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Innovator Donald Robbins sees major improvement in his plantation stand management operations after getting ‘machine makeover’ from Tigercat.
 Donald Robbins, owner of Robbins Forestry standing in front of a Robbins Forestry Inc. logging truck,.

Donald Robbins, owner of Robbins Forestry.

—Paul Iarocci

In early 2010 Tigercat opened a new division focusing on the development of specialized machines for off road industrial applications. Just as Tigercat was seeking to leverage its expertise in engineering machinery for severe duty applications, Georgia-based contractor Donald Robbins was searching for a manufacturer to build carriers for his spraying and fertilizing operations in juvenile pine plantations.

The 610C skidder – which was previously used as the platform for the AD610C aerial device carrier, a recent addition to Tigercat’s off road industrial line – was a perfect base machine to work from. To satisfy Robbins’ 8 ft (2,4 m) maximum width parameter, an extreme wheel offset would be required. This in turn would require a fixed front axle due to insufficient clearance between the inside wall of the tire and the machine. Consequently, Robbins’ machine would require an oscillating centre section.

I think quality is something that has been lost over the years. Everybody wants cheap but cheap isn’t always the best. I don’t want to be the cheapest, I want to be the best and I’m going to give my clients what they paid for.

– Donald Robbins

Serendipitously, Tigercat also had a customer request from Ecuador through dealer Efocol-Equipos Forestales for a simple 610C-based forwarder. This project would also entail the design of an oscillating centre section. With two different models and markets to spread the design costs over, suddenly Robbins’ sprayer project was viable.

Donald Robbins, owner of Robbins Forestry Inc., has worked in pine stand management and improvement for 25 years. A multi-service company, Robbins Forestry plants, sprays and fertilizes timberland. Robbins and his machines have also been called upon for forest fire-fighting duties. “We’ve run water and fire retardant on the machines during forest fires for the Federal government and the forest companies,” Robbins explains.

An S610C immersed in dense forest; a typical operating environment for the S610C sprayers.

A typical operating environment for the S610C sprayers.

The company operates primarily in south Georgia and north Florida, serving several corporate clients and smaller private landowners. Frequently on the road, Robbins’ wife Rhonda manages the office, located in Manor, Georgia.

Some of the north Florida work sites are situated in environmentally sensitive areas. The Department of Environmental Protection in conjunction with Florida’s Water Management Districts has stringent regulations so accuracy is especially important. “Water Management is very strict,” Robbins stresses. “Where you put your fertilizer is important. You have to be very accurate because there are a lot of wet and environmentally sensitive areas. We are accurate within 2%.”

Robbins Forestry is engaged in spraying five months of the year and fertilizing for the other seven. Depending on the species of weed being targeted, spraying usually occurs in late summer and fall. Over the entire rotation cycle, stand management usually consists of multiple treatments of herbicide and fertilizer at establishment and several more throughout the cycle.

David Rewis, of Robbins Forestry oversees the spraying/fertilizing crews. A former teacher with a formal forestry and agriculture background, Rewis says that in the spring following a fertilizer treatment there is a noticeable difference in candle height, the lighter coloured new growth that is visible at the tops of the pine trees.

Robbins began his career working for Roger James, who passed away twelve years ago. Roger was a pioneering force in the business of plantation stand management. He came up with the idea of a skidder with a spreader body and initially designed the hopper.

Two men stand together, wearing casual clothing. David Rewis (left) oversees the S610C crews. Van McLoon, sales representative for Tidewater Equipment in Brunswick, sold the three S610C sprayers to Robbins Forestry.

David Rewis (left) oversees the S610C crews. Van McLoon, sales representative for Tidewater Equipment in Brunswick sold the three S610C sprayers to Robbins Forestry.

James and Robbins worked together for thirteen years and built several machines, always using Franklin skidders as the base carrier. “We would cut down a Franklin, cut the blade down, take the arch off and extend the frame,” explains Robbins. “I give a lot of credit to Roger James. He was a mentor to me and I learned a lot from him. I think he would be proud of the business today.”

Robbins has continued to improve and refine the machinery. “We have changed the design of the spreaders and sprayers one hundred percent. They used to be more prone to rollovers – we have baffles now. And the tanks are made of quarter inch stainless. They can roll over in the ditch without losing their load. We want to insure that if one does go in the ditch, we are not going to have a spill.”

Although Robbins continued to tweak the design of the sprayer tanks and hoppers over the years, the lack of improvement of the carriers caused endless frustration and significant lost production. “For the time, I guess the Franklin was a good tractor. However, they did not progress with the times,” says Robbins.

