All You Need to Know About Backhoes

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Rip through soil, trench plumbing lines, haul piles of dirt or rocks – a tractor-mounted backhoe on a machine with a front-end loader will do dang-near anything you ask of it.
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The towable DR backhoe can go anywhere your truck can go.
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You can opt for the tractor-mounted model as in this image, or, if you don't have a tractor, go for a mini excavator, which may well be the Cadillac of diggers.
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Backhoe terminology is nice to know when you walk in to speak with a dealer.

Fun to use and practical to own, the hydraulic backhoe provides you with back-saving methods to dig, move, remove, place and even lift. The best part is that if you already have a compact tractor or skid-steer loader, there’s a mounted backhoe model that will suit your immediate needs and add value to those machines. Don’t own a tractor or skid loader? No problem. You can opt for a towable backhoe that comes with its own power unit or perhaps a mini excavator, which may well be the Cadillac of diggers.

Around the farm, you might put a backhoe to use digging holes for large-diameter anchor posts or pole-barn posts. Backhoes also are handy for transplanting trees, digging out stumps, and moving large rocks and precisely placing them into the landscaping or stone walls. You also can use a backhoe to bury a deceased animal or dig a pit for roasting a pig. If you want to build a pond, use a backhoe to cut the keyway for the dam or line the spillway with rocks – and if it is a small pond, you can do much of the excavation itself with a backhoe.  

Size, price and capability run the gamut with backhoes, but for most non-commercial uses, a backhoe sized to your compact or utility tractor or skid loader will fit the bill nicely. You can always rent a larger model or hire a pro if your hoe isn’t up to the task. And since you will be likely to spend at least $5,000 for the attachment, it’s important to know what you want/need it to do before heading off to the dealer.  

The language of backhoes

These diggers trace their roots to early steam shovels and, as you might assume, there’s a language worth knowing for a meaningful discussion with your dealer. The backhoe attachment consists of a bucket, which is mounted to (and pivots on the end of) a dipper (dipper stick formally), with the dipper pivoting on the boom’s outer end. The boom is attached to a horizontal pivot point, which in turn is attached to the tractor through a vertical pivot point called the kingpost. The entire boom-dipper-bucket assembly slews left or right on the kingpost. The greater the slew angle, the easier it is to dig on one side of the machine and deposit material on the other.

The backhoe’s bucket also pivots on the end of the dipper in a movement called curl, or more formally, bucket curl. A backhoe optionally can be equipped with a thumb, which closes with the bucket to grab objects such as rocks and logs. Your dealer might throw out the phrase “bucket breakout force,” which is more or less the force in pounds applied to curl the bucket. More is generally better, especially if you intend to remove stumps.

Tractor-mounted hoe, what you need to know

Key statistics you need to know before heading off to your backhoe-attachment dealer include the hydraulic capacity of your tractor’s auxiliary system, how much weight your tractor is capable of carrying, how much weight your tractor’s three-point hitch is capable of lifting (if you intend to use a three-point-hitch attached backhoe), how deep you wish to dig, and how high you wish to lift or dump soil. Of course, if your tractor isn’t yet equipped with a front-end loader, you will need to arrange for one because it acts as ballast and stabilizer when you use the backhoe attachment.

Using a tractor-mounted backhoe imparts significant stresses that many tractor chassis weren’t designed to handle continuously. For those machines, manufacturers have created a heavy steel subframe that, when installed, spreads backhoe stresses to the far corners of the tractor. Other tractors were designed up front with integral backhoe attachment points – some are even quick-attach, meaning you can mount and remove the backhoe in a matter of minutes. Still others make use of the tractor’s three-point hitch to mount the backhoe – these tend to be lighter-duty machines. For a tractor-mounted backhoe, expect to pay around $5,000 and up.  

Skid-steer hoes

Backhoes designed for skid-steer loaders can be as simple as a dipper-bucket assembly mounted to a skid loader quick-attach plate – in this case the loader arms act as the boom and the “bucket hinges” act as the dipper pivot. On the less expensive of these models, slew is controlled by steering the loader left or right. These setups are a little cumbersome, but I’ve seen many hundreds of feet of trench quickly and efficiently dug with this relatively inexpensive (starts at about $1,600 with bucket) attachment at the hands of an experienced skid-loader operator.

Heavier-duty skid-loader backhoe attachments also are mounted through the quick-attach plate and powered with the loader’s auxiliary hydraulic system, but they very much resemble the conventional backhoe found on the rear of a tractor. Most of these hoe attachments are equipped with hydraulic stabilizers and include discrete dipper sticks and booms attached to the mounting plate through a kingpost. Slew on these mounted hoes is controlled with hydraulics, and some allow the operator to sit in the skid-loader’s cab, which requires rethinking the operating controls since they are borrowed from the loader itself.

Others among the heavy-duty backhoe attachments have an external operator station located above the stabilizers and behind the boom. In either case, you can get plenty of value from your skid-loader investment with a backhoe attachment. Expect to pay $10,000 and up.  

Hoes that tow

If you have space for a backhoe attachment but lack the tractor or skid loader, you can opt for a towable hoe. These nifty devices consist of a trailer-like frame to which an engine-driven hydraulic system and hydraulically powered backhoe (complete with stabilizers) are mounted. Most of these machines also have a set of legs that allow you to move them around using the hoe, but they are most effective in tougher digging conditions when you hitch the works to a utility vehicle, SUV or pickup. The towable hoe is a little more cumbersome to position, but its diminutive size makes it easy to get into tight spaces, and when attached to a suitable anchor vehicle, it will work well in any digging or lifting situation where the weight of the machine itself might be limiting. I have used towable backhoes to plant trees and to dig 4-foot-deep postholes for 13-inch diameter Osage Orange brace posts. You should expect to spend $4,000 to more than $10,000 for a nicely equipped towable hoe.   

Dedicated hoes

Folks who don’t want to tie up another machine with a backhoe attachment might opt for a mini excavator. Although they are relatively expensive (expect to pay at least $25,000 new) and not as nimble on uneven terrain as a tractor-mounted hoe, these machines are tops for trenching, excavating small foundations, and the rest of those tasks mentioned earlier. Powered with fuel-efficient diesel engines, mini excavators are designed around the tasks that backhoes are good at performing.

The mini excavator moves around on a set of crawler tracks and usually has a small dozer blade mounted to the carriage that assists with stability when digging or lifting and comes in handy for backfilling the hole. Since the hoe and operator station rotates on the carriage, most mini excavators lack a separate slew control. However, those models with a boom that slew on a kingpin are more versatile when it comes to off-center digging and working in close quarters.

If you are in the market for your first mini excavator, you will do well to spend the money and time to arrange for a series of rentals or demos at your place.

As with any new-to-you machine, be sure you’re checked out on safe operation and be prepared for many years of property management projects that are as fun to perform as they are rewarding to accomplish.    

Machinery junkie Hank Will has resisted the urge to purchase a backhoe for decades, relying instead on inexpensive rental and the goodness of friends and neighbors in offering loaner machines. 

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 .

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