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Equipment Hub: The dirt on digging

Andy Overbay for Progressive Forage Published on 01 October 2018

Seems like there is always a project or 12 around the farm that requires removal of soil a round, pointed shovel just isn’t up to – or (maybe more accurately) your back isn’t up to.

What’s more, these tasks usually call for a piece of machinery the average farm operator neither possesses nor has the expertise to operate. Renting excavation equipment can be costly but so can purchasing older equipment that may not operate well or might work fine but then sit for months or years until the next project.

Let’s take a moment and evaluate some of the machinery and attachments that might be handy digging up dirt around your farm. This list is by no means comprehensive, nor does the order in which we will look at them have any bearing on which one might be best for you.

  • Backhoe – When it comes to moving earth, a backhoe can be versatile and capable. Backhoes range in size from a unit on the back of a compact tractor with a belly mower to a full-sized loader/backhoe you would find on many construction sites.

    You can also purchase units that can be operated by attaching them to your farm tractor via the three-point hitch or as a front attachment on a skid steer loader. Backhoes offer the ability to dig holes or ditches and remove stumps or dislodge rocks. Backhoe buckets come in many sizes so you can add to their versatility by having different sizes on hand.

    Of course, the size of the backhoe and its ability to stabilize itself will determine just how big you can go with any attachment. Personal and professional experience is valuable in knowing what the machine can and cannot do.

  • Excavators – Very similar to backhoes, excavators are finding their way onto many farms. Also like backhoes, excavators come in a wide range of sizes and capacities. I see a good many of the mini-excavators making their way onto farms in my area.

    They offer the ability to work in tighter quarters than a backhoe simply because they are self-contained and do not have the body of a tractor frame to limit them. They also can be rotated a full 360 degrees which, again, can be very handy given the circumstances. Because they do not have a front-end loader, however, they cannot load trucks as quickly as a backhoe might be able to do.

  • Skid steer loader – More popular on farms when it comes to a dedicated digging machine would be the skid steer loader. The number of attachments one can get for a skid steer loader is staggering, which makes them the kings of versatility around the farm.

    Aside of the obligatory bucket they come with, you can outfit a skid steer with anything, from the backhoe attachment we mentioned earlier to an attachment to de-limb trees. When it comes to professional fence builders, I am not sure any of them would trade their skid steer for anything. Once again, skid steers come in a wide range of sizes and capabilities.

  • Front-end loaders – Finally, the most popular piece of machinery on the farm when it comes to moving anything is the front-end loader for the farm tractor. The attachments for front-end loaders might not match those available for skid steers, but it’s close.

Once again, front-end loaders come in a variety of sizes and capabilities, depending mostly on what your tractor is capable of safely handling. There are also some considerations when it comes to turning your tractor into an earth-moving machine.

The first consideration is one I just mentioned. Depending on the moisture content and make-up of the soil being moved, axle weight limits can be exceeded in a hurry. Four-wheel-drive tractor front axles can carry more weight than that of a two-wheel-drive of the same model. The exception would be for two-wheel-drive models equipped with a straight axle. This design is rarely seen anymore but was used a great deal in early model backhoes.

The loader’s design may be different in terms of the loader “arm” angles for four-wheel-drive tractors as opposed to those designed for two-wheel-drive models. Again, this isn’t as prevalent as it once was, but you may consider this if you are looking to retro-fit an older loader you have to a newer tractor.

You also need to consider the strain on your tractor’s components when you use it like a bulldozer. The added resistance to the tractor’s drive may result in repairs to clutches, gearing or other costly internal drive parts.

Of course, you can always hire excavators, but this can be expensive, and it also gives the timing of the project over to an off-farm contractor. You may also consider purchasing a machine for personal use that will also serve as a means to generate cash doing for-hire work around your community.

  • For-hire work – This may work out fine but there are issues with being a contractor that need to be considered. First and foremost, how much time do you have to dedicate to this venture? If you have to hire someone to run the equipment for you, this won’t be cheap if they are qualified (and if they are not qualified, it will be even more expensive).

Second, do you have the ability to safely and legally transport the equipment to jobs? You may find a great deal on a used backhoe, but a heavy equipment trailer and dump truck to pull it around may quickly turn a $10,000 backhoe into a $100,000 parade.

Third, depending on your state and local laws and regulations, licensing may be quite expensive. Finally, custom work only works when you have a steady stream of paying customers. There may be tons of work that need doing, but when you take the “fun” out of funding, you are left with a “ding” on your bank account.

You may get tired of hearing this, but regardless of the tools you are using to do work around your farm the most important part of any task is to maintain your safety. Do the work, and then go home alive.  end mark

Andy Overbay holds a Ph.D. in ag education and has more than 40 years of hands-on dairy and farming experience.

Andy Overbay
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  • Virginia Cooperative Extension
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