Unless you’re of the swine variety, rolling in the mud is no fun and, frankly, quite foolish. Taking that slice of common sense one step further, if you are in the business of working outdoors, in the elements, mud can be costly, counterproductive and a large nuisance.
For tree care professionals, particularly those in the Northeast and Midwest, the time between mid-March and late-April can involve mud, rain and unpleasant, unworkable conditions — in heavy amounts.
So, how do you handle this time of year? How do you keep the cash flowing? How do you manage your “mud season”? The answers are various and wide-ranging. But one thing is clear: Strategy is needed to navigate this soggy period until the arrival of the warmth and business boom of the summer months.
Keeping up with the weather
“Weather is unpredictable and, if not prepared, even a week of subzero temperatures can put you in a difficult position,” said Gus Bettenhausen, certified arborist and owner of Precise Tree Care in Frankfort, Illinois. “Add a couple of those weeks to a wet spring, and it could put a tremendous weight on your shoulders.”
Among the tree care companies in the Northeast and Midwest contacted for this article, all respondents agreed that one of the main difficulties — if not the primary difficulty — of working during “mud season” is the safety of crews working on saturated ground. Another is determining whether they can do so without damage to equipment, and, more importantly, the customer’s property.
“We also have to look at whether equipment will be able to be stationed in our work area, or if it needs to stay in the street,” Bettenhausen said. “This has quite an impact on our job planning: Can these jobs even be completed with muddy conditions, or will they need to be postponed? We either feel we are able to do the job safely and without damage to our customer’s lawns, or we do not proceed until conditions improve. If [muddy conditions] are unavoidable, we just make sure we’ve got one of the 4×4 trucks with a winch or chains handy.”
Terry Schmitz, general manager of Broccolo Tree & Lawn Care in Rochester, New York, said that his company’s hardscape and landscape jobs are strategically scheduled based on weather conditions.
“From winter into spring, we have to pay close attention because we don’t have to repair any lawns [due to equipment damaging yards or leaving marks after sitting in mud],” Schmitz said. “If we have a crew of three people doing a large spring cleanup, there can be a lot of foot traffic, and even something like a wheelbarrow can potentially do a lot of damage.”
Schmitz also noted that “mud season” presents many difficulties for Broccolo Tree & Lawn Care because the company has a large integrated pest management (IPM) department.
IPM, also known as integrated pest control, is a broad-based approach that integrates practices for economic control of pests. IPM aims to suppress pest populations below the economic injury level.
During the early spring, Schmitz hopes to begin applying dormant horticultural spray to properties, which can be difficult because of temperature fluctuation, as the procedure demands a temperature of 40 degrees Fahrenheit or above for the product to dry properly.
Keeping the cash flowing
For some companies, “mud season” also could be called “cash shortage season” as, depending on services offered and jobs available, the time from winter to early spring means less money in the bank.
Some of the companies contacted for this article get by during the winter by plowing snow, but all admitted that snow plowing is not nearly as profitable as tree work. But, if there is enough snow for tree care companies to be out plowing, it stands to reason they wouldn’t be out doing tree work anyway.
Even if you plow snow during winter months to bring in some cash and provide steady work for your employees, the period after the snow thaws before real warmth arrives must be managed.
“First and foremost, always make sure you have a substantial savings to make it through the winter … although it is easier said than done,” Bettenhausen said.
Other companies use this time of year to collect on past-due invoices, avoid big expenses like the purchase of large equipment and work with vendors to stretch out payment terms on any loans until cash flow surges later in the spring or summer.
At Precise Tree & Lawn Care, Bettenhausen sells dormant work through this traditionally slow season, but really starts pushing in mid-June or so.
“We also offer a coupon to our customers that we give with each proposal, letting them know about our winter rates,” Bettenhausen said. “This saves them a bit of cash while ensuring our crews work year-round. Generally, if we sell enough jobs, then, come spring, we have enough work to choose from. … If some yard conditions are too wet and/or muddy, we can go on to the next job.”
If muddy conditions create unworkable conditions, it is incumbent that production doesn’t totally cease. On days like this, tasks such as light maintenance on trucks can be accomplished.
“These tasks can be anything from fixing lights, topping fluids, cleaning the trucks inside and outside, etc.,” Bettenhausen said. “We will also do equipment inspections and any light repairs on those as well.”
Crews can attend local/regional training or instructional courses during this time of year. Both the Tree Care Industry Association and the International Society of Arboriculture offer regional and online training and educational programs throughout March, April and into the summer.
Also, companies hoping to add employees before the summer months should look to the early spring as an ideal time to do so, according to the article “Understand Recruitment Cycles to Give Your Job Search an Edge” on the employment website Monster.com. For example, as the article points out, in the construction industry, hiring in April, May and June proceeds at double the pace of December.
At Broccolo Tree & Lawn Care, Schmitz focuses on landscaping to bring in jobs leading into the summer months.
“This is the time of year clients start thinking about their landscapes, because they haven’t seen them in several months due to snow cover,” Schmitz said. “As soon as the grass starts to appear [after the winter thaw], people start planning, and we want to be able to help them out.”
Regardless of rain, mud, snow, ice or sunshine, Schmitz said his company has one goal: “To be able to leave the property better-looking than when we found it.”