You’ve seen them on job sites and landscaping projects, there’s at least one down at the local grain elevator, and your hay supplier uses one to load big round bales onto your trailer. I’m not talking about a forklift attachment for your compact tractor; I’m talking about those delightfully maneuverable, supercompact skid loaders that seem to be popping up just about everywhere.
The skid loader (often called a skid-steer loader) is 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 used 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 homesteaders and small farm operations.
A Loaded History
The skid-steer loader was born in 1960 as the M-400, which was built by Melroe Company in Gwinner, N.D. 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. Drivers steered the machine — crawlerlike — by clutching the left and right side drives independently of each other, which meant the machine could spin within 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. 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 loaders — many still do. Modern makers include Bobcat, Caterpillar, Gehl, Case, Mustang, New Holland, John Deere, and several others. Bobcat, Gehl and John Deere have been proactive in developing skid loaders that fit the size and budget requirements of homesteaders and small-scale farmers.
Mighty Mini Machine
The skid-steer machine makes an excellent dedicated loader. It works great in the dirt pile and when landscaping the yard. It’s also a fantastic barn-cleaning, corralgrading, 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 also can use a rotary broom attachment to sweep dirt from paved areas, leaves from your lawn, and straw from the aisles in your barn. If you need to do a little leveling, precision grading attachments can convert your skid loader into a miniature road grader. 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.
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. Most of these are hydraulically powered and attach directly to the skid loader’s quick attachment bracket. Time to rip out that old hedgerow and build a new fence? You can equip your 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 trees.
As a material-handling tool, the skid loader is hard to beat. Move large, round, or square bales easily with a balespear or bale-fork attachment. Choose a pair of forklift forks to handle pallets and lumber stacks, or a grapple to grab groups of small square bales and piles of fence posts. Use a manure bucket to muck out the barn or a concrete mixer to pour footings. With the breadth and depth of attachment possibilities, you can use a skid loader to power your way through nearly any tough task around your homestead.
Skidding to a Halt
Versatile as they are, skid-steer loaders aren’t well suited to a few tasks — 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 won’t be up to the task. That’s when you need to call on a more traditional tractor designed to tow heavy, ground-engaging implements and to power them from the rear.
Skid loaders also are short on ground clearance compared with farm tractors, 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.
If you have 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 be readily adapted to help you accomplish a broad range of land management and farm chores.
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 much like a skid-steer loader, but instead of running on four tire-clad wheels, it is motivated by a tracked undercarriage. The compact track loaders are steered the same way as skid loaders, 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, but they are compatible with the same attachments.
Choose a track loader if you regularly need more flotation, you work in particularly sloppy conditions or require extreme traction in average to poor conditions. Choose a skid-steer loader if you work on relatively flat and firm ground or on pavement — or when the budget just won’t bear the added expense of tracks.
Equipment junkie and Grit magazine editor Hank Will enjoys playing with all manner of machinery on his farm in Osage County, Kan.