Central Wisconsin logger finds pulpwood production `exciting`

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Like a lot of logging contractors, Mike Theilke’s career in the woods started early. At 14 he was bicycling out to the woods with his chain saw hooked over one side of his handlebars and his gas and oil containers over the other side.

That was some time ago. Since then, Theilke has done just about everything there is to do in the logging business. He has peeled popple, done his share of chain saw felling, and owned and operated almost every type of logging equipment known to man.
 At one time, he owned three Makeri harvesting machines and ran a crew of 14. These employees are gone now, as are the machines, but this doesn’t mean Theilke has run for cover, because he hasn’t. He’s just changed the nature of his operation.

While his former employees are gone for good, the Makeris have been replaced with different machines. Theilke operates in Central Wisconsin, not far enough north to be in the fabled “pinery” or far enough south to be into prairie.

The area around his home base of Wautoma is now heavily wooded but this wasn’t always the case. The mix of timber is made up of natural stands of scrub black and pin oaks; some natural jack pine stands and planted pine plantations. The oaks are all about 100 years old; having seeded in after fires which ravaged this part of the state that long ago.

The pines were almost all planted from the late 1940s, up to the present. The majority of them were planted in the 1950s as the result of the Soil Bank program that paid landowners to plant trees. These trees, mainly red pine with about 15-20 percent white pine mixed in, are about 50 years old and yielding logs and pulpwood. 

With the maturing of the plantations came a new type of owner. Many people bought land in this area, only three hours from Chicago, for recreation. Some built homes and cabins, some just use the land for hunting, snowmobiling etc. Many would do no harvesting at all if they had their choice, preferring to maintain the land in its “natural” state. They harvest because, in order to qualify for the State’s “Managed Forest Law,” they must or lose their tax breaks.

These owners put a high premium on appearance. They are not willing to wait years for slash to rot down, nor are they willing to ski around hardwood tops. Most of Theilke’s work is for this type of owner. During the initial thinning phase, almost all the pulpwood from these plantations was cut with chain saws and sold to paper mills which abound, making Wisconsin the leading producer of paper in the country.

The trees are now big enough to yield cabin logs, saw logs and, some utility poles. Sawmills, notably Biewer, to the north in Prentice, Wisconsin, have sprung up to utilize the resource. Some of the harvesting of these trees is still done by chain saws, but less all the time. About 15 years ago, the Makeri harvesting machine made its debut, having been brought up from the south by local pulp contractor Rod McIntee.
McIntee modified the machines, which were designed by the Finnish company Rauma Repola/Lokomo, which built them to process whole trees, into cut-to-length machines. This fit into the local, forwarder-dominated, operations. These shearhead processors took over pulpwood harvesting in short order.
There are still a few around but they are no longer being built, and wear and tear has eliminated most of them. Currently, most pulpwood and logs are harvested using chain saw-processing heads. Initially many of these were mounted on rubber-tired farm tractors – mainly Kubotas. These are phasing out now as the heads become more complex, and the farm tractors lack the hydraulics to operate them efficiently. Many harvesting heads are now mounted on small excavators and other, heavier construction-type machines.

Mike Theilke could have traded in his Makeris and followed the crowd, but he didn’t. It isn’t that Theilke doesn’t like to try new things – it’s not that at all. What he likes to do is to try really new things. He presently owns three Tree Farmer model 3000 feller bunchers, a Timberjack 560 grapple skidder, a Morbark Chiparvestor, and a Prentice slasher, plus a fleet of chip trailers.

The Morbark 2455 is a chipper flailing unit that he bought new – the only one of its kind operating in Wisconsin. It is powered by two diesel engines with a combined horsepower of 1175. That’s almost enough to power a small town. The 2455 is the heart of his operation, producing clean pine chips for International Paper company’s Thilmany mill at Kaukauna Wisconsin. He can and does chip almost anything, he says, including aspen and oak and any sort of odd jobs you might have such as box elder and black locust.

He sells hardwood chips to Packaging Corp. Aspen goes to Weyerhauser. Even though the 2455 folds up hydraulically to allow it to be pulled on the highway with no oversize problems, it is truly a massive piece of equipment. It will take just about any chunk of wood you feed it and reduce it to clean, bark free chips in seconds.

When visited by The Northern Logger, Theilke and the 2455 were processing medium sized pine stems from a second thinning of a plantation. The trees were about “three sticks” and limby. With this type  wood, Theilke says it takes between 400 and 600 trees to make a vanload, and about a half-hour to process. The vans hold 20-30 tons.

