You’ve seen them on job sites and landscaping projects, there’s at least one on the job down at the local elevator, and your hay supplier uses one to load big round bales on your trailer. They come in a number of varieties – and you’ve been dying to find a reason to bring one to your place. I’m not talking about a forklift attachment for your compact tractor; I’m talking about those delightfully maneuverable, super-compact skid-steer loaders that seem to pop up just about everywhere.
The skid-steer loader (often called a skid loader) is really the ultimate heavy-duty compact loader. Although the concept was born on a farm – the famed Bobcat brand traces its roots to a three-wheeled, lever-steered, miniloader designed to clean out turkey barns – the modern skid loader has spent most of its life as a construction, landscaping and utility machine. Sure, large-scale dairy operations and cattle feeding setups have been using skid loaders for years, but until just a few years ago, the skid loader hadn’t made significant inroads into small-scale agricultural operations. We can thank the landscaping industry and its need for so many property maintenance attachments for leading the skid loader to acreage owners and small-farm operations.
Skidding through the years
The skid-steer loader was born in 1960 as the M-400, which was built by Melroe Co. in Gwinner, North Dakota. The M-400 was an improvement over the original turkey-barn-cleaning three-wheeled loader because it had more traction and stability with even better maneuverability. The machine was steered – crawler like – by clutching the left and right side drives independently of each other, which meant that it could spin in its own length. The M-400 evolved into the M-440, which in 1962 was also Melroe’s first skid loader to wear the “Bobcat” name. Fast forward through the decades and the Bobcat name became indelibly associated with skid loaders – so much so that even today people often refer to a skid-steer loader from any manufacturer as a “bobcat.”
Skid loaders have come a long way since the early 1960s, and virtually every equipment manufacturer has offered a line of the compact loaders – many still do. Modern makers include Bobcat, Caterpillar, Gehl, Case, Mustang, New Holland, John Deere and several others. Gehl, Bobcat and John Deere have been particularly proactive with developing skid loaders that fit the size and budget requirements of acreage owners and small farmers.
Small loader turned maintainer
The skid-steer machine makes an excellent dedicated loader – it works great in the dirt pile and for landscaping the yard. It’s also a fantastic barn-cleaning, corral-grading and lane-maintaining machine, but there’s so much more it can do.
With the right attachments you can use a skid loader to push, blow and sweep snow. You can also use a rotary broom attachment to sweep dirt from paved areas, leaves from your lawn and straw from the lanes in your barn. Swap out the buckets, blades and broom for a rotary tiller or s-tine cultivator, and you can use the skid loader to prepare gardens, food plots, nursery beds and small fields for seeding. If you need to do a little leveling, precision grading attachments can convert your skid loader into a miniature road grader.
When it’s time for planting, you’ll find several overseeder and solid-stand seeder attachments that work with the skid loader – mounted on the front no less. If mowing is your thing, choose from several finish and rough-country mowers designed to attach directly to the skid loader’s quick attachment bracket – most are hydraulically powered. When it’s time to rip out that old hedgerow and build a new fence, you can equip the skid loader with a set of tree shears and a brush cutter to remove the vegetation – if you’d rather transplant those trees choose a tree-spade or a backhoe attachment instead. Use an earth auger attachment to make holes for fence posts, pole barn foundations or for planting trees.
As a material-handling tool, the skid-steer loader is hard to beat. Move large, round or square bales easily with a bale-spear or bale-fork attachment. Choose a pair of forklift forks for handling pallets and lumber stacks or a grapple for grabbing groups of small square bales and piles of fence posts. Choose a manure bucket for mucking out the barn or a concrete mixer for pouring footings. With the breadth and depth of attachment possibilities, you can use a skid-steer loader to power your way through most any task around your place in the country.
Skidding to a halt
Versatile as they are, there are a few acreage and small-farm tasks that skid-steer loaders aren’t well suited to – and most involve traditional drawbar work. For example, if you need to pull a chisel plow or baler across field and meadow, the skid loader isn’t up to the task. That’s when you really need to call on a more traditional tractor that’s been designed to tow heavy, ground-engaging implements and to power them from the rear.
Skid loaders are also short on ground clearance compared with a farm tractor, so windrowing hay or cultivating row crops would be difficult, if not impossible, to accomplish efficiently, even if specialized attachments were available. Skid loaders also lack axle oscillation so on rough terrain it’s not unusual to have one tire lose contact with the ground.
Wheels vs. Tracks
The skid-steer loader industry has completely energized the compact track-loader market – indeed most compact track loaders are based in part on related skid-steer loader models. The compact track loader looks very much like a skid-steer loader but instead of running on four tire-clad wheels, it is motivated with a tracked undercarriage. The compact track loaders are steered the same way as a skid loader, but the tracks offer significantly lower ground pressure, a bit of suspension and better rough-country running. Tracks will tend to be easier on the ground, and track loaders are less likely to bog down in mud and deep snow. Tracked machines are more expensive compared with skid loaders in the same size category, and they are compatible with the same attachments.
Choose a track loader if you regularly need more flotation, work in particularly sloppy conditions and require extreme traction in average to poor conditions. Choose a skid-steer loader when you will work on relatively flat and firm ground or on pavement – and when the budget just won’t bear the added expense of tracks.
If your operation has a place for another piece of equipment, and you aren’t already heavily invested in three-point-hitch and front-end-loader tractor attachments, don’t be afraid to throw a compact skid-steer loader into the mix. The skid loader will serve as a far superior wheel loader than any tractor-mounted unit, and it can readily be adapted to help you accomplish a broad range of land management and farm chores.
Equipment junkie and Grit Editor Hank Will enjoys playing with all manner of machinery at his Osage County, Kansas, farm.
Hank Will raises hair sheep, heritage cattle and many varieties of open-pollinated corn with his wife, Karen, on their rural Osage County, Kansas farm. His home life is a perfect complement to his professional life as editor in chief at GRIT and Capper's Farmer magazines. Connect with him on Google+.