Forestry Mulching Revisited: An Industry Assessment

So I think it’s time to address the issue of forestry mulching, not merely as a better method for clearing overgrown property, but as a skill and industry.  Like most things in life it’s easy to say but hard to do: the industry is young and there is little parity between equipment manufacturers and even less between service providers.  There are also few established operational protocols and little knowledge on the part of the public regarding the technology or process.  Years ago, when targeting key words for our first website the term “forestry mulching” did not even exist.   We bombarded the Google search engines with information on forestry mulching and used the term liberally throughout our site in an effort to give it validity and differentiate it from the “mulching” offered by landscapers for gardening purposes.  To some degree our efforts were successful, although the “Great Recession” stunted the process just as it was gaining momentum.  Consequently, there is a long way to go before positive public recognition and demand support the industry.

V & V forestry mulching in progress
Rayco C140 at work

In the meantime, the forestry mulching industry needs to take the lead.  This has yet to happen.  Few companies have provided the research, technology and support required to truly differentiate their products from the enormous heap of poorly engineered, under-productive and overly expensive machinery currently on the market.  We’ve tested dozens of machines and cutter heads over the years and generally concluded that most purchasers are de facto guinea pigs for the industry.  While speaking at the annual North American sales conference of one of the world’s largest manufacturers I was stunned by the blank expressions all around when I suggested that the goal of both good manufacturing and good sales was to create the first generation of truly worthy machines, operators and protocols.  The idea of selling inferior equipment costing hundreds of thousands of dollars to unskilled users bodes poorly for the industry’s future success.  The field is littered with examples, none of which I will mention, of machinery which fails to provide even the basic level of performance and/or reliability.

Forestry mulching equipment relies upon the careful marriage of horsepower, hydraulic flow (GPM) and internal system pressure (PSI).  Add to that, major system cooling capacity, rugged construction, operator comfort, reasonable serviceability and solid safety features.  In the short history of forestry mulching many units have required major field modifications while others have been reluctantly recalled by manufacturers.  The cost of down time is almost always born by equipment owners.  Even more often units have simply been incapable of “real” production and/or incapable of running without constantly stopping to cool down.  Most have quickly disappeared, along with their hapless owners.  As it stands, anyone hoping to participate in the fledgling industry faces a steep learning curve and a high probability of failure.

Add to the dilemma of inadequate machinery a pervasive ignorance surrounding pricing.  We have watched company after company enter upon the scene and undercharge in an effort to gain market share.  We have even tried to help a few in the hope that greater public knowledge would stimulate the industry.  Instead, we have been left explaining to their former clients that we can take over their projects, though at higher cost- albeit with better machinery and greater skill.  For traditional heavy equipment such as track hoes, bulldozers, loaders etc. a good rule of thumb for hourly pricing has been one tenth of one percent of the purchase price.  This means that a track hoe costing $130,000 should be roughly billed at around $130 per hour.  Because there is a good degree of performance parity between equipment manufacturers (i.e. a John Deere 200 track hoe will do about the same amount of work as a Cat 320) users and customers can be assured that a skilled operator will complete roughly the same amount of work in a given period of time regardless of brand loyalty.  This is not the case with forestry mulching.  Standard pricing methods don’t hold up.  As an example, one particular 260 hp unit we are familiar with will easily out-compete other manufacturers’ 400hp unit at half the cost.  There is, in fact, almost no parity between equipment manufacturers.

The matter of pricing is additionally complicated by factors such as: what kind of track system and tooth style is being used.  On flatter terrain wheeled mulchers are often preferred and cheaper to operate.  For rights-of-way with large timber and a minimum of required clean up the choice may be a track hoe style carrier.  In the mountains and on rugged terrain (where we usually operate) steel track driven units are superior.  Similarly, we generally prefer cutter heads with carbide teeth, as this design allows us to work directly into the soil without fear of breakage.  However, on soils devoid of rock we sometimes use cutter heads equipped with steel knife style teeth, also called planer teeth.  Although these teeth have a relatively short life compared to sturdier carbide, and are not ideal for continuous ground contact, they have better production values and yield a finer mulch.  All of these factors, and many more, affect pricing and value.  Sadly, few are well understood by mulching providers and prospective clients.

