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Tackling the Hills of Kentucky

Murphy and Sons transitions from drive-to-tree feller bunchers to leveling track carriers while following a steep and steady path of growth and expansion. Ronnie Murphy talks about salvage operations in a unique national forest.

— Paul Iarocci

On December 10, 2021, two tornados ravaged northern Tennessee and southern Kentucky, including Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area. For those unfamiliar with the Enhanced Fujita Scale, it provides an intensity rating system for tornados. These tornados were rated EF-3 and EF-4. An EF-4 tornado is associated with windspeeds up to 200 mph. Property damage was catastrophic and loss of life, utterly heart wrenching.

Encompassing over 170,000 acres of protected wilderness, Land Between the Lakes is one of the largest blocks of undeveloped forest in the eastern United States. Spanning the border of Kentucky and Tennessee, the recreation area sits between Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley, protecting undeveloped shoreline totalling 300 miles.
The US Forest Service estimates that 7,000 acres within Land Between the Lakes were impacted by the two tornados. Following this weather event, the critical goals of the US Forest Service were remediation and salvage. Removing and salvaging damaged timber reduces the risk of subsequent insect infestations and disease outbreaks, decreases risk of future wildfire, and speeds forest and wildlife habitat recovery. Revenues realized from the salvage efforts offset the cost of the remediation as well as other programs such as road improvements and trail maintenance in the recreation area.

The Forest Service required reliable and highly professional partners to undertake this complex and time sensitive operation. Through a bidding process, Mayfield, Kentucky-based Murphy and Son Logging acquired a 1,100 acre (445 ha) contract.

Murphy and Sons Logging is owned by Danny Murphy and his two sons, Ronnie and Daniel. Established in 1987, Danny started the company off with an old cable skidder. Eventually, in the mid-nineties, he purchased a three-wheel feller buncher. Ronnie joined the business in 2001, followed by Daniel in 2007. As Ronnie recounts, his father always had a hard time retaining good workers. "Dad could never keep any good help. When I got out of school, our production started to ramp up. Then my brother Daniel got out of school in 2007, and we really took off."

As the company began to up grade and modernize the equipment fleet, it turned to B & G Equipment. At the time Steve Ballard was the sales specialist at the Iuka branch in northern Mississippi. "I met Steve in 2008 at a logging show. At the time I was running an old Barko cutter and that summer we were having trouble with the cutter. He had a used 724G, and it had 7,000 hours on it. We bought that cutter in 2008, and we started moving more wood because we weren’t working on it much."

The uptime made an impression on Ronnie and Danny. As the company continued to invest in equipment, it turned repeatedly to B & G Equipment. "We just feel like the Tigercats hold out better," says Ronnie. "The hydraulics to start with. Here in the south, or what we call the south, it gets humid and hot in the summer. Even that old used cutter that I bought from Steve Ballard, it ran cool. We didn’t have oil leaks because it wasn’t baking the o-rings. That is what caught our eye. We thought this thing has got 7,000 hours on it, and it still runs just as good as a new one."

By 2018, with the family collectively running two separate business entities, Murphy and Sons Logging and Danny Murphy Trucking, Danny made the decision to step away from the harvesting business and allow Ronnie and Daniel to manage and run with it. Ronnie and Daniel also made the decision to expand the business by starting a second crew. Normally the crews work independently of one another with each brother managing one of the sides.
Steve eventually retired from B & G and the Murphys started to deal with new salesman, Clint Montgomery. "Clint is familiar with this area, and the terrain. When we started our second crew, we bought a brand new 630E and 724G from B & G." Since then, the family has purchased eight more Tigercat machines. Ronnie also names branch manager Kenny Sims as an important reason for the success of the partnership between the two companies. Even though Iuka is over 100 miles (160 km) away, Ronnie feels well supported by his dealership. "They are so good at troubleshooting, and they keep a ton of parts down there. I bent a saw disc one day. Hell, they had that part in stock. We were up and running that day."

Currently, Murphy and Sons employ ten machine operators plus Daniel and Ronnie who both operate feller bunchers. The company also has three long-term saw hands. In addition, the trucking business employs four drivers plus Danny, who works every day. In 2020, the family decided to startup a sawmill for a couple of key reasons. Most obviously, it created an additional outlet for hardwood logs. In capturing a greater portion of the value-added chain, and creating a revenue stream, the mill also has less obvious, but equally important benefits. The labour market in Kentucky is drum tight. Murphy and Sons Logging has valuable, long-term crew members. "It’s raining so much now, so much more often," says Ronnie. "In order to keep these guys to run our machines, we had to have something to offset the costs." The added revenue from the sawmill allows the company to keep the employees earning a full wage even when the crews are shut down due to weather – shutdowns that can last several days.
When we rolled up to the jobsite first thing on a brisk and sunny late November morning, Murphy Logging had already been working in this beautiful, but clearly damaged, national forest for five months. The first thing I noticed was that there was not one, or two, but three LX830E feller bunchers warming up on the landing. Other than the landing, it wasn’t easy to find a piece of flat ground, so I was surprised to learn that until the end of 2020, each brother was running a Tigercat 724G wheel feller buncher. "I didn’t know any different. That is all we had run – Bells and four-wheel drive cutters," explains Ronnie.

