Producers of mulch or biomass material looking to expand their operation or broaden its scope, have traditionally been limited in their options for doing so. If they wanted to bulk up the mulch operation, they’d add a grinder; to upgrade the biomass side of the business, they’d purchase another chipper. Faced with that very dilemma, Brian Calhoun, owner of Virginia-based Calhoun Mulch, chose to explore another route that had just been opened up to processors like himself. Intrigued by a new product introduced by Morbark that would allow him to convert one of his two 6600 Wood Hogs—until then relegated strictly to mulch production—into a machine capable of creating high-quality chips and then switch back again, he headed off to Michigan to see a similar product at work. Today, almost a year after that visit, Calhoun feels he has essentially doubled that 6600 grinder’s value to his operation and has been able to augment the chipping operation without an additional machine purchase. Well worth the trip, he says.
Infusion of Youth
Unlike many of his colleagues, Brian Calhoun is not a grizzled veteran, able to boast about the decades of chipping and grinding experience he brings to the table. In fact, at 29, he might just be one of the industry’s youngest owners of a mulch and chip operation. What he lacks in worry-lines, however, he makes up for in commitment and an already-proven level of expertise.
“I actually started out in the landscaping business in 1999, then purchased an existing mulch business in 2005,” he says. “In terms of processing, we did solely mulch for one year and then, to meet our own needs for fiber, added the timber operation in 2006. By then we were already seeing the direction we wanted to take the mulch business and knew it would be best to focus all of our efforts on that. So last year, in 2010, we sold off the landscape part of the business to expand in mulch and biofuel. I love what I do and am proud to put everything I have into seeing this business grow and succeed.”
There’s little arguing with the strides Calhoun Mulch has taken in its short six years of existence. What began as essentially little more than a startup is now annually producing about 100,000 tons of merchantable timber, and 50,000 tons of biofuel. As to the product described in its name, the company generates a very impressive 340,000 cubic yards of mulch each year which it sells and delivers to customers within a 150-mile radius of its Alberta, Virginia location. Calhoun says they’ve gotten to that point by having a solid business plan, hiring excellent workers, and equipping themselves with the best machinery available. Until recently, that included a pair of grind-only 6600 track Wood Hogs dedicated strictly to generation of mulch.
A Perfect Fit
Calhoun’s crews go all out creating mulch for about four months out of the year: generally from March though July. Because the season for that product winds down around then, they fill out the balance of the year generating fuel chips for use in area mills. They do so with a grinding and chipping fleet that is exclusively Morbark machines, and includes the pair of 6600s, a 1300 tub grinder, a Model 23 chipper and a new 5500 standalone flail. While that lineup has proven successful for them, the possibility of expanding the chipping operation—without an additional equipment purchase—prompted the look at the new drum kit Morbark was beginning to offer.
“We knew that meeting any added production demands would generally entail the purchase of another chipper,” he says. “At the same time, we were looking at the grinders which, for eight months of each year, are not being fully utilized. So the concept of converting one of those Wood Hogs to a chipping machine fit perfectly with our business model.”
The kit from Morbark which makes that conversion possible, called the “QuickSwitch” conversion kit, includes the drum skin, the knife holders and a set of 12 knives. Conversion consists of removal of the grinder’s hammers from the mill and, using the same rods that hold the hammers in place, attaching the drum skin and knives. Because the mill remains in place, the conversion can be done faster than other conversion kits available today and can be done without the use of a crane, making the conversion faster and less-costly.
“And the beauty of it is that, after the machine has filled its need in either chipping or mulching, it can be switched back to its alternative configuration,” says Calhoun. “That’s an outstanding capability to have at our disposal.”
More Than Skin-Deep
While the luxury of having a double-duty machine is, in itself, pretty impressive (and functional, given the company’s processing needs), Calhoun says he has been seeing a number of additional benefits from making the modification to the horizontal grinder.
“The most surprising thing for us was the chip size and quality we are getting from the converted grinder,” says Calhoun. “In fact, because the grinder gives us a chip in the 3/8-inch to ½-inch range, the mills actually prefer the material we get out of the 6600. That, in turn, helps us with mill-enforced quotas; if they are getting full they will buy our product first because of its smaller size. That’s a nice plus.”
He adds that the load-out facet of the job is also faster using the converted machine versus their standard disc chipper, citing load times as low as 12 minutes. And, because they are loading into open-topped trailers—of which they have nearly three dozen—they are making better use of those units than ever before.
Even though the number of knives differs so greatly between the two types of machines, Calhoun says they were still surprised to see how much longer the knife life was with the converted machine than with their chipper.
“We are running 12 knives in there versus three in a disc chipper so there are obviously more knives cutting, reducing the amount of wear to each. But still, without hitting any foreign objects, we can average 25 truckloads of fuel chips on a set of knives with the converted grinder. With our chipper we are only averaging eight to nine loads per set of knives. Because we don’t have to change knives as often, that’s a savings in downtime and maintenance costs.
For icing on the proverbial cake, Calhoun says they are getting better fuel economy on the 6600 in chip mode than in grinder mode, since the process of a set of knives cutting is far less intense than a set of hammers beating material to reduce it in size. “It will probably also extend the life of the engine on this machine since it is not pulling as hard,” he says. “The benefits of making the switch just continue to pile up.”
Great Support System
Calhoun says both Morbark and their local dealer, James River Equipment have been outstanding in their support, before, during and after the conversion process.
“We are never lacking for customer service from either organization,” he says. “We used to deal with Rodney Waller when he worked directly for Morbark and now that he is with James River who is also our John Deere dealer, it’s like having the best of both worlds.”
Calhoun’s unit was the first 6600 Wood Hog converted to a chipping machine (the company also offers QuickSwitch kits for its Model 2600, 3800, 4600, and 4600XL grinders) and he acknowledges that, as a company, they we were something of a beta test for the larger grinder.
“But Morbark has been with us every step of the way, we worked our way through some small issues, and are now starting to see some of the real benefits of making the conversion. Is it for everyone? Maybe not. But for the wood waste processor who either wants to more effectively use his grinder, or better still, wants to expand into new markets, this is the answer. For us it was much simpler. We have two other grinders, so the second 6600 can now easily play the swing role: when we need grinding it allows us to have three grinders at work—when we need chipping, we can have two chippers at work. We’ve doubled both the productivity of one machine and our ability to make two different products. We felt it was as much a no-brainer as you can get.”