Protocol also drastically affects pricing.  An acre of deep woods underbrushing is quite different from an acre of logging slash which, in turn, is equally different from an overgrown former pasture.  Everything from grade to tree species to soil moisture has a serious impact on production.  The demise of many mulching contractors has been standard acreage pricing.  I truly doubt any mulching contractor operating in our service area can make a go of it for long using standard acreage pricing methods.  When we are told by a prospective client that another contractor has presented a cheaper acreage price we encourage them to hire them immediately.  They won’t be in business long.

Currently, the average life of a mulching company is about that of most start up restaurants and generally follows the same trajectory.  The two biggest causes of failure continue to be ignorance on the part of providers regarding pricing and maintenance costs – really two sides of the same coin.  Without getting into detailed cost breakdowns let it suffice to say forestry mulching places immense demands and stresses on equipment.  This must be accounted for in pricing.  Machines must be serviced and repaired constantly and at great expense.  Teeth must be changed, heads balanced, hoses replaced, bolts tightened, engine compartments cleaned etc. etc.  We have inherited numerous jobs in the last decade from companies who simply broke down and never returned.  Mulching contractors must have the skill, budget and infrastructure to keep their gear operational.

My point, and I could go on and on, is this: the industry is doing a poor job creating itself and the public is confused and often disappointed.  Another major cause of public dissatisfaction has been poor mulching skill.  Forestry mulching demands not only operational skill but silvicultural knowledge, familiarity with regional soils and a general understanding of ecology.  Otherwise, the impacts can be at best ineffectual, at worst destructive.  In addition, operators must master a number of specific mulching techniques and at the very least be able to create a minimum three different types of finishes.  There is a big difference between a “real estate presentation” and a pasture finish.

Some years ago we watched as a contractor, presumably working as the “low bid,” attempted to create a Shortleaf Pine savannah, a popular strategy for habitat improvement and progressive stock grazing.  They evidently decided mulching the softer Shortleaf Pines instead of the more difficult Virginia Pines would speed the process.  The end result was a ‘Virginia Pine’ savannah, exactly the opposite of what was desired…. We wondered if they were paid.

Speaking of low skill I must also mention the TVA right-of-way I visited one spring while demoing the new Bobcat T870 – a nice skidsteer totally unsuited for production style mulching.  The operator, a unique sort of fellow called Bones, as compensation for the machines inadequate hydraulic power, was crashing full force into every tree, bush and stump like an exhausted heavyweight boxer.  My five year old asked “Is he going to get in trouble doing it that way?”

As you can see the mulching industry has a long way to go.  Aside from the obvious need for better equipment, industry support and standardized operational protocol as well as pricing strategies that are truly reflective of the costs of staying in business, the industry must do a much better job educating the public about the tremendous benefits of mulching.  With a decade of field tests now behind us our company can clearly differentiate between land cleared by traditional “scrape, haul, burn” methods and land cleared by forestry mulching.  Not only is land cleared by mulching superior by every measure of soil stability, tilth and fertility, it is cleared more cheaply and with vastly fewer externalized environmental costs such as air pollution from burning and erosion.  I am shocked when I still hear the tired and fallacious argument, based almost solely on hourly operational costs, that mulching is more expensive.  Our company performs both types of clearing with equal dedication to positive outcome.  Mulching is cheaper, both long and short term, and creates markedly better results.  Somehow this is still not clear to the public.

A considerable emphasis on sustainability needs to be pursued by the industry.  Although this has begun, much of the interest in mulching has arisen from the consumer end because local and state governments have opted for stricter environmental and permitting standards.  The mulching industry needs to spend less time on testosterone-driven advertising, machines called “the Cyclone” or “Godzilla,” geared at emptying the bank accounts of overzealous operators, and concentrate on developing an industry around the obvious benefits and lower costs of forestry mulching.  Each month we receive a thin copy of Hydroseeding Magazine, an industry publication and forum for advertising and promotion.  As a company that offers hydroseeding we appreciate the articles and product discussions and have learned a great deal.  Such a publication might be of great assistance to forestry mulching, an amazing and beneficial technology trying to figure out how to become a successful industry.