Forestry Voices is a new series of features offering analysis and insight direct from some of the most well-known and respected figures across the forestry industry. Each month, Forestry Journal will provide a platform for a different writer to share their unfiltered opinions on the subjects that most matter to them and the sector in which they work.

Offering his personal views on the issues currently facing the world of forestry from a machine manufacturing perspective is Jock McKie, managing director for John Deere Forestry UK.

COVID, Brexit... the challenges to our businesses and industry seem to come hard and fast and, in many ways, it’s the durability and reaction of the industry that has always appealed to me – quite simply there is never a day without a new challenge. With expectation levels always on the rise, I guess this challenge won’t get any easier going forward.

COVID was a real challenge for all of us. From keeping factories manned and components aplenty, John Deere went to some extraordinary efforts to keep machines going (chartering aircraft to ensure the supply of parts being a particular highlight). Throughout the whole pandemic, our Joenssu facility only closed for four weeks – testament to the efforts of very many. At a local level, I have never been more proud of our staff, who never once waned in the dedication to keep customers going. I would also mention the support and alignment from other businesses and even our competitors in looking out for each other and sharing best practice – often tough times bring out the best in people. Hopefully, the risks of COVID may soon be behind us, but no doubt lessons have been learned.

Despite having four years to prepare for Brexit, we have also had many surprises. Quite simply it has added time delay and substantial cost to many stages of our day-to-day logistics. With good planning, our parts supply has not suffered. The parts team has done an exceptional job in identifying and increasing our stocks, while our local investment has doubled to an inventory level in excess of £4.5 million, but we simply cannot rely on next-day deliveries out of mainland Europe anymore. The other choice is machine downtime and, in the current climate, that simply cannot be tolerated.

With steel, copper, scrap (effect on casts) and lubricants all forecasting increases from 30–60 per cent, this impacts all facets of our operation – from the prices of machines and parts to running costs – so, quite simply, the cost of timber harvesting will increase. Are we ready for it?

For many years, our customers have also benefitted heavily from favourable used machine pricing. With maturing markets on the continent having their own domestic supply and newly imposed paperwork and export tariffs making UK machines less desirable, this will also affect the cost of ownership. The challenges to the already stretched, stressed and ageing contractor base are not becoming fewer.

READ MORE: Stuart Goodall, Confor: “We must work together to make our voices heard”

All doom and gloom?

It really shouldn’t be. With 80 per cent of the timber we use in the UK imported, it continues to amaze me that our customer base does not have access to longer-term commitments and fairer pricing methods. With that commitment, we may also see timber harvested in the UK with the correct size of machines. We are constantly challenged by industry as to why machines are so big. Actually, we still sell small machines, but no contractor would buy one on the promise of only three months’ work! Would you? The result is a 15-tonne-capacity thinnings forwarder. Go figure.

The modern harvesting machine is exceptional (at least the green ones!). The information flow from the machines is also invaluable to anyone running a modern, professional operation, yet the most important part of information we ignore. There is nothing on a harvester that measures tonnage, and strangely a good proportion of the end product is also not sold in tonnes. More than 20 years ago, we started sharing machine data. Today, the site information is live – in cubic metres – measured by a well-calibrated machine, operated by a skilled operator. But industry dictates that timber is harvested in tonnes and contractors have no option but to ‘add 20 per cent’ in case the timber dries out. Can we afford that 20 per cent?

This is not a new challenge, but one we must face for the industry to become more efficient. Fair payment – based on volume and quality of product and correct timber breakout – would help landowners, merchants, mills, contractors and operators. By being more efficient, we protect ourselves from imported produce and maintain the longevity of our industry.

Back to operators. We all wonder why the industry is not attractive. Would you send your kids into an industry where the reality is that they don’t really know what they are getting paid till the job is finished? Transparency and fairness from the top down would go a long way to keeping us all in a job!

Like any industry, recruitment and retention of good people is essential and our commitment there remains. We have invested in excess of £1 million in operator schemes in the past decade, and that need for support is of growing importance. It is great to see the recent investment in modern simulators by Lantra, which are being utilised at the two Scottish colleges, while our own simulators are in constant demand across the UK. Apprentice operators are a great idea, but let’s provide the long-term contracts for the contracting base to have the confidence in the investment.

Our own investment in people is key to our ongoing success. We have just filled two service manager positions from within our current engineering base and this is something we are hugely proud of. Talent succession is essential and currently 11 per cent of our engineers’ time is dedicated to training. Machines are not getting any simpler…

Oh! Machines! We have not even mentioned them...

It is just taken for granted that they will work... and they do. They are not even in the top 10 issues facing the industry.

DISCLAIMER: Our columns are a platform for writers to express their personal opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of the writers’ own organisations or Forestry Journal.

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