Woodworker chipper

Kalvin Kovatch knows what to do when the chips are down: turn them into something useful.

Kovatch has manufactured posts and rails at Roundwood West near Seeley Lake for 16 years, riding the ups and downs of the timber and construction industries. Since the recession, he's cut his staff from four workers to just him, his wife and one summer employee. He now buys 40 truckloads of lodgepole trees a year instead of 200.

But being a tinkerer, he's always looking for ways to squeeze all the value out of what wood he can get. This year, he's found one more way to do that: squeezing his waste woodchips into 8-foot mesh sleeves to make wattles, which resemble bendable logs.

Anyone who has seen long, narrow bundles of straw protecting streams or wetlands in road-construction areas is familiar with wattles. The wattles made with straw are cheap, making them ideal for short-term projects. But they can contain a variety of seeds, and require stakes to hold them in place.

Woodchips have the advantage of being slightly heavier and seed-free, so wood wattles can be used for wildfire restoration or other public-land projects.

But that's not Kovatch's primary market.

Having grown up west of Great Falls, Kovatch knows that farmers struggle to keep irrigation-pivot wheels from gouging ruts in their fields. If ruts get too deep, a pivot sensor turns the water off because the structure is strained.

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"If you're in eastern Montana and you're buying water shares and your pivot's off for the whole night, that's a big deal," Kovatch says. "There are thousands and thousands of pivots out there. It's a huge market—we're just the first to get into it."

Potato farmers in Idaho have tried filling their ruts with either sandbags or railroad ties. But railroad ties aren't always easy to get, and heavy sandbags sink into the ground after a few months.

Kovatch designed his wattles to match the width of the wheel ruts. When he tested them under pivot wheels, the wattles compressed slightly and then sprang back. They also hold their form when they get wet, unlike straw.

Frustrated with using gravel, Wayne Slaght, Kovatch's uncle, agreed in May to try a few experimental wattles in some bad spots on Two Creek Ranch, a property he manages near Ovando.

"It works good because the tire doesn't touch the dirt anymore so it can't keep digging in," Slaght says. "They stay in the ruts, so I'm hopeful it will be a one-time deal."

In September, Kovatch's brainchild became the first woodchip wattle certified by the Montana Department of Agriculture as weed-free for use in farm fields.

"We missed the market this year, but we're aiming for next spring," Kovatch said.

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