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Boards and beyond: Product versatility, variety the formula for success at large Wisconsin sawmill

posted: July 31. 2017 09:16a CST
by / Heidi Clausen, Regional Editor | ​

PRENTICE — To the casual observer, it may appear that the Biewer Lumber sawmill in Prentice does just one thing — take in rough-cut logs and process them into boards delivered to customers throughout the Midwest.

But along with 20 to 25 loads of finished lumber each day, a variety of other products also leave Biewer, including sawdust used as animal bedding and wood shavings that go into potting soil mixes. Shavings also go to Marth Wood Shavings in Marathon to be bagged and sold.

Wood residuals go to paper companies, mainly those in Kaukauna and Mosinee. Some 25 vat trailers of wood chips leave the plant each day. Nothing goes to waste, as the bark remains on site to be fed into boilers that fuel the kilns.

Thanks to state-of-the-art technology installed in recent years, Biewer has a competitive edge in that it’s equipped to deliver wood products in just about any dimension customers desire in order to achieve the highest return on investment.

“Our throughput would be a little higher if we did one thing all the time, and there is a cost to having that versatility,” said Thad Henderson, sawmill plant manager, but “overall, it’s a net gain.”

Located in Prentice since 1990, Biewer — the largest sawmill in Wisconsin, according to Henderson — sees primarily red, or Norway pine, Henderson told the state Board of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection during a July 19 tour. Appropriately, the plant is located on Red Pine Court.

About 60 percent of each log makes it out the door as lumber, according to log buyer Travis Zydzik.

Henderson said Biewer is centralized to its resources, with wood hauled an average of about 120 miles to the plant from federal, state and county forest lands. About 55 percent of logs are purchased off private land, 24 percent comes from federal land, 18 percent is from county land and about 5 percent is bought off state land.

Biewer deals with about 600 logging and trucking contracts, he said. Last year, they bought at least one truckload of wood from 256 different ventures, mostly in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan but also in northern Iowa and Illinois.

Zydzik said Biewer’s Prentice plant uses about 65 truckloads of wood every day; the company has a manufacturing agreement with a facility in Spencer that uses another 20 to 25 loads.

“We’re near 100 loads of red pine a day between the two mills,” he said.

Biewer, which also has facilities in Michigan and Illinois, employs more than 500 people all together, Henderson said. The firm recently constructed a new plant in Newton, Miss. Built completely through one vendor and processing mostly yellow pine, this $85 million facility includes some upgrades not seen at older mills and was finished in 18 months, Henderson said.

He said most of their lumber stays in the Lake States region of Wisconsin and Minnesota. Menards is a major customer. Logs usually make it to the kiln within an hour of arriving at the plant. While most wood is kiln-dried, less than 1 percent is sold as green lumber.

The grading process is completely automated. Logs are scanned by lasers as they move through the plant and can be repositioned “on a dime” for best flow and according to orders based on length and other dimensions, Henderson said. After grading, boards are sent to one of 28 different bins. Knots are the primary reason that red pine gets downgraded, he said. Red pine puts on a growth ring every year, and these knot clusters are the reason why about 80 percent of red pine doesn’t make grade.

The planer can turn out 40,000 boards “on a good day,” he said. Heads on the planer shaft are repressurized every four hours; this can be done in just 11 minutes to get the machines back up and running quickly.

On average, it takes three to four weeks for a log to move through the mill, but Henderson said they strive to complete the process in about two weeks. Biewer primarily produces 2-by-6s and 2-by-4s, although they also do a lot of 4-by-4s for Menards. Some boards are paper-wrapped before delivery to customers.

Short on skilled workers

Henderson said a lack of skilled labor is among the biggest challenges in the industry these days. Along with general laborers, they are in need of qualified maintenance workers and people to fill electromechanical positions. Saws and other equipment are maintained in-house.

The plant typically runs two eight-hour shifts five days a week, with 94 employees, he said. Between 14 and 19 people are working in the sawmill, depending on the shift.

Fiber supply also can be a challenge, he said, but “now, logs are pretty plentiful. It has been so wet this year that producers have had to stay in pine because it grows on sandy soil. We have been flush with wood this year. Everything has been delayed this year because of the weather. It’s a cycle on the procurement end.”

Some invasive pest concerns in the past have included pine shoot beetles and gypsy moths, Henderson said, but “there’s not a lot of regulation on us right now as far as compliance agreements.”

State Agriculture Secretary Ben Brancel said Wisconsin ships a lot of wood products to Asia and Mexico, and many good opportunities exist, particularly in southeast Asia. While forestry falls under the jurisdiction of the state Department of Natural Resources, the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection handles all phytosanitary certification on wood products from Wisconsin and international trade.

Wisconsin companies were able to sell almost $1 million in wood products last year because of those certifications, according to DATCP’s Ashley Andre.

The Board also toured the Packaging Corp. of America Containerboard Mill in Tomahawk, which generates 2,000-pound bales of corrugated material for boxes, producing 500,000 tons of corrugated each year for box plants. Eighty percent of PCA’s paper goes to PCA box plants, while the rest is sold into the open market, according to staff.

The Tomahawk plant has about 400 employees who work two shifts around the clock. They bring in 85 to 100 truckloads of wood each day, with about 95 percent of harvested wood sustainably sourced. PCA in Tomahawk contracts out to more than 300 loggers, employees said.

Bark is collected and burned at a rate of about 1,000 pounds per minute to generate steam for the mill, which requires 40 megawatts of electricity a day. The mill generates about a third of its electrical needs on site.

A log can become paper in about 45 minutes, according to Ian Miller, process engineer. “At the end of the day, we just produce the most paper most efficiently.”

Photo by Heidi Clausen - About 60 percent of each log leaves Price County’s Biewer sawmill as lumber. Biewer can process boards to any dimension customers desire. The most commonly requested lengths are 12 and 16 feet.
Photo by Heidi Clausen - Members of the state Board of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection toured Biewer Lumber in Prentice on July 19 before their regular board meeting the next day in Tomahawk.
Photo by Heidi Clausen - The Packaging Corporation of America mill in Tomahawk has undergone many upgrades over the past decade.
Photo by Heidi Clausen - About 65 truckloads of logs, primarily red pine, are delivered daily to the Biewer Lumber sawmill in Prentice.
Photo by Heidi Clausen - Biewer Lumber in Prentice employs more than 90 people and typically runs two eight-hour shifts five days a week.
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