swedish engineers have also done some adjusting, and have managed to create a “Canadian” version based on the experiences to date in this region. “It’s a familiar story when gear comes to Canada – we add steel,” Hudon says with a laugh. “Once Bracke saw the way the planter is being used here, crushing large competition and knocking over debris in rocky terrain – they were on board to make the modifications. In Sweden they’re working on sites where the biomass has been removed, so there is little left in your way. It’s not like that here, at least not yet, so these planters are built to work here, the way we have to use them.”


Hudon says the first year with the five planters in the region has gone well. Aside from start-up support, Hudon’s role includes mechanical and operator training on the full Bracke line. He feels that efficiency gains will continue to be made as planners, owners and operators get used to the limitations and opportunities of the machines. “For starters, it pays to have the planters working in unison with the manual planting crews when possible. That way all the infrastructure is in place – roads, camps, supervision, and of course the seedlings. That was not the case this year as it was new, but that’s the goal moving forward.”


Training is not a big issue, he adds. “A good excavator or buncher operator should not take more than a few weeks to learn to read the terrain and how to choose the sites, or to start over again if the first site is not suitable. It’s really more mindset and understanding the goals and the effects of a bad plant than anything else.”


Local silviculture contractors may soon be getting more help in training, as the local forestry school in Dolbeau is looking at a short silviculture/site prep operator course now that so much new gear is working in the area. It will cover basics, like the goals of various site prep techniques, but according to both Hudon and Simard will be a big help in training new operators.


The extra 320,000+ seedlings added this season thanks to the new machines will also be a big help – for future foresters, loggers, sawmillers and their communities in this forestry-dependent region.


“These are good sites, productive, but we just couldn’t treat them before,” sums up Simard as we start the short ride back to town. “That was a total loss of the landbase, and many like this are close to the mill. They’d be nice to have back in production. We’re investing in our own future here. When you look at the industry now, it’s clear we all have to change. We’re looking at ways to innovate and improve in everything we do.”


Speaking of the future, Simard and his colleagues have a busy winter ahead even if it is officially the “quiet time” for silviculture crews. They will work with the ministry in fine tuning the planting and site prep guidelines being developed for the new tools and techniques. They will also work with them on tuning some of the planting stock to maximize the efficiency of these new tools.


“It has been a good year with the planters, but there are things the ministry can do to make it work even better from the seedling side of things. Still, overall we’ve been working very closely with them on all of these projects, whether the new trenchers, the mounder, or these planters. They’ve been keen to learn, to innovate, and to follow up closely with what we’ve been doing. We’re all encouraged. It looks like it will work out.”


Coming Next Month: A look at how the Girardville Forestry Cooperative is using this same innovative approach and cooperation from local ministry officials to improve its site prep operations using new generation disc trenchers and mounders. Or see it today at www.canadianforestindustries.ca.

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