“Every Franklin I ever bought I unloaded off the truck in summertime and it ran hot. That was the start of the issues. We were never able to cool them down due to the machine design. The powershift transmission was a problem. Maintenance was terrible because of the heat. The engine would overheat, then the torque converter, then the hydraulics – one thing is linked to another.” To make things worse, no other manufacturer was interested in producing such a machine because the market was so small.

A S610C sprayer between a row of trees.

Robbins manufactures and installs the fertilizer hoppers and sprayer tanks. The S610C accommodates both units.

“Finally we were able to convince Tigercat to build a tractor and it has been like day and night. I’ve never seen such a difference. The Tigercat is a one hundred percent better tractor than Franklin ever built. We had been locked in with Franklin and had a lot of issues they were never able to resolve. With the Tigercat tractor we feel these issues have been solved up front.

We are very impressed.” The S610C carriers zip along at a 4.8 mph (7,7 km) working speed – remarkably quick considering the density of the limby, juvenile stands. Robbins has a truck and operator on hand dedicated to keeping the hoppers or sprayer tanks full.

Robbins Forestry took delivery of the first S610C in June 2010, purchasing the machine from Tidewater Equipment in Brunswick, Georgia. The machine went to work straight away in the heat of summer in soft terrain – a troublesome combination. “When you’re rutting four inches deep and it is 100 degrees, you’ll find out in a hurry whether [a machine] will overheat or not,” says Robbins.

An alligator laying in a pile of mud.

Robbins Forestry often operates near environmentally sensitive wetland areas in north Florida. Accuracy is of paramount importance in the application of herbicides and fertilizer.

Rewis adds that when you take all the downtime into account with the previous machines, production has significantly increased.

Robbins went on to purchase two more S610C sprayers for a total of three units. “I talked to probably twenty different loggers before I bought these tractors. We cover a large area,” explains Robbins who has worked as far afield as the Carolinas and Alabama.

“Everybody spoke well of the tractors. That is usually not the case, but I never heard any bad things.” Aside from improving machine availability rates, Robbins gained some additional advantages by switching his fleet over to the S610C. He is now able to run 30.5 tires, which in turn increases the payload and provides more flotation. Also, the thicker ply tire is more durable. “We are a lot more productive now and we don’t have to reload as often,” says Robbins.

The operators also quickly realized it is rarely necessary to lock the differentials. “With the old Franklin, we had to lock in [the differential] all the time,” explains Robbins. “When you made a turn, all four tires were digging. You were tearing up the dirt road or breaking the grass loose and more likely to go down. With the Tigercat, you barely make a print.

A worker loads the hopper of a S610C sprayer.

Drive-through service… A hopper lasts about 45 minutes. Quick reloads are required to maintain high production.

“Another big issue is fire. I’ve had probably three or four Franklins burn over the years,” says Robbins. “Debris was building up under the engine and straw on the manifold was dropping down and catching on fire. By the time the operator knew there was a fire, there was nothing we could do about it.”

A Tigercat S610C sprayer squeezes between rows of juvenile trees.

Tigercat modified the 610C carrier to achieve an extremely narrow overall width. This allows the S610C to easily pass between rows in the dense juvenile stands.

An automatic variable/reverse pitch suction fan and an additional air intake screen prevent debris buildup around the heat exchangers. Cooling air flows opposite to the Franklin machines. The operators clean the pleated pre-screen in front of the radiator on a daily basis and the debris problem that was so prevalent is a non-issue. “Now when we do our weekly service, the only thing in the bottom of the engine compartment is dust,” says Robbins.

Robbins’ collaboration with Tigercat on the design and specifications of the S610C has been a positive experience for everyone. “We were going to move upward not downward and we put our heads together and were able to do it. The engineers have been on the ball. I am as impressed with [Tigercat’s] employees as I am with their tractors.”

Relating Tigercat’s philosophy to his own, he continues, “I think quality is something that has been lost over the years. Everybody wants cheap but cheap isn’t always the best. I don’t want to be the cheapest, I want to be the best and I’m going to give my clients what they paid for.”

Like Tigercat, Robbins’ mandate in life and business is to continually innovate and improve. “I want to grow. I don’t want to be the guy copying everyone. I want to be the innovator not the imitator. This is my life and I’ve enjoyed it immensely. I am very appreciative of what I have and what my family has accomplished. One of my daughters has a Master’s degree and the other is a nurse practitioner assisting in open-heart surgery in Atlanta. I’ve encouraged my family to be like my business… to grow and be productive.”