It seems like only yesterday that we were testing the all-new Cat 538 tracked forestry machine after it had just been introduced and yet, just four years later we’re in the bush eyeing up its successor – the Next Gen 538.
Back in 2017 we got to grips with one of the first early generation 538’s to go to work in New Zealand with Goodman Logging in the Kinleith Forest, performing loading duties on the skid and also shovelling out in the cut-over. Even though it wasn’t designed for that letter role it still proved to be a major step forward over its predecessor, the long-serving 320 DFM.
This time we’re with BBL (Big Bark Logging), south of Gisborne to check out what has changed in the Next Generation Cat 538 and how much difference it’s made to everyday operations.
There are two versions of the 538, the low cab General Forestry model and the high cab Log Loader, which is the version that appeals to a large number of Kiwi logging contractors because the extra viewing height enhances safety when performing skid duties, although buyers can also get the LL model with a low riser.
That’s the version BBL’s Tony ‘Irish’ Shanahan has put to work in one of his two crews, currently operating in the Kopua Forest, situated on the northern flanks of the imposing Wharerata range.
Caterpillar has a strong following among logging contractors in New Zealand, but ‘Irish’ is a pragmatic fellow and has spread his purchasing favours across numerous brands over the years, tending towards whatever machine suits the allotted task. His purchase of the Next Gen 538 LL follows a similar path.
“I had an old guarded-up Komatsu working in that role before, but with the cost of converting excavators these days it made sense to go for a purpose-built forestry loader, plus it’s just about impossible to get into a build shop now,” says ‘Irish’. “And the price of the Cat was pretty good.”
His 538 arrived almost ready to go into the forest, apart from getting the local TerraCat team to add some extra railings behind the cab to make it safer when people are up on top of the bodywork, as well as fitting the Ensign 1730 grapple.
With long lines forming for any sort of new equipment, ‘Irish’ was fortunate to be close to the front of the queue for the new Cat, being one of the first to take delivery of a Next Gen 538 in New Zealand in August.
Having clocked up a couple of hundred hours already, the BBL crew has had time to assess the merits of the Next Generation updates and ‘Irish’ is very complementary: “It’s going really well and the operator is very happy with it – he’s driven 538’s before but this being the new version, he’s very impressed with it.”
And yet, looking at the new Cat, it doesn’t really appear much different to the Goodman machine we tested four years ago. So...