The machine sat on a landing of about one-half acre. This made for easy turnaround for the trucks and it was completely clean. No piles of logs and no slash. The trees, which had been piled in fire lanes by the feller buncher, were brought out, about eight or nine at a time by the skidder and immediately consumed by the harvester.

On each trip out of the woods, the skidder picked up a grapple load of slash and deposited it back into the plantation. The “slash” was more like mulch, a mixture of pine needles and small pieces of branches. Theilke says the 2455 will utilize almost 50 percent of the branches as well as the trunk. He says he gets about a third more yield than conventional harvesting models.

The consistency of the slash was such that the skidder could easily pick up a full grapple and carry it away without spilling any. Once in the woods, the skidder operator used the blade to spread the load so as to not leave piles, or to produce a mat for the truck road to prevent rutting.

All of this was impressive enough, but it was even more impressive when you realize that it was all being done by just two people. Mike and his wife, Jennepher. Mike operated the chipper and Jennepher ran the skidder. The truck driver slept in his truck.
Jennepher got her first taste of Theilke-style logging when she signed on for a summer job after her first year in forest at a tech. school. She quickly realized that operating heavy equipment was what she wanted to do and she never returned to school. They hit it off in their spare time as well. They married and now have a 13-month old baby.

Jennepher takes Mondays off to be with the baby. Aside from that, they both work fulltime together. Both Theilkes operate the feller bunchers, but Mike takes advantage of Jennepher’s day off to get ahead with the felling, which takes about the same amount of time as the chipping.

Since the feller-buncher transports the stems upright, there is no whole tree skidding, and thus the danger of barked trees is reduced. The three-wheeled design makes the machines maneuverable enough to squeeze through the spaces left between trees on its way to the nearest fire lane. The Theilkes get a lot of their work through referrals from people they have worked for.

They both have a respect for, and knowledge of, nature in its many forms. To walk through woods with them is to learn a lot about the total environment, not just the timber aspect. This must be reassuring to people who are hesitant about allowing anybody to touch their woods. The fact that Jennepher is a young blonde wearing a “Pooh Bear” shirt can’t hurt either.

Theilke is a pretty good-natured guy, but he hates stumps. He hates them when he runs over them with his three wheel feller bunchers and he hates them when landowners look over his job. He says that because they are so light-colored, they stand out. He wants his customers to see only trees, so he goes to great lengths to cut the stumps down.
 He says he needs the shears to do the job he wants done because he actually cuts most pine stumps below ground level. Saw heads can’t stand up to the grit and stones they encounter in this operation. Since all the wood is bound for the chipper, butt shatter is not a problem.

One of Theilke’s three feller bunchers is equipped with a saw head. He uses this one on oak jobs to produce random length logs for the grade market. He bucks the logs with apprentice slasher and runs the tops through his Chiparvestor. He uses the loader on the Chiparvestor to load the logs onto trucks.

Most jobs Theilke does are marked by foresters, but if they are not, the Theilkes mark them themselves. They say that the harvesters restrict vision too much to be able to select trees as they go. Regardless of who marks them, they only mark at breast height, not at the base. With the stumps so low, any mark there would disappear when the trees were cut.

As he tours the woods with a visitor, Theilke points out a large, open-grown white pine. The tree had sustained massive tip weevil attacks. It branched into four large twisted stems about four feet above ground. It was what is called a “cabbage tree” and almost worthless to loggers.

He said he could get as much value out of a tree like that as he could out of a straight, five-stick tree. “What’s more”, he said, wiggling his index finger, “I can do it with just this one finger.” Some loggers and landowners may wince at the idea of chipping a straight, five-stick tree, but money talks.

This combination of a clean job and the ability to produce money out of junk wood accounts for Theilke’s reputation. He bids for jobs by the ton and is able to get more work than he can handle within about 30 miles of his home. Because his machines utilize almost everything, he gets a lot of oak clearcutting jobs. He uses everything, limbs and all. No more “logging tops” to contend with.

These sites are so clean they can be immediately planted to pines. Because he buys new equipment and uses it sparingly, he says his downtime comes to less than two percent, compared to up to 30 percent for these same machines in the South where they work them hard.

He does all his own maintenance; most of it right on the job. He doesn’t have a shop. He says his biggest maintenance problem is with the semi trailers.

You would think that now that he seems to have put together a perfect pulpwood production combination, Mike Theilke would be content to reap the benefits. But that’s obviously not the way he looks at it. The Northern Logger visited his job on a Wednesday because he was going to spend the rest of the week at an equipment auction in Michigan. Why does he continue to “push the envelope”? He has a one-word answer. “Excitement.”

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