December 17, 2004 | By: Aimee Heald-Nielson
HAZARD, Ky.

A mechanized feller/buncher allows a logger to remain safe in a climate-controlled cab.

Dedicated foresters trekked up a wet and muddy eastern Kentucky hillside to watch a demonstration of a machine that could boost production and increase safety in many logging operations.

The University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service hosted the event in Breathitt County as a part of the Kentucky Master Logger Program.

“We wanted loggers to have a look at some new equipment involved in mechanized logging, particularly mechanized tree felling,” said Jeff Stringer, University of Kentucky College of Agriculture Extension forestry specialist. “Logging is a very dangerous profession and one of the most dangerous aspects is the felling process, which is cutting down the tree.”

Attendees watched the mechanized feller/buncher move along the steep hillside, while the operator was safely inside a climate-controlled cab. Most agreed that using such a machine could save in labor costs and insurance premiums, especially workers’ compensation rates. 

Workers’ compensation rates for the logging industry have soared in Kentucky. Stringer said in some instances, companies are paying $100 in workers comp for every $100 they dole out in payroll. 

Rocky May is a fourth-generation logger in Pike County. In that time, his operation has not had any workers’ comp claims, but his rates steadily have climbed.

“Workers comp went up 50 percent from 2003 to 2004 for us,” he said. “If it does that for the next two or three years, I don’t know what the future will hold. It’s hard to overcome and another year of rate increases like that would shut down a small operation.”

Stringer said mechanized fellers have the potential to significantly lower workers’ comp rates.

“Instead of standing on the ground using a chainsaw, the feller is protected from hazards like chainsaws and falling trees and limbs,” Stringer said. “It’s a big safety issue. You could save quite a bit in workers’ comp rates by getting the feller protected. Typically you could go from paying $100 per $100 of payroll to around $15 to $20 per $100 and that’s substantial.”

Michael and Marty Reynolds of Medora, Ind., attended the Breathitt County demonstration. They own a logging operation together, running about five million board feet per year. The night before the demonstration, they bought a mechanized feller/buncher.

“We’re having trouble finding manpower in our area and this machine can take the place of three guys, plus our insurance will drop for the workers we already have,” Michael Reynolds said. “I’m impressed. The terrain here is way rougher than back home. So if it will work here, it will do a good job for us. We’ll also gain days of work because a cutter wouldn’t want to be out here in the rain, but this machine will change all that.”

Stringer admitted that mechanized logging is very expensive and not all operations would be able to implement the system, but those who can make the switch will be in a better financial position in the long run.

“It’s not for all loggers,” he said. “There will continue to be a number of loggers who will continue to manually fell and there’s a need for that. The ones who have the opportunity and markets available to them to use this equipment, the demo gives them an idea of what’s involved.”

There has been a surge in mechanized logging in Kentucky in the past few years, mostly in the western part of the state where the forest ground is not as steep. However, Stringer said the equipment has a self-leveling cab that makes it perfect for the steeper hillsides of the eastern part of the state.

The Kentucky Master Logger Program is administered through a partnership of the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service, the Kentucky Division of Forestry and the Kentucky Forest Industries Association. Loggers are required to go through the program and be recertified every three years.

“We have a mandate for continuing education,” Stringer said. “We try to have as much on-the-ground, in-the-field educational programming as possible for loggers.”

For more information about the Master Logger Program, contact your local Cooperative Extension Service office.

The demonstration was sponsored by Amerisafe, Inc., Begley Lumber Co., Curry Timber, Forest Products, Inc., Ky. Forest Industries Association, Kentucky Hardwood Lumber Co., Lyons Equipment Co., Patterson Chip Co., Pine Mountain Lumber Co., Trus Joist, UK Cooperative Extension Service, Southeast Ky. Ag Development Association and Van Meter Insurance.

Contact: 

Writer: Aimee D. Nielson 859-257-4736, ext. 267
Contact: Jeff Stringer 859-257-5994