Brothers harvest timber the old-fashioned way

Monday, April 14, 2003

ELLIS PRAIRIE, Mo. -- When Larry and Roger Hayes harvest Ozarks timber, their work begins with the angry snarl of a chain saw as trees are felled, and finishes with the weary groan of a hydraulic lift loading logs onto a truck.

But in between, the only sounds heard as the brothers toil in the forests of Texas County are instructions spoken gently by Larry to two helpers.

"Get over, Dan."

"Turn around, Doc."

"Easy now ... over here ... back up now. ..."


Dan and Doc are massive Percheron horses. Larry, like his father and grandfather before him, uses powerful draft animals to drag downed tree trunks from the deep woods to more accessible sites for transfer to sawmills.

The Hayes brothers' logging operation is one of only two or three still regularly working the rugged Ozarks hills with horses or mules. Most professional woodsmen long ago adopted motorized skidders to wrestle timber out of the forest. But the Hayses have stuck with old-fashioned muscle power.

"For one thing, I'd rather not spend $100,000 to buy a skidder," says Larry. "But mostly it's just that I've always liked working with the animals."

Doc is a 6-year-old gelding, weighing right at a ton. Dan, a stallion, is a year younger and a bit lighter at 1,650 pounds. They are half-siblings, born of the same mare in Illinois and purchased at a draft horse sale in Columbia.

Mules are a bit more suited for working in the woods year-round because they can better tolerate summer heat. Larry has used mules in the past.

But he's pleased at the performance of Doc and Dan. And because, with luck and good care, the working life of Percherons can span 18 to 20 years, the 57-year-old Larry notes with a chuckle: "I might give out before they do."

With gasoline and diesel prices soaring lately, feeding draft animals might seem a bargain compared with fueling a mechanical skidder. But Doc and Dan do have appetites -- 40 pounds of grain (usually corn and oats) and a bale of hay between them each workday.

Although the horses' extra-big hooves require shoes that Larry must specially modify with his welding rig, Doc and Dan have one indisputable advantage over skidders: The horses haul heavy loads while stepping lightly on the landscape compared with the heavy grooved treads of machines.

"Property owners like us because we don't tear everything up," Larry says.

Larry transports Dan and Doc in a trailer to the worksite from his home at Ellis Prairie, about 100 miles east of Springfield. It takes only a few minutes to rig the horses' collars and harnesses.

Once in the woods, Larry hooks a chain-and-pipe "single tree" behind each horse, then connects those to a "double tree" that yokes Doc and Dan together and links them via a sturdy chain to scissorlike tongs that grab on to the logs to be hauled.

This day the Hayes brothers and the horses are clearing trees from land owned by Don Allen about 10 miles west of the Texas County seat of Houston. Allen's deal with the Hayes brothers is the standard arrangement: He gets half the profits from sale of the logs.

Larry and Roger like to start cutting and hauling by 7:30 a.m. On a good day they'll fell two dozen mature trees and deliver the logs to local sawmills. These days buyers are paying between 50 cents and $1 per board foot, depending on the variety and quality of logs.

Typically, Larry says, a truckload figures out to about 2,000 board feet.

Walnut brings top dollar. The Hayes brothers usually are harvesting oak, and sometimes pine, which pay on the lower end of the scale.

"It's getting harder to find a good patch of timber in this country," Larry laments.

But for now, they have no trouble staying busy.

Roger, who is a year younger than Larry, topples trees with a chain saw, then wields the bellowing Stihl like a surgeon's scalpel to deftly trim branches from the trunk. Next he uses his practiced eye and a 4-foot-long sassafras stick marked in 1-foot increments to measure and cut the felled trunk into 8-, 10- and 12-foot lengths.

As Roger produces the logs, Larry steers Doc and Dan into position to hook on and drag them to the waiting 1978 Chevrolet truck equipped with a hydraulic lift mechanism called a "Logger's Dream." An individual log may weigh up to a ton -- but once the big horses have it moving, a log glides along the ground as if it were light as a toothpick.

Larry and Roger learned their trade from their father, Robert, and grandfather Herman. But they're not sure if the family tradition will be carried on. Larry's son, Bobby, prefers running a dairy operation.

Larry says his best hope at the moment seems to be 10-year-old grandson Brody.

"He likes to come to the woods with me -- at least for now. But maybe it'll turn out that we're the last of our kind."

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