Looking at the LX830E machines parked on the landing, Ronnie adds, “I always knew these things were so expensive, you know track machines in general. We had always been scared to pull the trigger. Then two years ago, we decided to go in and give it a try. My brother Daniel got the first one and he loved it. He is running a 5702 hot saw. Again, that’s all we knew. So fast forward to December tenth and that tornado came through. There is just acres and acres of timber on the ground.”
Ronnie spoke to another contractor in the area that had matched a 5185 directional felling saw to an LX830E. By that point Ronnie was looking to purchase a second track machine. By late February 2022,he managed to secure another machine, this time equipped with the 5185. "I started running mine and we liked it so much. That’s why we added a third."

Ronnie is very careful in talking about the current clean-up job. The devastation caused by the tornado is beyond description and the Murphy family was personally touched by the event in a profound and tragic way. However, in a professional sense, the aftermath has created tremendous opportunity for the Murphy family’s logging, trucking and sawmill businesses.

In normal circumstances, there is virtually no opportunity to extract timber from a national forest. In addition to what Ronnie refers to as normal hardwoods – poplar, hickory, red oak – there is also a high density of white oak. "This particular tract has way more white oak than we typically see. That’s why it was so sought after." This high value timber is used to produce barrel staves. In turn, the barrels are used for aging bourbon and American whiskies. "That is a big business in our neck of the woods," says Ronnie.

The clock is ticking and Ronnie is trying to finish the contract as quickly as possible. That is the reason that all three track bunchers are operating here. Once the crew gets working, there is a constant stream of haul trucks with three loaders working on the deck. Since the company has the benefit of a mill yard, it allows them to speed up production on deck by avoiding a lot of sorting activity. "We pretty much just divide the logs up. Stave logs and saw logs."
The logs get sorted and graded at the mill yard and then a portion of the production is hauled to Holt Sawmill in Benton, Kentucky.

"In 2008, we started contracting for Holt. Half of the logs go to our sawmill and half of them go to Holt. They are the only sawmill in this area that can handle our production, so we grew with them." Both Holt and Murphy and Sons Lumber Company manufacture similar products – railroad crossties, pallet wood and premium dimensional lumber. Ronnie concedes that the pulp market has been up and down over the years, but since Phoenix Paper acquired the pulp mill in Wickliffe, the outlet for pulpwood has been more reliable.

In the storm damaged timber, with all three feller bunchers working and three skidders pulling to three loaders, production ranges from 20 to 25 loads daily. The bunchers are covering a lot of ground, felling the occasional marked tree but mostly engaged in removing root masses from blowdown, and untangling and salvaging downed and broken trees. The 5185 with its capable grapple is adept at pulling timber out of the steepest areas, shovelling and pre-bunching for the skidders in more open and accessible terrain.

"That 5185 is what opened my eyes up. With a wheel cutter, the first thing I would do is go up from the bottom and cut all that I could and then I would come from the top. Well, the skidders always had trouble getting the trees back up the hill." Ronnie refers to the 5185 equipped LX830E as a feller buncher and shovel logger combined. "This thing, it’s more than a cutter." The machine can wade through the downed timber and organize and reposition the trees so that they are easy for the skidders to get to, increasing the overall productivity of the system.
Ronnie stresses that operating within a national forest is very different from a typical jobsite. "Number one, the skidders are working in a designated path. There are streams and everything has to be approved. If I wanted to put in a crossing down there across that knee-deep ditch, I would have to get it approved. It’s a process."

With strict guidelines on how the harvest is organized, and the requirement to pull to a single landing, the skid distances are over half a mile – double what would be considered normal. The operators use the Turnaround® seat to the full extent, driving in reverse the entire distance, picking up one or two individual logs from the steeper draws, and pulling them up to the main skidder track to build a full sized load.

The loaders are knocking off smaller limbs with a pull through delimber and cutting 10 ft (3 m) log lengths using a ground saw slasher. "I think we are up to about 62,000 tons since July. We have been running about 3,000 to 3,500 tons per week."

The two brothers are running a quality operation, but Ronnie is quick to credit their father. "Dad is the one who really got this thing going. He took us to work when he probably wasn’t supposed to but that is what got me and my brother into it."

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