Taking Biomass to the Bank
Biomass – a steady revenue stream for Godfrey & Yeager Excavating
By Bob Bruce
Ask some guys how they ended up doing what they do for a living, and they might say they just sort of “fell into the career” or maybe “backed into it by chance,” but you probably won’t find anyone saying it came about because the DEQ forced them into it.
At least, that’s Kevin Yeager’s story. According to him, everything started out pretty normal. “My father built a subdivision on a heavily wooded piece of ground that he had owned for many years, and we did all the ground work for it.”
It was a great site for a group of houses. The only drawback was that it was located about a mile from the local hospital. “The DEQ wouldn’t allow us to burn the slash,” he says. “They told us we had to find alternate means to dispose of the material.”
Aside from burying the stuff, about the only choice left was to grind it up. “But we couldn’t find anybody local. The closest grinder was about two and a half hours away in Eugene,” says Kevin.
So they went out and bought themselves a used Peterson grinder. “We didn’t know what else to do with the material so we mixed it in with the dirt as we planted everything back, and we used it to spread on the slopes for erosion control.” After a while, word got around that Yeager was producing mulch along with cutting roads.
“In the beginning, we didn’t know there was a market for what we were grinding. But then we got involved with a company that could actually market the material for us and eventually found our way to Roseburg Forest Products who bought everything we made and continues to be our largest customer, buying probably 95 percent of all the product we produce,” says Kevin.
A Market for Biomass
It is worth noting at this point that Yeager is not a logger, even though Roseburg buys a lot of timber out of the Coos Bay-North Bend area. But with the burning restrictions around Coos Bay, even the big timber companies run into the same situation that Yeager faced when clearing land for his father’s subdivision – they can’t just push up huge burn piles and set a match to them anymore.
Most mills are able to use the byproducts of the debarking, sawing, trimming, and sanding steps as fuel for the boilers that feed their dryers. Larger mills like Roseburg can also use the biomass to fire enough steam to run their own electricity generators and become essentially self-sufficient and off the power grid.
Although Kevin has also had some success selling the chipped biomass directly to local residents and businesses, it is not as reliable as Roseburg Forest Products. “We can sell the material direct if there is someone who wants it, but everything comes with a cost. You have to be able to sell it for more than it costs to make it.”
“Also, because we are on the coast, there’s a tremendous amount of logs being barked and put onto ships. That made the prices come down to where we could no longer just come into the woods, grind the material, and sell it for as much or less than what people could buy bark for.”
Taking Advantage of Transportation
One of the main reasons Roseburg can afford to be such a good and steady customer is that they are already running wood pulp trucks up to the export yard at the Port of Coos Bay to deliver pulp for transfer to cargo ships headed to Japan and China.
Since the trucks are already heading back to Roseburg, it makes good sense to load them up with something useful. But since the chip-hauling trucks do not handle tight turns and steep gravel roads all that well, Kevin has to add a few extra steps.
“Since the chip trucks are too long to get in here, we load up our live floor trailers and shuttle them out of the woods onto the pavement where we can transfer it to the chip trucks headed back to Roseburg.
In addition to the extra handling, Kevin’s crew also has to exercise a higher level of quality control than they might otherwise need to if they were only making chipped wood for mulch and ground cover.
“Roseburg has a definite set of specifications regarding things like size of the material, amount of non-burnables, etc.,” says Kevin. “We couldn’t just jump in and start selling to them. We had to prove that we could supply consistent material that fits their needs day in and day out.”
For example, when the loader operator grabs a chunk from the feed pile, he can’t just drop it into the grinder hopper. “He picks it up, drops it, then picks it up again and shakes it to try to get the dirt out of it. Then you also have to pay attention to how you feed the grinder, how fast you feed it, and the size of the screening grates.”
Using Various Species
While most of the wood around Coos Bay is Doug Fir, they do run into the occasional madrona and oak, particularly as they move inland toward the I-5 corridor, and that can affect productivity and quality of the product they supply to Roseburg. “We have a lot of wind on the coast so a lot of these trees have been wind whipped. We find that even though it’s Doug Fir, it chops a little harder because of the rubbery-ness of it.”
Kevin continues, “And then with the oaks and other hardwoods, if you let it sit in the woods too long it’s just like trying to split firewood — the longer you let it sit the harder it is split. We like to get to the wood no longer than six months after it’s been cut.”
Kevin’s crew keeps the hungry Peterson 4710 fed with a tag-team of Cat excavators. His “little” Cat, the 315C, has a set of in-house constructed brush rakes and it is the one that actually loads up the feeder bin for the 4710. Kevin’s “big” Cat, a 330B, sees double duty in their rock quarry and out in the brush. They keep the bucket and thumb attached because its main job in the brush is to grab stumps and shake and pound the bejeebers out of them to get as much dirt and rock shook off before they hit the grinder.
Trying out Knives
Over the last year or so, Yeager has been experimenting with knives in their grinder instead of hammers. The knives are produced by Key Knife, headquartered in Tualatin, Ore. “They get a better clean cut product so the ends are not as frayed as they are with traditional hammers,” he says. “In the end the knives give us a better product to help us keep our customers happy.”
Although one of the initial concerns in using knives over hammers was the issue of how they would hold up to non-wood objects, “I think we’re going to stay with the knives for in the wood,” he says. “There is metal in the woods. If man has been here, there’s metal. In some of the areas in this county in the early 1900s the logging was all done by rail so you sometimes find old railroad spikes that can make their way into your machine.”
And the problem is you often don’t know you’ve come across an old spike until it hits the knives – but then you know real fast. Fortunately however, “these Peterson grinders are pretty hardy, they can take quite a bit of metal. It’s unbelievable how tough they are.”
It also helps that when a knife does crack it can be replaced pretty quickly. “The blades are attached to a replaceable holder and the blade tips are made of a really good alloy that can take a lot of abuse,” he says. “But if you do need to replace something you can shut off the machine and swap out either the blade or the holder. There are 20 knives in the drum and you could probably change out the whole drum in about half an hour.”
Something else he has discovered with the knives is, “When you get into really dry material, we can’t get our trucks up to weight [using the hammers] but the knives chop the wood cleaner and get more air out of the load so we can get two to three more tons per load in the dead of summer. Any time we can get more tonnage on the trucks it’s money ahead for us,” says Kevin.
Since Yeager typically contracts directly with the timber companies and landowners, he is not really on most loggers’ radar. Kevin says, “If we know an area is getting logged, and we know the timber company wants us to grind it, we will often go in and visit with the logger and tell them what our intentions are after they are gone. A lot of them will actually pile the material where it’s easier for us to get to — rather than stacking it into a teepee pile for burning, they will lay it out more like a log deck.”
Except for the Peterson 4710 grinder, Yeager has a relatively small collection of machinery that he can quickly adapt from road building to biomass grinding and back again. In addition to that he has two excavators, a Cat 315 and a Cat 330, two Cat 950F wheel loaders, and a couple of Volvo articulated haul trucks with a “brush package” that consists mainly of extra-tall sideboards.
One benefit to loggers is that Yeager is primarily a road building contractor, and if he will be coming in to clean up the slash, the loggers can often just finish up the logging and then pull out without having to worry about returning for any additional clean-up.
“We can come in and take care of the water bars and rip the roads for replanting, so sometimes there is a cost savings to the logger, and sometimes it doesn’t affect them one way or the other,” says Yeager. “It just depends on how the contract is written.