The forest economy is full of various actors and agents that provide different services in the supply chain. Usually, these are broken down into three roles: The landowner, the logger, and the sawmill. If you act as a landowner, you usually sell timber to a logger. Occasionally, however, a landowner will act as a logger themselves, harvest their own timber, and sell logs directly to the sawmill. That can be a daunting task requiring careful planning and a fair bit of technical knowledge, both during harvest and in the sale of the logs. But if you are up for the challenge, we have you covered!
In this article we will discuss exactly how to sell logs to a sawmill and tell you everything you need to know to make the best decisions for your harvest and sale. However, understand that to successfully sell logs, one must have a decent volume of wood. If you only have a handful of pieces, few if any mills will want to do business with you, unless you happen to have some top-notch timber (you probably don’t). If you plan on selling a sizable volume of logs, then keep reading. This article is for you.
Step 1: Plan Your Harvest
The most important rule to remember is that the sale must begin before a single stem is cut. Looking for markets after the timber is severed is a financial disaster waiting to happen and a good way to spoil otherwise good wood. Thus, one must meticulously plan the harvest.
First, determine exactly what you wish to harvest from the stand and the type of logs you will sell to the sawmill. Take notes and determine what you wish to remove of each species, and categorize that information into salable products. For example, you may plan your harvest to consist of 50 cords of spruce sawlogs, 20 cords of hardwood pulpwood, and 20 cords of sugar maple and yellow birch sawlogs.
By breaking information down into species and product, you can figure out exactly what wood needs to be marketed and to whom. Moreover, having more information allows you to be able to better communicate with mills what exactly you have for sale.
For more information about estimating volumes and cruising, read our articles about determining basal area per acre and determining how much wood is on an acre of land.
Determine the Type of Harvest
At this stage, it is also important to determine the type of harvest you wish to conduct. In particular, you will need to decide if you wish to conduct a whole tree (also known as tree length) or cut-to-length harvest, as this will be important information for the mill to know.
When selling logs whole tree, only limbs and the tops of trees are cut off, and the rest of the stem is loaded onto a truck. When selling cut-to-length wood, however, logs are pre-cut into common lumber lengths, such as 8 ft, 10 ft, or 12 ft. The type of harvest you choose will likely be determined by the equipment available to you. For example, a skidder will be able to handle whole tree wood, but not cut-to-length. On the other hand, cutting wood with an ATV may require cut-to-length, as the machine will not be strong enough to carry whole trees.
Step 2: Contact Several Mills
Once you have an idea of what you are going to cut, its time to start marketing your wood. You should have at least a vague idea of where your wood should be going. For example, softwood will likely be going to a place that manufactures softwood dimensional lumber and hardwood pulpwood will likely be sold to either a paper mill or producer of firewood, depending on the local economy. Figure out what type of mills you need to contact and start researching what is in your area.
My advice would be to start by contacting a local consulting forester. No one will be more intimately familiar with your local forest products industry than a forester, so if you tell them what wood you are trying to sell, they will be able to point you in the right direction of whom to contact. Then you can start making phone calls.
Be sure to explain to the mills what your situation is, including your level of familiarity with the process. The more information, the better. Not only does explaining your situation convey a degree of competency and seriousness of the operation (the mill likely won’t want to deal with someone who will waste their time), but more open communication ensures that all gaps are filled and both parties know exactly what to expect, especially in regard to quality, transport, and payment. Misaligned expectations can be a source of great grief on either end.
A secondary option that may be best for small woodlots and operations is to sell logs to a concentration yard instead of a sawmill. The purpose of a concentration yard is essentially to serve as a a wholesaling middleman. They purchase loads piecemeal from smaller operators and concentrate the volume to be able to do business with larger sawmills.
Though concentration yards typically pay lower than selling directly to mills, it can allow you to access more markets and un-complicate the selling process by requiring sales with only one other counterparty instead of several. Moreover, because concentration yards are used to dealing with small lots, many of them can arrange the transportation of the logs.
Once you ascertain that a sawmill or yard is willing to buy your logs, they will provide you with a spec sheet for those logs, which will specify the diameters, lengths, and tolerances they accept for logs they buy. In general, the specifications you will have to cut your logs to will define:
- Log length (cut-to-length)
- Minimum top end (smaller) diameter
- Rot tolerance
- Sweep tolerance
- Clear faces (mostly for hardwood)
- Trim (cut-to-length)
Step 3: Arrange Transport
Next, if this step isn’t taken care of for you by the mill or concentration yard, is to find transport for the logs to the mill. Generally, this will be easier than finding markets for the wood. However, there are a few considerations to be made.
First, you have to understand a few details and limitations of logging trucks. There are two basic types of trucks: standard trucks and self-loader trucks. Self-loaders come with a crane attached and, as the name suggests, they can load themselves. Standard trucks, however, have no crane of their own and must be accompanied by one.
Because self-loaders usually have their cranes mounted in the center of the bunk, they cannot be used to transport whole-tree wood. Standard trucks, however, can be used to load either whole tree or cut-to-length.
Once you have an idea of what you need, start making phone calls to local trucking companies. Even if they cannot help you, they will likely point you in the right direction. It is also a good idea to contact smaller independent sawmills and ask for leads, as these companies will likely work with several independent truckers.
Step 4: Conduct Your Harvest
Once markets and transport are secured, you can begin your harvest.
While the harvest itself is quite the process, there are two main objectives to keep in regard for a successful sale of harvested logs: quality control and sorting.
Throughout your harvest, it will be your responsibility to occasionally take measurements of your product and ensure logs are meeting the specifications of the mill. While you should check all aspects of the specs, it is usually the minimum top size that tends to be most frequently violated, so measure top sizes frequently.
As you bring your wood out to the tard, remember to keep the wood sorted by product and destination for easy transport. Mixing up piles is a good way to create a whole lot of work for yourself and frustrate both your truckers and the sawmill, so be sure to keep wood separate! Once the wood is trucked off, congratulations–your sale will be complete.
Be Sure You Are Up to the Task!
If you’ve read this article through, you may have come to the conclusion that it just isn’t feasible for you to sell logs directly to a sawmill, and that’s fine to admit. It may be best for you to hire a forester who can work with a logger for you and sell your timber without you breaking a sweat.
If, however, you are like me, and the thought of this challenging process excites you, then I hope this helps make the process easier and more organized.
Whatever your particular situation is, best of luck!