Grinding It Out In the Land Clearing Business
Tracked horizontal grinder enables contractor to ‘take it to the woods’
Thomas McKellar hails from a business/marketing and land development background. Today, he is President and owner of Site Prep, a cutting-edge land clearing business specializing in pipeline right-of-ways (generally 50 miles and less) as well as general construction site clearing. He also runs Biomass Chippers.us, an in-woods chipping and grinding specialist company.
McKellar definitely considers himself to be, in part, a waste-wood/organic materials recycler. With Site Prep he has about eight years of what he calls big pipeline experience, clearing land on right-of-way construction jobs, and managing the resulting organic materials. For the majority of his time as owner of Site Prep, McKellar has used tracked mulchers for his stump grinding and land clearing work. In the fall of 2014, he purchased a CBI Magnum Force 6400T horizontal tracked grinder manufactured by Newton, New Hampshire-based Continental Biomass Industries. He is currently using it in place of multiple pieces of equipment, including his old stump grinders and his former chippers and horizontal grinders, which he has since sold. He says he has not looked back.
Developing a niche
“Part of our business is working as a biomass harvester, or collector,” explains McKellar. “This is the grinding and chipping side of the business. We grind railroad ties, and chip whole trees, which go to companies who use the end product to produce energy. This is really where I want to take my business.
“I’m currently working a specialized job in Dallas, grinding railroad ties. There are very few big machines that are mobile, and which will run as productively as a large, stationary electric machine. And there’s not many machines that can grind railroad ties. It’s a special niche that I think we’re going to stick with, using CBI grinders, because they are just so productive.
“CBI makes different types of rotors for the 6400T,” continues McKellar. “In the CBI, you can run a chipper drum, a forged grinding drum, or you can use a solid steel rotor with a ‘brute drum’ package. The brute rotor really lends itself to handling almost anything. There is less of a chance of a catastrophic failure, even if railroad tie plates get in the grinder by accident.
“You do lose some time when you’re grinding railroad ties because you’re taking the time to sort through them, looking for the metal plates attached to them. This means we can’t just grab and throw them in the grinder. You pick up 10 to 15 of them at a time. The operator is loading with a material handler with a full rotation grapple on it, and there’s about a 15-second delay to check them over. So we’re running about 60 to 70 percent of maximum machine capacity when processing railroad ties, which gets us about 100 tonnes per hour.
“When we go to our secondary grind, we take the six-inch screen out and put in a two-inch screen. There’s a lot of material that comes out of the six-inch screen that is already sized correctly, and we can just go wide open with a pair of six-yard wheel loaders dumping from each side, and just put everything into the grinder. We get as much as 150 tonnes an hour that way, even going through a two-inch screen.
“We can go into many specialized jobs with our tracked CBI mobile grinder. They are very versatile in ‘less-than wide open conditions’, such as in confined plants and factories, or on a smaller, two to three-acre site. If you have a tracked machine, you can make really good use out of it in a limited space area where a pull-behind or a big old tub will cause you problems.”
On construction site clearing jobs, McKellar explains the process he calls “clearing and grubbing”.
“Let’s say a Wal-Mart shopping centre is being built, along with surrounding stores, which requires clearing of maybe one hundred acres. Those sites can’t burn most of the time, due to their proximity to homes and urban development areas. They can’t haul off debris in whole form, like they can when it’s ground up. We come in, cut down the trees, grub out the stumps, grind it all up and haul it off.
“We deliver a stump-free site. It’s more costly not to burn on-site, but that’s just the way things are going.”
From in-woods grinding to overseas markets
“To understand the in-woods grinding, or in-woods chipping side of my business (BiomassChippers.us) let’s say a logging contractor has a call to chip part of his product. He hauls out part of it as logs, and he may collect all of the left over product that is unmerchantable. Not necessarily just the tops of trees and other parts cut down, but the unmerchantable types, or species of trees.
“We can take our CBI into the woods to process material, eliminating a seven or eight dollar per tonne transportation cost for him to bring it to us. We chip it, pick it up and bring it back to a plant that wants to buy the chips or mulch – usually a paper mill or similar operation.
“Few machines have the ability to go into the woods and produce what we call mill or port-production. With my CBI, I can produce product in the woods that is as good as it can be done in a port, or with a stationary electric machine.
