Supplying logs direct to customers has turned into a major diversification for one Shropshire farming business, using some of the most advanced processing kit and drying techniques. Alex Heath finds out more.
Transitioning out of a family farming partnership and into the world of logging has seen Steve Belcher and business partner Guy Mayer develop LogaLog from the small chainsaw and axe operation at the business’ inception in 2008 to one which processed more than 2,500 tonnes of cord wood in 2020.
Based at Bridge Farm, near Newport, Shropshire, the 97ha farm is contracted out, with the yard converted for the wood processing operation. Fresh timber arrives at the farm throughout the year, is stored, processed and kiln dried, before being hauled out to customers, of which 95 per cent is sold direct to the end user.
Mr Mayer says wood for the operation is sourced throughout the year from two suppliers; Woodsure and Grown in Britain. Both suppliers source and supply wood from UK plantations. Woodsure also provides an accreditation scheme, Ready to Burn, particularly relevant in the coming months as direct sales of wood above 20 per cent moisture will be prohibited in May of this year for quantities less than two cubic metres.
Wood is weighed off and stored in stacks of corresponding sizes or species. Mr Mayer says the company only purchases beech, oak and ash as they have better burn qualities than the likes of sycamore, birch and willow. “We are supplying a premium product and as a result, customers demand a controllable, long lasting burn that is clean. This means we only use the better quality wood from the outset.”
The company has a number of ways of processing the timber lengths into logs. The latest machine to its repertoire is a second Italian-built Pinossa processor, that recently replaced a 2012 model. The CPE-1500 machine is 50 per cent larger than its predecessor and uses lasers to measure the length of the timber to calculate the most efficient way of cutting it, ensuring billets are of a useable length, typically between 200 and 250mm.
During processing, timber is clamped down and a 1,500mm diameter circular saw cuts it. The clamp has an encoder inside, which measures the diameter of the billet, calculating the optimal number of logs to be made out of the billet. The splitter then slides up and down and can split the billet into four, six, eight, 12 or 16 logs. Timber up to 610mm in diameter can be split using this machine.
A secondary machine is also used. This is a Finnish-made Palax 100 which is electrically driven, but can be pto driven if needed. This has a 1,000mm blade and four way splitter. Together, the two machines are able to produce 75cu.m of wet wood per day, and typically are run flat out for two days each week.
Wood from both machines is transferred into a trailer and tipped under cover, ready for drying. Drying the wood is the most important and time consuming part of the operation.
“Because the wood is sourced throughout the year, the incoming moisture content varies greatly, from very high in fresh spring wood when the sap is rising, to relatively low in timber that has been cut and stored for a while,” explains Mr Mayer. “We use biomass to dry the logs down to 15 per cent moisture,” he adds.
The drying process revolves around a Heizomat 990 biomass boiler fed with sustainably sourced wood chip from a local supplier. Five tonnes of woodchip is used each week. Heated water passes through a heat exchange, warming fresh air which is blown through ducting.
To make the most of this warm air, the firm has developed a novel way of drying batches of wood, which results in a more consistent end product than a shed with a drying floor. This is thanks to the use of hook lift bins.
“The bins have a perforated false floor in them,” says Mr Mayer. “We load 30cu.m of wet wood into them, the equivalent of 15 tonnes. Over the course of 12 days roughly five tonnes of water is extracted, leaving us with logs with 15 per cent moisture. We have 10 drying bins, enabling us to have 300cu.m drying at a time.”
Unfortunately, this is still the bottle neck in the whole system, adds Mr Mayer. “We are looking for ideas to speed the process up or make it more efficient. One idea we are looking at is to build a shed over the drying area and recover the warm air, however, the air will still be damp and may need need drying. Regardless, we estimate a saving of 25 per cent by using pre heated air.”
Getting the logs to the right moisture is imperative to the business, explains Mr Mayer. “While the incoming legislation says under 20 per cent, we go to 15 per cent as it creates a better product. Logs burn hotter, producing less gas and soot that dirties glass in stoves, they require less air to facilitate combustion, making for an effortless burn that lasts longer and is heat easier to regulate.”
Once dried, wood is tipped out of the bins and stored until it is needed. Bins are then refilled and the process repeats.
Once an order is placed, logs are tipped onto a cleaner which removes any loose small pieces and bark, that would sully the driveways of customers when tipped. A fleet of pickups and trailers are used to ferry logs throughout Shropshire and surrounding counties. Customers buy per logs per cubic metre, with one cube weighing approximately 310kg and equating to about 280 logs.
Mr Mayer’s truck is equipped with a custom made tipping rear box, capable of holding 2cu.m. While the company has an Ifor Williams trailer capable of carting 8cu.m, he says with narrow accesses and tight streets to navigate, the trailers of choice have a 5cu.m capacity, with five internal divisions each holding a cube of logs.
Just five per cent of the business’ trade is wholesale with only one local retailer supplied with logs in dumpy bags. In total, the business processed and sold 5,000cu.m last year, says Mr Mayer, its highest total to date.
While the business has come a long way since its start, he says the price of the raw wood has more than doubled compared to the first load the business bought. This is put down to increased global demand for wood, coming from all sectors, including building and biomass industries.
However, demand for logs last year was strong, says Mr Mayer. “When lockdown hit in March, we had an unprecedented influx of requests. We ended up tripling the order book that month, compared to the same month in the previous year.
“Traditionally, December is our busiest month, but we broke all our sales records in the October just past, selling 15 per cent more than our next best, which was December 2019. Both these months were put down to government’s coronavirus regulations and not unseasonably cold weather,” he adds.
Going forwards, Mr Mayer says the business will be looking at improving its drying capacity, the major bottleneck in the process. It will increase the operational efficiency and ensure the business is well within new legislation and continuing to supply a premium product to an increasing number of customers.