Brad Schulte, owner-operator of Tor-Kel Contracting Ltd. in the interior of British Columbia, knows that he is a small player in a province of forestry heavyweights. That’s how he likes it.
The growth of the operation of seven machines is not a priority. In fact, Schulte would rather stay small. Instead, his focus over the past few years has been to find and excel in a niche valued by his employers.
Two years ago, Schulte took a leap of faith and purchased a TimberMAX traction hoist – the second sold in the British Columbia interior – with the goal of accessing slopes of 40% or more that were previously slaughtered by hand or left intact.
“It’s just something that we all have to deal with: if you don’t adapt, you will leave. So you adapt and try different things,” says Schulte. “No one else was attached to our employer at the time.”
Tor-Kel Contracting is a five-person company that operates about 80,000 cubic meters per year for Canoe Forest Products, a plywood mill owned by Gorman Group. Tor-Kel does the bundling, trimming, hauling and loading while the processing is outsourced to Crandy Select Logging Services Ltd. and road construction is done by Canoe Forest Products.
Canadian forest industries joined Schulte and his team on a boulder near Canoe, BC to get a better look at the TimberMAX in action and discuss the challenges and opportunities with winch help in BC
“Logging is the same no matter where you go. You just have different variables and you have to understand how to work with those variables,” explains Schulte.
Steep-slope logging became a priority for Schulte thanks to incentives from his employer.
“The factory asked if we were interested. All the fruit within reach has been picked and there is more and more land like this,” he says, pointing to the slope we climbed to get a good view of the winch at work.
Tor-Kel’s TimberMAX, a T20 model, is mounted on a 2001 Madill 3200B feller buncher — a machine that Schulte says would otherwise find itself scrapped. Instead, the carrier has racked up 1,500 overtime hours and should run for years with the proper maintenance.
Unless moved, the conveyor does not require an operator inside the machine. Instead, the winch is remotely controlled by the operator attached to it. When we visited, that machine was a 2012 Madill 2850C log loader with a Ridge Runner 7450 tilting undercarriage, and the operator was Schulte’s 23-year-old son Blaine. The tilting undercarriage is a new addition for the Madill that makes a huge difference in operator comfort, says Schulte.
The T20 TimberMAX model has a winch pull of 17 tons with an attachment weight of approximately 6.5 tons. The 7/8 inch cable has a capacity of 1,770 feet with a maximum winch speed of seven mph. The iWinch control system, mounted in the attached machine, monitors winch tension, grade gradient, movement, speed and direction, and includes alarms for low fuel, low engine oil pressure , engine check, overheating and low hydraulic oil level. A camera on the drum provides a live visual to the operator to ensure the system is working properly.
The winch system not only gives Tor-Kel access to mechanized felling on slopes, it also saves fuel – a No. 1 concern for Schulte these days as fuel prices continue to soar, doubling in the past year. He estimates that the hoe-chucker, untethered, burns about 40 to 43 liters of fuel per hour. Attached, the hoe rack and winch rack burn about the same amount, combined.
Schulte is also a certified hand feller, so he will prep if tethering isn’t an option.
TimberMAX is made in Germany, but the design is local. Mathieu Lavoie, based in Quebec, designed and manufactured the first TimberMAX in 2018. Winches designed in Canada now work in the United States, Chile, New Zealand, Australia, Great Britain, Norway, Germany and in Switzerland, with about 85% of them. working in forestry applications. TimberMAX plans to ship its 100th winch by the end of 2022.
Tor-Kel’s winch assistance recipe for success is quite simple: it’s a combination of his relationship with his employer and the reliability of his dealership.
Canoe Forest Products has been very supportive of Tor-Kel’s adoption of the hitch. Schulte describes scenarios where the plant was flexible and understood what fiber is and isn’t accessible, even with the help of a winch.
The plant has also made accommodations for rising contractor costs, fuel prices and lack of available parts, he says.
Their dealer is the other half of the recipe. The TimberMAX attachment was supplied by Top Down Enterprises of Kamloops, BC. Top Down consulted Lavoie in the initial design of the TimberMAX and has since supplied over 30 winch systems in Western Canada.
Mike and Roseanna Niedziejko, owners of Top Down Enterprise, joined us at the Tor-Kel log site to discuss the TimberMAX and perform an update on their system.
“We have been working with Mathieu since our beginnings six years ago. We thought about it and proposed to make the winch a standalone winch instead of an integral part of a machine so that it could be used at the top of the hill. We made the prototype in the summer of 2018 and got it by working with a local contractor in Lumby,” says Mike. “He grew exponentially.”
He commends Schulte for taking the winch when it was a relatively new product and working with them to resolve the issues and use it to its full potential.
“He is very open with different entrepreneurs, all over the province. They were able to phone and speak to Brad and he gave us great reviews. It has been a great help for the growth of our business. It is far reaching. I’ve been to Chetwynd, or Terrace, Prince George, everywhere, and people say, “Oh yeah, no, I was talking to Brad,” Mike said.
“We’re just really happy that it worked for him,” he says.
Go with the flow
Tor-Kel’s plan to stay small and nimble is primarily due to difficulties in finding new operators. But another benefit, according to Schulte, is that he’s juggling fewer factors when it comes to regulatory changes that are reshaping BC’s forest tenure system.
“It’s easier for me to manage, because I can manage from the seat of this thing,” he says, pointing to the consolidator, “and I only have five guys. That being said, we lost our tank top this spring to cancer – he passed away. It’s really hard to find people to fill the seats. We were lucky because we found a young man from Enderby. He has experience. But the other had 40 years of experience. Getting the new guy up to speed on how we do our program is the hardest part.
The owner-operator says he would rather train a new operator with no experience than hire a seasoned operator who is unwilling or unable to learn how he does things. “With the high cost of everything, it’s all about flow and efficiency. You can no longer have unnecessary moves,” he says.
Family is an integral part of Tor-Kel. Blaine has been running his father’s equipment since he graduated from high school, and Schulte says his work ethic and skills are key to keeping the business profitable. Schulte’s wife, Shanna, is the other arm of the business, which does the books. Even the company name, Tor-Kel, is a combination of Shanna and Brad’s daughters, Tori and Kelsi.
At 55, Schulte isn’t looking to retire anytime soon, but slowing down is his dream.
“I would like to continue for another five years and then go into the three-day week, but I don’t know what Blaine thinks about that!” laughs Schulte.