“All the money in wood is in the hauling. You haul it from the woods to the field, you get it chipped or ground, you haul it to a ship, then you take it overseas. It’s all in the transportation. ”Thomas McKellar
“And when I market my services, it is all about providing a ‘green, environmentally- friendly, recyclable way,’” adds McKellar. “I am selling a green way to handle waste materials – no on-site burning and no burying.
“If my customers want the end product to be half-inch, one-inch, two-inch – if they want it chipped or ground – we can do it. There’s very few companies that offer a machine with the versatility to change from a grinder to a chipper and produce a ship-load of material.
“To give you an idea, wood product is being sold overseas for about $150 per tonne. Eighty dollars of that is to ship it there. And many overseas companies are getting carbon-credits and their governments are mandating that 20 to 25 percent of their burn needs to be in renewable resources. That’s wood. It’s not plastic, it’s not coal, it’s not natural gas or oil. It’s wood in many different forms. And different countries overseas want different types of product. Some want chipped, some chipped and dried, some of them want ground, and some will take whole trees, just debarked and shipped to them. It’s a huge, huge market to ship wood product overseas right now. The overseas market in Europe and China is currently out-paying the U.S. by far.
“The niche I’m trying to fill with my grinder, is to ‘take the show’ to the woods. The average logging contractor doesn’t want to be capitally invested in a million-dollar machine for grinding and chipping. I can come in there and do it for them, at a price that leaves them plenty of room to make money.
“The economy of scale of the large horsepower CBI machine allows me to do this. You can’t afford to do this with many competitive machines. They may cost less, but they may only last five years. My CBI machine may cost more, but it will run 20,000 hours and last me, I predict, ten to twelve years.”
Stuck on CBI
“CBIs are built so you can replace all the wear parts. Everything on it can be replaced. I’ve owned a variety of other brands over the last ten years. I don’t believe the engineers who built them spent one day in the woods repairing a machine. It’s a major job. Downtime is a ‘killer’ in the woods.
“When I bought my 6400T, in the fall of 2014, I had about $6 million worth of other equipment, I immediately sold myself down to $2.5 million, five pieces of equipment total, and I have not lost a dime. I went from about $95,000 per month in notes payable, down to $35,000 per month. I take immaculate good care of my equipment, so I was able to get top dollar for specialty pieces that I sold, including mulchers, a pair of older horizontal grinders, two chippers and tracked cut-down saws, things like that which we were using to clear right of ways – because my new CBI grinder can do the work of all of those machines.
“Hands down, my CBI will outperform any grinder there is, apples to apples, by 25 percent, and probably give you at least a 20 percent less cost to put tonnage on the ground in a chipping or grinding situation.
“I didn’t buy this machine to be only a grinder. I can actually use it to clear right of ways. CBI custom-built me a 1,000 horsepower machine with a D6XL undercarriage, with 24 inches of ground clearance, three extra rollers for distribution of the weight, a set of 32-inch double-bar severe-duty Grouser tracks on it – and it weighs only 92,000 pounds. They built me a line-walking beast! It has a 60-inch wide-discharge belt and material comes off it a foot-thick, and it never stops.”
Success to build on
McKellar doesn’t consider his companies to be large operations. He generally runs with 10 to 20 employees and considers this to be part of his recipe for success. “My employees are my friends,” McKellar says. “They are very well paid, and I know they will not damage my equipment. You can’t have a $25/hour operator running a million dollar machine. And I’m right there working with them. I am a 100 percent on-the-job owner operator, working with my guys.”
McKellar adds that he is very proud to say that his company has had zero accidents or injuries for nine years, and has an A+ rating with ISNetworld, an online resource used to rate contractors for safety and reliability (www.isnetworld.com).
“I also have to express my sincere appreciation for the help I received from Russ Meich of 5-Point Industries out of Alvarado, Texas, in helping identify markets which enabled me to purchase my 6400T,” says McKellar.
“I’m basically a good old boy who got myself to a point where I could buy $5 million worth of equipment. I want to take my company into the more secure niche of grinding and chipping, with the biggest, best, most dependable, versatile equipment there is.
“To leave something for my kids,” he concludes. “I’m trying to figure out how to pass it on, and give some of my family a better life when I’m gone. That’s what motivates me.”