If you’ve been around a full-scale logging crew, you’ve probably watched the industrial skidders pull out a 1,000 board feet of logs in a single pull, pushing aside anything that gets in their way. The days are pretty much gone when an independent logger with a chain saw and four-wheel-drive winch truck heads to the woods and brings out logs one or two at a time.
Even without the muscle of a skidder, you likely already have most of the tools you need to harvest logs for your portable sawmill or firewood. The trick is to make the best use of your forestry equipment by adding a few basic tools, planning trails without too much slope and keeping the log size within the practical limits of your vehicle. The good news is the same tools and techniques, which allow you to get logs out of the woods with minimal horsepower, also have the least impact on the land.
The conventional wisdom is it takes big iron to move logs, but your tractor or ATV can often do with finesse what a ten-ton skidder does with brute force, provided you understand the limitations of your equipment.
All types of tractors can and have been used for logging. Narrow-front plowing tractors have a high center of gravity, small front tires, lack rollover protection and tend to overturn on slopes. This makes them a very poor choice. Low tractors with a wide stance work much better. Four-wheel-drive is ideal, but even an old 8N Ford with 22 horsepower can pull respectable logs out of the woods. Ideally, the tractor should be fitted with a rollover protection system (ROPS) and a seatbelt. According to Worksafe BC, a Canadian safety agency, the odds of surviving a tractor rollover increase from 25% with no rollover protection to 99% with a ROPS and seatbelt. A cage to protect the operator is also highly recommended. Even operating on flat land has its risks. When pulling, the torque can flip the tractor over backwards before the operator can hit the clutch. If the front end of the tractor feels light while pulling a load and you find yourself steering with the brakes, you are on the edge of a potential rollover. Slow down and, if possible, reduce the load. Front weights can help keep the tractor under control.
ATVs have some of the same safety issues as tractors. If you are considering using an ATV for pulling logs, be sure your machine is up to the task. A few things to look for in an ATV or UTV are a liquid-cooled engine (you will be using a lot of power at low speeds where air cooling is inadequate), low gearing, shaft drive, disk brakes and a receiver hitch. Most manufacturers rate the towing capacity of their ATVs and UTVs, reflecting the strength of the frame, transmission, and drive train. The general rule of thumb for ATVs is to not pull more than the weight of the machine.
There are a few accessories for tractors and ATVs to extend their usefulness out in the woods. Tire chains are available for most sizes of tractor and ATV tires. Chains provide extra grip, especially in snow, ice and mud. Front weights also help keep things under control while pulling. You might likewise consider filling the tractor or ATV tires with liquid to add to its mass and further lower the center of gravity. If your tractor or ATV doesn’t have a ROPS & seat belt, look into having them installed.
Part of the key to using light equipment is to plan your skid trails accordingly. Professional skidders haul their loads up seemingly impossible steep grades. They take the shortest route possible from point A to point B. On hilly ground, you will likely need longer trails to avoid steep grades and side slopes. Smaller loads and longer trails mean you’ll sacrifice productivity, but the trails will be less prone to erosion and will be more attractive for recreation.
Log-skidding arches greatly extend the usefulness of a tractor/ATV for moving logs and reduce damage to the forest. These are frames, which effectively lift logs off the ground, similar in design to propane tank haulers. Since the arch supports the weight of the log, a lot of stress is taken off of the tractor/ATV. There is less torque required to pull the log, so the danger of rollover is greatly reduced and pulling the log puts less stress on the machine. Since arches lift the front end of the log off the ground, there is less chance of snagging on a root or stump, and the back of the log barely scratches the soil. There are several variations of small-scale log skidding equipment designed for use by private landowners with small tractors and ATVs. There are even log arches with a unique feature, which lifts the log as it is pulled and lowers it to the ground when the tractor/ATV is backed up.
Getting logs to the tractor/ATV is often easier than getting the machine to the log. Winches allow you to pull logs to trails with a minimum of disturbance to the woods. Tractor-mounted PTO winches are available from several manufacturers. They are especially useful in pulling logs up out of ravines, where it would be too dangerous to drive a tractor and in stands where you don’t want to build additional trails. As a back up measure, consider a chain saw powered winch. It lets you work in tight places, which are inaccessible to tractors and, in addition to skidding, it is handy for getting hung-up trees safely on the ground and pulling vehicles out of mud or snow. To reduce the impact of dragging the logs along the ground and to help keep logs from hanging up on stumps, attach a skidding sled to the front of the log. Sleds are commercially available, but they can be made from plastic barrels or even the hoods of old cars.
Small log harvesting equipment does not always mean small impact. ou can still gouge out ruts and scrape logs against valuable crop trees. With the right equipment and techniques, it is possible to pull firewood and sawlogs out of the woods without damaging the remaining trees or the soil. It takes the right equipment, careful planning of skid trails and the proper selection of trees to fit into your overall forest management plan. Your woodlot will be the better for it in the long run.