They do the work of two or more crew members. They’re productive, save money on salary, insurance and benefits and extend careers of talented workers. They can add to the bottom line on day one, and the benefits go on.
We’re talking about compact loaders and mini skid steers.
Case in point is Gerrein Green Tree Specialist, covering northern Kentucky and southern Ohio, whose owner Tony Gerrein states, “Wheel loaders are our secret. We’ve been in business only two years and now have two loaders.” Both are Belgian-built Intrepid models sold by Miniloaders, a new TCIA corporate member company based in Hereford, Texas. “We just about doubled our business to a multi-million dollar operation going from one to two loaders,” he says. “Their high production allows us to run a crew of two to three for what would normally take five or more people.”
Manufacturers and users extol the virtues and versatility of these little brutes, especially when paired with any of a host of attachments. Compared with their monster cousins, the standard-sized skid steers and loaders, compact loaders and mini skid steers are lightweight yet strong and easier to get into, out of and around job sites.
But they are a breed unto themselves, which means paying attention – as with any class of specialty equipment – to their operational peculiarities.
“It is important to maintain safe loading and offloading practices for equipment,” says Jason Showers, Morbark’s newly named director of tree care products. Morbark, a 40-year TCIA corporate member company based in Winn, Michigan, markets the Boxer brand of loaders. “When loading equipment, particularly on an incline, always keep the heaviest end of the machine upward. For example, if the unit has an attachment on the front of the machine, typically the counterweight of the attachment makes the front the heaviest part, and that will vary based on attachment and machine. My preference, whenever possible, is to back the machine onto the trailer to allow forward offloading as opposed to backing down the trailer ramps.” He notes, “This method will depend on the space provided for equipment, and typically requires no attachment on the front of the machine to maintain machine balance navigating up or down trailer ramps.”
Continuing, he says, “It is important to use caution when loading and unloading equipment, to be conscious of such variables as wet ramps and/or slippery surfaces, or ramps that leave little variance to load and offload equipment. It is a good idea for new or untrained operators to practice navigating up and down trailer ramps in a controlled environment, to become comfortable loading and offloading.”
Shawn Emmons, president of Emmons Tree and Landscaping in Litchfield, Connecticut, runs two D254 telescopic-
boom, wheeled, articulating models from Giant Loaders North America/Tobroco Machinery, LLC, a four-year TCIA corporate member company based in Cedar Falls, Iowa, and two mini skid steers of another brand. He says he likes that they can be put on any flatbed or trailer, or even in the back of a truck, “and you need no special license” to haul them around.
Even though this technology is easy on the ground over which they operate, there are many times when a protective mat may be needed in getting the unit from the truck or trailer to the job site. Emmons says his crews carry ground-protection mats with them. When unloading for setup, he explains, “We will put on forks, grab the mats, taking one at a time for placement so the crew does not have to carry them, then put the forks back on the truck, install the grapple and go to work,” he says.” Emmons says they simply reverse the procedure at the end of the job.
Since time is money and the tree care industry has been pushing the envelope in terms of equipment and processes to wring profitability out of every minute of the workday, not only are manufacturers getting creative, so, too, are their customers. Take, for example, Burkett Tree Care, an accredited, six-year TCIA member company based in Boerne, Texas, owned and operated by husband-and-wife team Tyler and Amy Burkett. Owners of a Vermeer loader, both are big fans of the mighty-mite machines that Tyler says “can shave hours or days off projects for us,” depending on the job.
“We have a variety of trailers, including one dump trailer we had built to our specs, with a platform for the mini skid steer up front. That means we do not need an additional driver and truck to transport the machine. That’s one less driver, one less truck and one less trip to make,” he reports.
Regardless of how the machine is transported, Tyler agrees with virtually every user and manufacturer TCIA spoke with that it’s best to back onto the trailer if you can. “That makes it safer and more comfortable going forward to unload it at the work site.”
Brant Kukuk, product marketing manager for compact equipment at Ditch Witch, a five-year TCIA corporate member company based in Perry, Oklahoma, concurs with that approach, stating, “Some load our machines into dump or equipment trailers.” Whether loading or offloading or working the site, Kukuk states that one of the benefits of the Ditch Witch stand-on machine in tree care is, “You can see 360 degrees.” For example, he says, “Ninety percent of the time workers are dragging logs or debris from the back of a house in reverse, especially loads like logs, which can be too heavy to lift.” He continues, “It’s easy to spin around and, using the grapple, load the trailer – likely the same one you brought the machine in.”
Kukuk says the company offers “several machines, from 36 inches wide to close to 60 inches, and with varying horsepower options for greater lift capability. Tree care operators tend toward higher horsepower, which results in fewer tree cuts, faster jobs, less back and forth to the trailer and even less chain-saw maintenance.”
Regardless of which manufacturer or which user you speak with, all agree that compact loaders and mini skid steers can be pretty quick over flat, dry ground, but warn that the nature of tree work doesn’t always present perfect conditions.
Shawn Emmons offers, “Like anything with a machine in tree care, one must be aware of the surroundings.” He also touts the visibility of his ride-on Giant loader because the operator sits high, is protected by a ROPS (rollover-
protection structure or system) cage and controls speed via a foot throttle and hydrostatic drive, which slows down or stops the machine when you let off.
