Johnson Ops: Coloring mulch is part of the daily grind

by Bill and Mary Weaver

Grinding and coloring mulch is a surprisingly quick process using a Rotochopper FP66, with its optional simultaneous grind and color system. We watched the process at one of two mulch yards owned by Dave and Kris Johnson of Holmen, Wisconsin.

As Dave loaded the hungry Rotochopper with once-ground wood chips using a CAT IT-28 their Rotochopper, now in its second year, gave the mulch a second grind, colored it, conveyed it below a large crossbelt magnet to remove possible metal contaminants, and smoothly produced a rapidly growing pile of evenly colored red mulch.

“Dave and Ed are wearing communication helmets, and Dave has a remote control for the grinder in his cab,” explained Kris Johnson, Dave’s wife and co-owner of Johnson Ops Tree Care. At present, Ed, on the ground, was moving the siphon from barrel to barrel of colorant as each emptied, after adjusting the colorant/water mix by pushing buttons on the side of the Rotochopper.

“A flat screen remote control which also controls the colorant/water mix is available, and we hope to eventually purchase one,” explained Kris. When he is grinding natural mulch and not coloring, Dave runs the Rotochopper from inside the loader.

Changing colors is simple, explained Dave. “We flush the system, unscrew hoses from the water source and color skid, move the Rotochopper and color skid to start a new mulch pile, and reattach the hoses.”

Coloring mulch takes water— lots of it! Hence Johnson Ops’ purchase of a tanker truck that can hold 6800 gallons. A new purchase this year, “at least new to us,” Kris smiled, was a Peterbilt 379 tractor, used to pull the heavy tanker from the mulch yard to the shop for refills. “We can fill the truck at our shop in about half an hour using city water,” explained Kris. That water is, of course, very clean. “Many colored mulch producers, however, use well-filtered pond or reservoir water with this machine,” added Rotochopper’s Regional Sales Manager, Michael Hundt.

Johnson Ops prefers Color Magic from BASF. “Our best-selling colors are dark brown, red, and gold, although our overall best seller is still natural, undyed mulch,” Kris explained. Dave continued, “We began selling double-ground natural mulch in 2013 using a Vermeer grinder, selling 500 cu. yds. the first year. We began producing colored mulch in 2015. Last year, when we purchased the Rotochopper, we produced around 3600 cu. yards of colored and natural material, and used 30 barrels of Color Magic. This year,” Dave added, “we’re on track to use 45 barrels or more of colorant.”

Kris has experimented with Color Magic’s specialty bright blue and green shades as well. Last year she had a green-colored mulch strip along one side of the mulch yard that looked like grass, but did not need to be mowed! “There would be a demand for these colors in our area. However, for the green and blue to show up well, we would need a separate, consistent supply of lighter-colored wood, like pine and ash, and we don’t have that,” Kris noted.

The Johnsons started in business as certified arborists, climbing trees to structurally prune the trees. Like many tree care businesses, their operation morphed into mulch production almost by necessity. “Producing mulch was a way of fully utilizing our green waste,” explained Dave. “At present, we’re recycling 100% of our green waste. Most becomes mulch, but some gets turned into biofuel and some logs are cut for firewood.”

About half their mulch is ground from waste wood from their own tree service and land clearing. The other half comes from waste wood dropped off at their two yards by 7 or 8 other tree companies. Johnson Ops recently began to charge a tipping fee to cover the time and labor involved in handling the extra wood, which frequently contains a lot of debris and big pieces of wood which must be split.

“We’re currently clearing 3 acres of land for a parking lot.” continued Kris. “We will accept land clearing jobs of up to 10 acres, as long as the land is close by. We’re in a growing area. For cutting trees and piling them on the ground, we use our CAT 314 excavator with a grapple saw, plus a grapple bucket for the loader. Stumps and large trees are pre-split with a spiral splitter attached to a skid steer.”                              A

“Although the Rotochopper FP66 can handle 26-inch logs,” Dave explained, “pre-splitting is more efficient. It uses less fuel, and lets us run much more wood through the Rotochopper in an hour than if the pieces were big. The time spent pre-splitting is worth it.”

For smaller jobs, the company has a tree crew. ”We use a Vermeer 1800 chipper for those jobs. It’s simpler to truck already-chipped wood back to our mulch yards. Then the Rotochopper grinds the chips while simultaneously applying the coloring to the mulch. We only grind tree debris for mulch that has already had a first trip through a chipper or our grinder.”

Johnson Ops does not need to advertise. “We get all the business we can handle from current customers and referrals,” noted Kris. “I don’t aim to be the cheapest tree service in the area, but the most knowledgeable,” she added. “Dave and I are certified arborists, and we now have four certified arborists on staff. We have earned a reputation for doing what is best for the trees.”

Kris “wears many hats” in the business. She does the estimates for jobs, helps their crew to set up at homeowner’s yards for tree care work, and spends much of her time answering customer’s questions and scheduling jobs. She also takes care of the business aspects of the operation. Although Dave still climbs trees on occasion, most of his time is spent operating whatever heavy equipment is needed for the job at hand.

The Johnsons don’t grind mulch too far ahead. “Mulch will deteriorate if it sits too long. We were out of colored mulch when we started the Rotochopper this morning. We usually color mulch about every 2-3 weeks.” The large mountain of wood chips in their Holmen yard had accumulated over a relatively short period of time. Kris and Dave keep careful track of such details.

Johnson Ops’ target market is selling mulch wholesale to landscapers. “Our truck can deliver and dump 25 cu. yds. at a time.” But like many successful businesses, Kris and Dave are willing to go the extra mile to load a scoop or two onto the pickups or trailers of homeowners who show up at the lot. “I don’t turn customers away,” said Kris.

Kris even keeps several employees on the payroll several days a week through the frigid Wisconsin winters, accommodating homeowners with removal of large trees when the ground is frozen, so there is less damage to their lawns when the trees are dropped, and pruning oak trees.

This summer the Johnsons’ two sons are both employed in the business. Quintin, who is working on a degree in urban forestry, is working in tree care. Barett, who plans to study diesel and heavy equipment repair in the fall, is working as a mechanic. Kris and Dave would be pleased if they would eventually join the business, but as Kris says, “They’re still young, and need to figure out what their passion is.”

The Johnsons’ excellent customer service and emphasis on quality, their well-informed approach to their work, their willingness to put in long hours, plus their astute equipment choices have propelled their tree care business far from its small beginnings. Started literally from scratch in 1999, the business they co-own today is a very successful one, fully equipped and multi-faceted, with a dependable customer base.

Find out more about Johnson Ops by visiting www.johnsonops.com.

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