Small Scale Logging Equipment & Operations


Logging is perhaps the oldest industry known to man. When Homo sapiens first began crafting tools, axes were among our first creations. We needed shelter and fuel, and materials could be readily be harvested from the forests found all across the new lands we ventured into. It should come as no surprise then that logging is conducive to small scale operations. As long as you have an axe, you have the equipment necessary to start a small scale logging operation, although we recommend a bit more sophisticated of an operation. Nonetheless, the possibilities are truly limitless and limited only by our creativity. Below is a synopsis of such small scale systems, their advantages, and how you can use them on your property for superior forest management.

Advantages of Small Scale Logging

The advantages of small scale logging are plenty, particularly for small land owners. First, It is considerably cheaper, and often more versatile. Modern logging equipment can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to purchase and hundreds of dollars an hour to operate. Because of these costs, larger equipment owners and operators must be economics-conscious and can only operate profitably in certain types of stands. Small scale logging equipment can be cheap–sometimes just an ATV and a chainsaw. At that scale, the only limitation is the willpower of the operator. And let me tell you, I’ve seen plenty of situations to prove just that.

Small scale logging is also incredibly low-impact and results in considerably less damage to the forest floor and residual stand. While the operation itself may not be as productive or profitable as larger operations, the increased value that comes from minimizing damage to the residual forest may be more than enough to make up for potential revenue or productivity shortfalls in the operation itself. To prove the point, below are photos of the results in logging the same stand with two different types of equipment: A small Vimek processor and substantially larger Komatsu processor.

Small scale logging equipment has immense benefits for forest productivity.
Logging with a small Vimek processor (above) and larger Komatsu Processor (below) as well as the canopies and trails of the two systems.

The results speak for themselves. The Vimek was able to minimize trails so well, they were almost imperceptible after the harvest. The crown closure was hardly affected. The Komatsu, however, created large and extremely visible trails. As time went on, damage to the roots from the Komatsu and exposure to wind from larger openings in the canopy resulted in catastrophic blowdown due to a storm just a few years later. The acreage cut with the Vimek suffered little to no damage during the same storm. The net result is better stocking and growth from the Vimek-affected area. Interestingly, at the time of this experiment, the Vimek was derided by those involved as being unprofitable and impractical. However, as time goes on, the production of the forest it logged far outpaces the alternative. Which will end up being the most profitable in the end? Time will tell, but I suspect the Vimek will come out on top.

While this is only an example of two specific machines, it is a clear example of the benefits of small scale logging equipment, which are universal. Smaller machines and lower impact are going to have immense benefits for the forest. A serious woodlot owner or timberland investor committed to forest management must understand the benefits of small scale operations and carefully balance them with their costs. To determine these costs, logistics, and other considerations, it is important to understand the parts of a logging operation and the functions that need to be fulfilled in order to bring wood roadside.

Parts of a Small Scale Logging Operation

Logging operations can be broken down into two main parts: felling/processing and skidding/forwarding. The felling/processing component involves felling a tree (obviously), trimming off limber, and possibly cutting it to proper specifications of whatever product it is to be used for. For example, logs that are going to be sold to a mill should be cut to a minimum top size prior to being trucked. The skidding/forwarding portion of a logging operation refer to the process of moving logs from the woods to the roadside. Generally speaking, when logs are dragged on the ground, it is called skidding. When logs are first loaded onto a trailer, it is called forwarding.

Small scale logging equipment must be able to complete these two functions to work. Other than this necessity, there is a great degree of diversity and creativity that can be utilized to create a successful operation.

Let’s take a look at some of the many pieces of equipment used in small scale logging.

Felling

While there are niche, small processors on the market such as the above Vimek, these machines are uncommon (at least in the United States), and they are mostly unavailable to small woodlot owners. The most common (and perhaps only) practical tool for felling timber on a small scale basis is the chainsaw. It is, after all, a cheap and time-tested tool that is relatively easy to use. With only a little bit of practice (and proper safety equipment), anyone can learn to drop trees like a pro!

The author logging.

Skidding and Forwarding Equipment

The key equipment that will vary the most in a small scale logging operation and the most important consideration is the type of machine used to move wood roadside. There are near-limitless possibilities for this crucial piece of the operation, but here we will cover the more popular options.

