Harvesting contractor Neil Gray, of Treeworks Forestry, offers his personal take in response to previous Voices of Forestry columns by Jock McKie, MD of John Deere Forestry UK, and Mark Curtis, founder of the Forest Machine Operators Blog.

I write in response to previous articles hoping it will help create a debate within the industry that will work out for everybody – because, at the moment, it is all going in one direction and that is down.

What is the average age of a forestry contractor? How many young entrants are there? Who wants to live in a caravan not knowing whether you’re going to get paid or not? This debate goes far beyond welfare units and plastic hats!

My son, 24, and I, 65, have a small, very efficient harvesting contracting business. We have invested heavily for the future, with great support from Jock, Graeme and the backup team at John Deere and also with great mentoring from Martyn at Even Forestry. He gave up time to provide a masterclass on our harvester with my son.

We do not need tax breaks. All we need is to be paid for the work we do. A fair rate for a good job done – which is to harvest and forward to roadside, end of story. Not snowplough the road so trucks can get in. Not cut specs that never get lifted because there is a change in demand. Not build infrastructure in place of access roads that should have been built. Not filter rivers for run-off.

READ MORE: Mark Curtis, Forest Machine Operators Blog founder: “We are failing to get the basics right”

Our harvester can accurately measure the volume. Yes, volume. It tells us how much diesel is used, how long it took, where it has been, where it is sitting, when it needs serviced, when it was last serviced and when the pies are ready. All by volume. And yet, as soon as the timber hits the landing, by magic everything becomes tonnes? Tonnes which are drying out instantly. Tonnes that are disappearing over weigh-bridges. Tonnes that just disappear into the ether. Distillers would call this ‘the angel’s share’.

Jock’s article was bang on. We have to get into the 21st century. It’s got to be volume calibrated at the start by all parties involved; owners, contractors and end users. We then know what everybody is getting and rates can be determined at the start. None of this factoring in and guesswork. We can then budget accordingly, pay drivers a guaranteed wage and give them update training. Even a day at open events where they can discuss what’s what. Take on a student with time to mentor. All because we know what we are getting – not guessing.

For example, on a recent job at 1,550 feet in 1 metre of snow, living in a caravan for a good Scots winter, we cut 2,701 m³. We even fed the shepherd’s sheep with bales on the back of the forwarder. When it was all collected from roadside, we lost 364.20 m³. The system told us what we had in 3 m, what we had as 2.5 m and what went in the mat, everything. So where did the 364.20 m³ go?

READ MORE: Jock McKie, John Deere Forestry UK: “Fair payment will improve efficiency and protect our industry”

I have yet to get a proper explanation. So far it goes: “You should take the rough with the smooth.” I have yet to see that on my monitor display. So the next time I speak to Jock I will get him to put that into the new generation of harvesters – which, by the way, can tell the forwarder where all the 3 m are lying. It’s a pity it could not tell me where all my 364.20 m³ went. That would have allowed me to have a few days mentoring a young operator, and a CPD day for the staff. Or maybe a day out of the caravan.

As a form of conclusion, we should be discussing and deciding on industry need and standard for a base level of rates that reflect our investment, time and overall demands for our businesses, training, safety and future investment. The angel’s share is stealing from us and, more importantly, from the forest owners. They have to take a hit which affects their reinvestment in planting. If I were to be cynical, I would say this was a way of getting timber cheap, at a cost to contractors and landowners. If we are to be described as a professional industry going forward, we have to see fairness across the board. Timber is at its highest ever price, demand is outstripping supply – yet this boom period is not showing in the forests, is it lads? But when you go to your timber store to get your sawn timber, by magic it’s returned to volume/m³. So where do the tonnes go? Am I not getting something here?

It would be great if, through this journal, we could create an ongoing debate, which has the aim of being fair to everybody – I mean everybody – from students up to end users.

Come on, write in and get the debate going! Ah well, that’s me on the bad list now. A shame, as it’s a great job with great people.

Good cutting and enjoy those pies!

What do you think? Share your thoughts by emailing editor@forestryjournal.co.uk