Everyone spoken with warns that tackling a hill or steep incline should be straight up and down, not side-to-side across the face of the incline. Emmons observes that the machines are narrow, and, especially with a load, can become top-heavy and unstable if crossing the face of an incline.
Kukuk at Ditch Witch offers, “If you’re on flat ground, you can go quickly, but be careful if you’re going quickly and be careful how you position the machine, especially with load. If you’re going uphill, the load should be in front so it does not tip you back.” He observes, “We rate machines with machines operating on a tilt table to ensure they meet ISO standards to work safely on inclines.”
Tony Gerrein says of his wheeled Intrepid mini loader, “It can do up to 11 miles an hour, but with the terrain and a tight turning radius, you should not be turning that fast.”
Generally, he states, because of his wheeled machine’s turf-friendly design, “We do not have to put down mats, but traveling over a yard many times can tear up a lawn like a tracked loader. The wheeled loaders tend to crush the grass, not tear up the roots.”
Because of the nature of his work, he prefers his wheeled unit which, “even with a load on, will climb a hill at a steady speed.” He says to be cognizant of lower-powered machines that may slow in a climb, or tracked versions, the tracks of which might spin or slip in the soil during a difficult climb. “The small units excel,” he maintains, “especially in middle- and upper-tier jobs where owners are not looking just for the lowest price.”
In that case, Gerrein says, one might say, “‘There are other guys who end up tearing up the property. If you pay us 25% more, we won’t tear up the property,’ which means the owner will not have to incur the cost and time to reseed and re-treat the property.”
Ditch Witch’s Kokuk says of the company’s tracked units, “We do have a semi-aggressive tread that performs well in yards. An operator can counter-rotate carefully and not tear the turf. The way we designed it was to balance the lowest ground pressure possible and to spread weight using a wider base, with wide rubber tracks for more stable surface and a lower ground footprint.”
Ground travel with and without load
The core of the smaller machines’ safety and success is how they are handled when worked. Showers at Morbark distilled it down to the following. “Prior to starting the job, it is important to perform a site inspection of where the machine will be traveling and understand your surroundings. Make sure there are no holes in the ground, soft spots or unstable terrain the machine will be navigating to insure unimpeded travel to and from the work site.”
Once work actually begins, he counsels, “When traveling with a load, always keep the load low to the ground to maintain machine balance and maintain unimpeded vision of forward travel. Carrying large, heavy or awkward loads with the boom raised will change the fulcrum (balance) point of the machine and could cause the machine to tip forward.”
Then there’s the dreaded incline. “Even if the load being carried is within the machine’s rated operating capacity, uneven or unstable terrain can make the load unbalanced, which can result in damage to the machine, operator or both,” a point Showers reinforces.
According to Showers, “These machines are designed to run flat on the ground. If the load being carried is causing the rear of the track to lift off the ground, either the load is over the rated operating capacity of the machine or it is an indication of an improperly balanced load. For example, if the operator is utilizing a log grapple to transport logs, the safest way to carry the log is perpendicular to the machine. Carrying a load parallel to the machine will significantly change the fulcrum (balance) point of the machine and could cause the machine to tip forward, potentially injuring the operator, damaging the machine or both. If carrying a load parallel to the machine is required based on work-site space constraints, it is important to reduce the size of the material accordingly to maintain safe transport practices.”
Getting to know you
Showers concludes with the basics. “Before operating the machine, it is important the operators read and understand the supplied operator’s manual and machine operation.”
As an example of that, Tyler Burkett acknowledges that things happen on a tree care job site, even with the most fastidious attention to operation and safety. He recounts one time when the company was working way off road in a remote, wet area. While the site survey appeared to be OK, there was eroded soil beneath rough grass sufficient to cause his machine to tip over. No one was hurt, and the crew managed to get the machine upright.
He says the first thing they did was nothing. Tyler called his team “mindful,” recounting how they reached out to the online forums, the tree care network and the dealer as to what to do. Nothing was the right thing. Once righted, they let it sit upright overnight and let all the fluids drain down, per the manufacturer’s advice. Next morning the machine started right up and was put into service. Burkett knows of one user who did not know that, righted the machine and, after a couple of hours’ use and the emanation of a lot of black smoke, had unknowingly done permanent internal damage to it. In a situation like that, Burkett states unequivocally, “Call your dealer or rep to get a recommendation!”
He says, “Operating the machine is not super complicated – just a couple of controls for tracks and the bucket. When we buy, we ask for a tutorial before we begin use.” As efficient as these machines are, Burkett warns, “There are limitations.” But, he says, echoing the comments of virtually all contacted for this article, it might take a day to become familiar with the machine and a week to be considered proficient.
There will be a lot more written about compact loaders and mini skid steers as they become super indispensable to the tree care industry. Gerrein’s take speaks volumes.
In his company’s brief lifespan thus far, he’s already experienced their contributions, so much so that he has big plans for more. “They’re a godsend,” he opines, and refers to one job in which his crew “took out 32 ash trees from a two-acre lot in one day with four people and two machines, generating 31 cords of wood and 55 yards of chips. We could not get a truck or larger equipment in there,” he says.
Gerrein maintains, “I plan to buy a new one each March until the end of this business.” He sees that as a mix of adding to the fleet and selling off ones that get too old for his purposes. “If I can find enough employees and I’m doing $5 million a year, I’ll get eight of them.”