Cable Skidders

Cable Skidders are the largest pieces of small scale logging equipment that still qualify as small scale. They operate by pulling fallen trees across the forest floor with a hydraulic winch. it is small enough to limit rutting and soil compaction, but large enough to be able to overcome virtually any obstacle in its way. It can climb steep slopes with ease, work in heavy snow, and it has the power to pull even the largest trees out to the road. I used to work on the property that grew the world record eastern larch. When they harvested it after the tree had died, do you know what they used to haul it out? You guessed it–a cable skidder, and you can watch the video here. Its limitations are few.

Cable Skidders are the most common piece of logging equipment.

Cable skidders come with other benefits. They are small and nimble enough to be able to maneuver around trees, limiting damage, and by dragging trees along the ground, a good logging operation with a cable skidder can scarify the soil and spread seed, resulting in spectacular silvicultural outcomes, especially for shelterwood cuts. They can also be purchased and operated quite cheaply.

Cable skidders are the most common piece of small scale logging equipment used by professional loggers, and, unless you are logging your own property, it is most likely what will be available to you.

Bulldozers

Bulldozers outfitted with winches or logging arches can be used in much the same way as cable skidders. In fact, prior to cable skidders’ entry onto the market in the 1960s (or so), bulldozers and crawler tractors were used in the first mechanical logging operations.

They come with a few extra considerations. Bulldozers are considerably slower and not as maneuverable as a skidder (they may require more maintenance as well), but because they are tracked, they put less pressure on the forest floor. Additionally, they can be purchased for considerably cheaper. A used cable skidder runs anywhere north of $10,000, while a small bulldozer can be purchased well-used for less than $5,000.

ATV and Tractor Skidding

For DIY small scale logging operations, the best and most versatile equipment for the woodlot owner is going to be ATVs and tractors. While there are better options, to be sure, ATVs and tractors are likely to be more available, especially for farmers and landowners who also own large tracts of non-forested property. Unlike cable skidders and other pieces of designated equipment, ATVs and tractors can help with a variety of other rural chores, adding to their versatility. If you hope to operate a small mill on your property or self-sufficiently harvest firewood, an ATV or tractor will suit you fine.

Both ATVS and tractors can be outfitted with winches or logging arches to drag trees out of the woods. however, because of the limitations in pulling capacity (particularly for ATVs), the goal is to reduce drag as much as possible. Logging arches achieve this by lifting the base of the tree in the air and away from obstructions. However, skidding cones can also be used to cover the butt of a log and reduce the friction as it is pulled along the ground. And of course, loads should be limited, as weight adds greatly to friction.

ATV and Tractor Forwarding

Because of the necessity of reducing friction and the limitations of pulling trees with underpowered or slow equipment, my preferred method of logging with ATVs and tractors is forwarding logs with the use of a trailer. Because the logs are lifted above the ground entirely and moved on wheels, load capacities are increased immensely. By increasing the weight of the load, you decrease the number of trips that need to be made, adding to the overall efficiency of the operation. However, the maximum diameter of logs is more limited with this sort of a system, as they are harder to load and must be shorter, so it is best used for firewood and small saw-log harvests. With a little bit of practice and well-prepared trail systems, this set up can be surprisingly productive.

ATVs are a surprisingly excellent piece of small scale logging equipment.

In most cases, forwarding trailers load logs with the use of a winch that pulls logs up and onto the trailer, but for landowners looking for more production and less work, forwarding trailers with hydraulic cranes are a popular, albeit more expensive option. There are several manufacturers, including Vahva Jussi and Kellfri, and there are even some enterprising YouTubers who have built their own.

Other Options For Small Scale Logging

Are there other options available? Absolutely! If you own horses, horse logging may be a realistic option. I once worked with a forester who logged his property with a snowmobile and skidding cone. You can even by drag individual trees out by hand. As mentioned previously, the possibilities are near limitless, and you will likely be limited only by your resources. However, given the immense benefits small scale logging brings to your forest management regime, it’s worth a try! Next time you are planning a harvest, explore your options.

Zachary Lowry

A forester from northern Maine, I spent my early career working for large timberland owners, managing forest land and investments in the form of managing timber harvest operations as well as planning and managing precommercial thinning, planting, and herbicide application programs. These days I work on my own land and help timberland owners large and small manage theirs.

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