Business Management: Managing green debris costs on land clearing jobs

|  January 01, 2008 |

Versatile equipment and fresh disposal options can help you manage green debris costs and add to your revenue stream on your land clearing projects.

Until about 20 years ago, cutting trees and burning the collected pile of limbs and roots was accepted practice. As environmental regulations started to ban open burning, a new layer of costs for contractors was piled on to land clearing jobs, forcing companies to figure out what to do with the trees and brush they’d just cleared on a site. Today, better clearing equipment is making the debris more manageable and also providing contractors with another source of revenue.

Getting it down to size
Jerry Morey, president of Bandit Industries, says getting the right machines into a jobsite speeds up the clearing process and reduces labor and disposal costs.

“The more mechanized contractors can get and the more they can convert or dispose of vegetation on the spot, the more profitable they will be. If they don’t have to haul off bulk materials that tend to take up more space than what they weigh and reduce the debris down to a size that a can be more efficiently be trucked off, they will save money on labor, transportation costs and disposal. That company will also be more valuable to the general contractor because they’ll get in and get out, freeing up more time for the contractor,” Morey says.

Even on smaller jobs, Morey says it doesn’t make sense to haul off bulk brush. He estimates that eight truckloads of bulk brush can be reduced to just one truckload of processing material by chipping or shredding. By reducing the volume of material the contractor hauls off the site, the contractor’s loading and transportation costs decrease, landfill tipping fees drop and efficiency increases.

On jobs that involve clearing large areas of trees and brush, Dan Brandon at Morbark says he is seeing a trend toward using tracked grinders and shredders. Morbark’s Track Wood Hog horizontal grinders, for instance, can be an integral component on a big tree clearing job. “The tracked grinders can follow behind the workers felling the trees and grubbing out the stumps, grinding the material immediately,” Brandon says. On projects using this processed material for erosion control, dozers can spread the material over the area as the grinder moves forward, eliminating the costs of hauling the chips in from another location.

Chippers that feed themselves give extra value for contractors doing midsize clearing. Vermeer’s BC2000 brush chipper has a grappler loader that grabs brush and branches and loads them onto the chipper’s feeder rollers. The Vermeer chipper doesn’t require additional loading equipment and frees up the contractor’s excavator and loaders for other jobs.

Contractors who do residential and smaller commercial site prep work can save money and time with attachments that connect to skid steers or compact loaders. Bobcat’s forestry cutter attachment clears brush and trees on smaller production sites, and allows the operator to selectively shred a large diameter trees without disturbing nearby trees.

The marriage of a track excavator and a motorized attachment has produced ProGrind Systems’ ProHead grinder. The ProHead attaches to an excavator’s boom and will buzz down an entire tree in one pass, top to bottom, without other support equipment. In situations that require a contractor to select and take down specific trees, like those with insect infestations or storm damage, ProGrind’s system will remove the tree and eliminate the costs of processing the tree again through a grinder.

The color of money
Morey says a huge market for wood debris has sprung up in the past several years. “Repurposing” trees into mulch for residential and commercial landscaping is giving contractors the opportunity to wholesale the mulch and chips collected from land clearing jobs. After billing for the clearing job, these contractors haul off the green waste for cleaning and processing.

At a recent demonstration, Morbark showed how their tub grinders and horizontal shredders can be programmed to produce chips in specific sizes. Spectators from Sweden and Australia who use wood chips to power their utilities were enthusiastic about the uniform size of the chips. Standardized sizes let their power plants manage the amount of material required to produce a precise amount of energy.

As fuel costs rise in this country, more businesses are looking for lower cost energy sources. For example, Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, Michigan, uses wood chips for 50 percent of its energy production. LeRoy Barnes, director of energy and utilities management at CMU, estimates the school saves up to $2 million each year in fuel costs by supplementing their natural gas usage with recycled wood waste products.

Large land clearing and recycling contractors manage wholesale operations, stocked by the green debris they clear from huge site prep jobs. But it isn’t necessary to be a mega-contractor to increase profits on a clearing job.

Cynthia and Kurt Fife, owners of Chicagoland Wholesale Mulch in Crest Hill, Illinois, started as a tree service company doing land clearing and tree removal, but when they began to see area landfills restrict green waste dumping and the demand for mulch grow, the Fifes saw an opportunity to make money. They added mulch processing to their business, solving the problem of disposing of green waste from their own clearing jobs and offering their services to other contractors requiring green waste disposal.

Barnes and Morey both note that if a contractor is interested in marketing his green waste for use as an energy source, it’s important that he use a grappler attachment or something similar to load the wood debris into a grinder. Using a dozer to push green waste into the chipper can push dirt into the wood mix, spoiling it for use by some customers. CMU contracts with Tom Noble of Noble Forestry to ensure the 38,000 tons of chips it buys are “paper grade” clean, but smaller companies don’t always require the higher grade chips.


There is something instinctively satisfying about feeding tree branches into a grinder and seconds later watching the tree become a mound of mulch. To watch videos of some of the products mentioned here, go to:

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