Product Profile: Portable Sawmills

The role of the small sawmill operator has become enlarged as farming economics and practices rapidly change.

For many years, New Zealand farmers thought of trees solely as shelter for stock or material for dwellings to protect from the always unpredictable weather.

As time went on more and more farmers saw valuable capital accretion in woodlots and all over the country these were, and are still, being planted. However, with reduced income for sheep and beef products, many New Zealand farmers have been looking at stands of trees randomly planted on their properties as sources of cash.

They realised it was possible to reduce debt levels by capitalising the value of stands of timber.

The larger sawmillers usually won’t buy small volumes of timber because of their overheads. If a larger sawmiller does cut a small stand of timber, the landowner usually has to accept a reduction in price to set off those extra costs. The result of this is that more farmers are now regarding the portable sawmiller as a viable alternative to the large logger.

Farmers are well aware that if trees are felled and taken off the farm, fences have to be taken down and the stumps and rubbish are left behind for the farmer to clean up. With a portable mill the firewood can be stacked, and if the trees are being milled for the farmer’s own use, they can be milled and stacked on the farm.

An astute couple who farm at Mandeville near Gore saw the potential of the portable saw operation some years ago. Graham and Kerryn Miller had been sheep farming for a long time and saw costs rising and prices falling and like many other southern farmers, became concerned for the future. The Millers looked for another source of income to boost their farming operation without the need for either of them to seek outside employment.

The Millers became aware of the interest in trees among southern farmers and saw an opportunity in catering for the milling of small numbers of trees, at a time when it would suit the farming industry in the South.

Southern farmers are very busy in the spring, summer and early autumn so late autumn and winter is a good time for tasks such as tree milling.

Therein lies another problem for the larger sawmiller. The South is wetter for longer than most other regions in New Zealand so imposes difficulties in moving heavy machinery and vehicles over farm land.

The Millers wanted to find some form of machinery that would not only be inexpensive to buy and maintain, but also to mill timber for farmers to suit their needs and at a reasonable price. They found this in the Lucas Portable Sawmill.

The Millers started their business in 1997 and since then have been milling small stands of timber all over the south. Graham Miller says the Lucas Portable Sawmill is easy to operate and to transport. He estimates it takes only about five minutes to dismantle the saw and its infrastructure and to pack it securely in its trailer. However, while usually it does require at least two people to operate it successfully, he can operate it successfully by himself.

Operators of the Lucas mill have rapidly become aware that in most cases it is not even necessary to move the log. The operator’s assistant may have to roll the log a little with a timber jack, farm tractor or move them manually to get them into a position for milling. However, once the mill’s set up over the log, the operator can cut out perfectly dimensioned timber on site. Another plus is it’s possible to tow the mill with one of the larger ATVs. This is an important aspect, especially in Southland where the ground is often soft and wet.

Such has been the success of the business that the Millers have found it necessary to acquire a second portable sawmill. This was not only to serve as a backup if the Lucas should break down (which it hasn’t), but also to undertake work for clients who wanted work done when the Lucas was off the property.

This led in 2011 to the purchase of a Mahoe Portable Sawmill. The Millers see this Mahoe as complementing the Lucas. Graham says it is easily operated by one person and allows him to work for as long as he likes. He says not having to rely on labour is a major advantage when working the Mahoe, even though it is not an inexpensive machine.

While the Mahoe is more complex than the Lucas, the Millers are pleased with the performance of the Mahoe, which has permitted them to extend the scope of their operations into more complex work. Again, the Millers see the portability of the Mahoe as a plus. Graham says that while not as easy to dismantle and pack as the Lucas, the Mahoe can be taken down and stowed on the trailer in about 45 minutes.

With the growing demand for eucalypts to supply the computer industry with billions of reams of computer paper, the business of operating a portable sawmill is likely to become much more common than it is at present.

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Photography: Peter Owens

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