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Loads of Success in Michigan

BTB travels to Michigan to visit Mike Delene, owner of MD Contracting to talk about the reliability and versatility of his Tigercat AC16 carriers for woodyard duties.

— Jorge Victoria

Mike Delene has come a long way since he started skidding logs alongside his father with a dozer and chains at age fifteen. Today, as owner of MD Contracting based in Baraga, he is one of the largest pulpwood haulers in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. MD Contracting is a well-respected company in the area, earning the 2020 Excellence in Trucking Award by the Michigan Association of Timbermen.

Mike manages 30 employees and a fleet of around 50 pieces of heavy equipment. Logging is just a part of what MD Contracting does and Mike has found success through diversification. As one of the largest contractors in the L’Anse-Baraga region, the company is involved in a variety of projects such as sewer and water main construction, road building, sand and gravel hauling, lowboy hauling, and shoreline work on Lake Superior. In winter, the logging work ramps up.

MD Contracting acquired its first Tigercat 234B loader mounted on the AC16 self propelled carrier in 2017 after a visit to the Tigercat factory with Tigercat dealer Woodland Equipment. One of the main reasons for the purchase was the customizable controls. Mike explains, “When you’re 50 years old, and somebody gives you a machine and the controls are different, you’re going to say, ‘the heck with this.’ And that’s what my biggest concern was, the controls.

People that produced a lot of wood were running Tigercats, and I talked to them, and they loved them.

— Mike Delene

Tigercat knew how to set them up, and it was smooth so I said, yeah, this will work. We’ll get one.” Today, MD Contracting has five Tigercat machines in its fleet: three 234B loaders mounted on AC16 carriers, an 822D feller buncher and a 625E skidder.

MD Contracting is a family business. Mike’s wife, Mina, works full time for the company and does all the bookwork. Their son, Tyler plows snow and scales logs at the woodyard. Daughter, Nicole, doesn’t work for the company but married a logger. Mike’s brother also helps with the company. To separate family from work, Mike has one simple rule. “You’ve got to leave work at work and family gatherings is family. I try not to bring up work at Thanksgiving or Christmas or a birthday party. With family I mean, if you got an issue, don’t bring it up at Thanksgiving. Nobody needs to hear it.”

Mike credits his father-in-law, Bob Turpeinen, for teaching him the ropes in running a successful logging operation. Bob logged year-round and ran a large chipping operation with many employees. “Way back when I started in business, my father-in-law was a logger, and he was my best source of information as far as how to do things and set jobs up. He actually let me use one of his feller bunchers because he had four of them. That’s what I started with,” Mike recalls.

Hearing his anecdotes about the old days makes one realize how much forestry equipment and technology has evolved through the years. Mike’s story resembles the many stories of loggers across America – humble beginnings, hard work, and resilience. In Mike’s own words: “I used to use a bulldozer and a grapple because I could only afford one machine that would build roads and skid wood. It worked. I used to cut trees with a chainsaw. I just kept working at it. Within two years I had enough money to rent a feller buncher and a skidder and never looked back.”
Mike’s history with Tigercat goes back to 2003. An 845B feller buncher was the first Tigercat machine he bought, and he had to go all the way to Maine to get it. “People that produced a lot of wood were running Tigercats, and I talked to them, and they loved them. So that’s when I looked around for a Tigercat 845. It was used but for being a part-time logger, it worked fine for us,” Mike remembers.

These days, MD’s winter logging operation involves a feller buncher, two skidders, one loader, a bulldozer, and an excavator. For the most part, MD buys its own stumpage. Average volume sits at about 1,200 tons per week. The tree-length production is hauled to nine different mills in the Upper Peninsula.

Woodyard operation

MD has been contracted since 2008 to run a local satellite woodyard in L’Anse that serves two large paper mills. For this purpose, the company relies on three wheel loaders, a grader, a sweeper, and three Tigercat 234B loaders mounted on AC16 self-propelled carriers. The Tigercat loaders unload incoming trucks and load train cars and eight-axle log semitrailers. When MD started the woodyard contract, it had just one loader and two trucks, relying heavily on contract hauling. Today, MD owns fourteen trucks dedicated to hauling wood.

In addition to unloading, sorting, scaling and loading, MD also maintains the yard and plows snow. Average load-out volume is 5,000 tons per week. However, in spring weekly tonnage increases up to 20,000 tons. On average, MD Contracting hauls twenty 55-ton loads per day. The pulpwood logs at the yard are eight-and-a-half foot (2,6 m) with a diameter range of four to thirty inches (100-765 mm). Several species are handled including spruce, balsam, jack pine, red pine, white pine and hemlock. Hardwood logs include aspen, maple, yellow birch, white birch and ash. The hardwood is bound for mills in Escanaba or Quinnesec. The softwood goes to Escanaba, located 130 miles from the woodyard.

Commonality matters

Mike explains that his previous loaders were sourced from different manufacturers. “The controls were different in each machine, so you had to have just one guy run this brand and another guy would run the other brand.” Switching his loaders to Tigercat was a way to ensure commonality. “Now, you can jump in any one of my machines and the controls are the same. That’s what my guys are used to. Like I said, as I get older, it’s really difficult to have the lever do something different when you move it.”
The AC16 carrier was another reason for switching to Tigercat. “I had so much trouble with a competitor carrier and that AC16 will push a truck out of the mud. It’s got that much push power. The brakes always work. The carrier costs more, but it’s worth more. I don’t know how else to put it. It can pull a loaded trailer, it can push a truck. There’s no issue with it getting stuck in the mud. It goes,” Mike adds.

When a loader needs to achieve production targets, the proximity of the loader to the wood pile is not a trivial factor and the distance from the stabilizing pads to the wood pile is something that Mike has given ample consideration. “The footprint of the Tigercat loader when my operator puts his outriggers down is four feet less than that of the competitor brand,” he explains. “Well, when you want to get close to a wood pile, even if you’re two feet on one side, that gives him more reach into that other pile.”

Parts commonality is a very important consideration as well. “I’ve got three Tigercat 234Bs here. Well, we carry one set of filters that fit all the machines. And that’s huge because I’ve got other machines from competitor brands, same brand and model but three years apart. They take different filters. All my Tigercats take the same fuel filter right now. You can’t beat that. I only need to carry one. I keep fuel filters. I keep air filters. I mean, I don’t want to have to go hunt one down every time I want to change oil or change an air filter,” says Mike.

The Tigercat loaders cover an area of around 50 acres (20 ha). There is continuous movement in the woodyard. In spring, the machines are in wet, sloppy ground and Mike notes that traction is important. “They’re excellent as far as getting around. We have no trouble with our carriers, not like a broken spring or a broken drive motor or lack of brakes. It costs more. But it’s something you’ve got to look at. Is it worth more? That Tigercat burns about half the fuel of the competitor,” Mike emphasizes.
Greg Alessandroni, one of MD’s Tigercat loader operators provides his opinion about the machine. “I particularly like the seat. It has many adjustments and it’s very comfortable. When you sit on a machine for eight hours a day, it’s important that you are comfortable and stay productive.”

Mike tells us that he’s grateful for his employees. “It’s easy to get equipment, but you need good employees that can get along to do the work. I’m thankful I have a good crew.” He concludes by saying that his operators have a clear preference for the Tigercat loaders. “They can run that competitor machine over there. They could have run that other one there. But they won’t. They go to the Tigercats.”

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