Ten thousands years ago, the last glaciations occurred in the Lake States. What is called the “Superior Lobe” of this glacier gradually slid across the U.P. and into northeastern Wisconsin, headed in a southwesterly direction. When it stopped, it left hills, potholes and plenty of rocks in what was the debris pile being pushed ahead of this glacier. This terminal moraine is where I found Dan and Brian McKinney running their pair of Ponsse's.
In addition to all of the rocks and rough ground, there is some very nice hardwood timber growing, and McKinney Logging was doing a harvest. By the way, on the south side of this glacial deposit is flat land that was laid down when the glacier melted. Potato farmers have laid claim to this flat and fertile ground, but never considered raising a crop on the moraine. The McKinney's don’t mind. Dan McKinney is the senior partner in this operation, and he is also the father of Brian McKinney, the junior partner. Brian is 36 years old, and Dan is age 75.
Dan said he started logging when he was about age 30. The lure of the big city and fat paychecks had brought him to Milwaukee and a job in a factory. He said he was homesick for the Northwoods and came home. He had experience with logging, using horses, before he left for Milwaukee. When he came back, he logged with horses.
Horse logging, however, was becoming a thing of the past, and he decided to modernize. Because of a tight budget, he purchased a Tree Farmer cable skidder from a fellow in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It was a step toward modernization, but there was a small problem. The Tree Farmer had been disassembled, and he bought the pieces and began to assemble a working Tree Farmer. It became a working piece of equipment, and he went to work. At this time, his wife, Susan, learned to operate the skidder, and they were a husband and wife team. Dan added a truck, and when the husband and wife team piled up some wood, Dan hauled it. They continued this type of operation for about ten years.
Then, Brian was old enough, at age 18, to operate a chainsaw, and he did the cutting. Mom skidded and Dan trucked. Dan invested in a Volvo truck, ran it for about a year, and traded the truck to Brian for a John Deere cable skidder that Brian had acquired. Brian was now a trucker, and his father was back in the woods with a saw.
Brian’s truck driving lasted about a year. He hired a driver and bought a slasher to cut up the pole-length wood his father was producing. The hired driver idea wasn’t a good one, and the truck was sold. As they explained, there was plenty of trucking power around that could be hired to haul their wood, and they did so. That was about in 2008, and they have stuck to logging since the truck left.
The father-son team found that there was plenty of timber to be bought from county sales and private stands too. The logging duo lives in Gleason, Wisconsin and they are located in a good spot to log Langlade County sales as well as timber in Oneida, Marathon and their home county of Lincoln.
During this period, they purchased a Tree Farmer C5 forwarder, which was replaced by a 2004 Ponsse Caribou forwarder. That was in 2007. The move to harvesters also was made, with Brian purchasing a Link Belt Harvester. He didn’t like it that much and switched to a Cat 550 with a dangle head. In 1998 he bought a 1998 Ponsse Ergo that he ran for five years. He liked the Ponsse, and then, three years ago, he bought a used Ponsse Beaver harvester that had been reconditioned at Ponsse’s headquarters in nearby Rhinelander, Wisconsin.
The Beaver is equipped with a dangle head, and Brian said that is what he prefers. He likes the lighter weight at the end of the boom, and says, with practice, you can put a tree exactly where you want it. He said the lighter weight also allows him to use the head with the boom extended farther, and, he said, that means increased productivity. He likes this setup, and says he can reach out 33 feet for another stem. It also means that a longer reach allows the timber to be logged with less of the acreage touched by tires and less damage to the residual stand.
It is a good bet that they will stick with Ponsse equipment. They love the service at Ponsse, and what they also like is the help they get from Ponsse when they do their own repairs. They are impressed with Ponsse’s Matt Olkowski, who has helped them through some fixing sessions. They told me that Olkowski will spend time on the phone asking you questions until he can diagnose the problem and tell you what parts you need and how to install them. There are times, however, when he will say that a breakdown should be repaired by a technician. (There is a good reason that I mentioned Olkowski by name. On numerous story assignments, Olkowski has received high marks on his help in fixing a Ponsse, saving the owners money. They appreciate his help.)
We discussed the pros and cons and buying used versus new machinery. Obviously, when you buy a Tree Farmer that has been disassembled, you aren’t afraid of taking on repairs on a complete machine. There is also the question of debt versus losing days, now and again, with repairs on a used machine. The McKinney's aren’t afraid of a few lost days that require them to get greasy hands. The lower monthly payments are appreciated by the McKinney crew, and they both said that buying a new machine was never one of their goals in the logging business.
This stand of timber is of good quality, and certainly the Langlade County Forestry Department should get some credit for good management practices. Signs of the last logging chance were still visible, and the previous logger did a good job logging the site as well as the current loggers.
But remember that glacier I talked about earlier? We can probably credit that glacier with leaving good soil to raise hardwood timber, but that ancient glacier gets poor grades for the terrain left behind. This stand of timber is often standing on end. There are numerous hills, and not rolling hills either. There is steep terrain everywhere, making for some tricky logging.
When I comment on this to the McKinney's, they laughed and asked if I had noticed the ridge that I drove over on the way in. I certainly had noticed it. The view from the top was tremendous, but the ground was almost perpendicular. Brian said they logged all they could reach from the top, then started on the bottom. He said he would climb the hill, grab a tree, cut it and drag it to the bottom to process it. Eventually they finished the hill and moved on to less tilted ground.
I was surprised to learn that they seldom buy their own timber sales these days. Instead, they decided, there was less stress in doing contract logging. This timber sale was purchased by Central Wisconsin Lumber, out of Marathon, Wisconsin. You have possibly seen a feature story on Central Wisconsin Lumber in the pages of this magazine. Rick Kersten, owner of Central Wisconsin, and forester Scott Foth, keep them in decent timber.
We discussed the pros and cons of contract logging versus buying sales, and I was told that they like contracting because they don’t have to worry about chasing down timber, which takes time that can be spent putting timber roadside. They pointed out that there is no income earned when cruising timber, even though they may have a few more bucks per cord to work on, or possibly not. There are no roads to build. The trucking is not a problem. They also don’t have to worry about marketing wood, all of which takes time and time is money, as the old saying goes.
Father and son both like what they are doing, and will, I think, be in the business for years to come. If you are wondering what a 75-year-old is doing logging, I can tell you he is doing a nice job of sorting and piling pulpwood and logs roadside. I am sure that Dan McKinney is asked frequently when he will retire, as did I. He said he tried it for a few months a couple of years back, and decided he would rather be in the woods. Why not?