Sort out the question: skid-steer or track loader?

This article originally appeared in the October issue of Drovers CattleNetwork.

When skid-steers entered the marketplace in the early 1960s they ushered in a totally new use of technology for on-farm mechanization. The tough, agile little lifters immediately found favor on farms and livestock operations, and once someone added tracks to them to make the first track loader, the segment exploded into today's industry with dozens of manufacturers and a line of specially designed tools and attachments.

With the array of choices in brands and models, choosing the right skid-steer or compact track loader for your operation can be dizzying.

Tracks vs. tires

"Where you plan to use the machine will answer the first question, which usually is, tires or tracks?" says Paul Wade, CNH Industrial's marketing manager for construction equipment.

"If you're going to be using it on wet, sloppy, muddy terrain, then you need to invest the extra $10,000 to $15,000 in a tracked machine," he explains. "Tracks are wider and provide a bigger footprint for more stable operation in those conditions."

If most of your work will be done on a hard surface, then a skid-steer on tires is probably the right choice, he adds.

"The sticker shock may be severe when you price a machine with tracks, but if you take care of them and don't beat them up on hard surfaces, they'll outlast tires, and because of their extra width you'll get a bit more lifting capacity out of tracks," he explains.

Warren Anderson, brand marketing manager for Case Construction Equipment, agrees and adds that machines on tires are quicker and have faster top travel speeds than their tracked counterparts, plus a skid-steer on tires is ideal in applications where tight turning is required.

Radial vs. vertical lift

Wade says the next crucial consideration is what kind of lifting you will be doing with the machine a choice between radial- and vertical-lifting mechanisms.

"Radial-lift machines are better at pushing loads where a high lift is not continually required. These machines are well-suited for construction sites where moving a load from one point to another is the main job requirement," he explains.

"In livestock operations, however, many operators find themselves lifting loads up and dumping them into trucks or grinders, or they are lifting up and out to load hay. These applications are accomplished more productively with vertical-lift machines which use hinges and linkages to project a load but don't require heavy pushing of that load at height," he adds.

How much power?

"If you need to lift 2,000 pounds consistently, then you don't need a 3,000-pound capacity machine," Wade says. "If you're multitasking, however, you'll need to take into consideration the heaviest loads you'll encounter and buy accordingly, according to your budget."

Anderson recommends selecting a machine with a rated operating capacity (50 percent of the tipping load) that accounts for the heaviest common lifting task and then some.

"If you know the heaviest load you'll ever lift is 2,000 pounds, consider something at 2,100-2,500 pounds," he says.

The rated interaction between horsepower and rated operating capacity is also important, Anderson explains.

"Greater horsepower typically allows for faster cycle times and makes it possible for the machine to get to and maintain required pressures and flows faster," he says.

"There's a false perception that more horsepower equals greater lifting force, but if the rated lifting capacity is the same on machines of different horsepower ratings, they will both lift the same amount. But the higher-horsepower machine will be able to do so with more multi-functions such as driving and lifting at the same time, or prying with the bucket while the ground drive is engaged at full speed," he explains.

Fluid flow capacity

The standard-flow auxiliary hydraulics packages found on base models of skid-steers and loaders vary in capacity by manufacturer but basically provide from 17.5-24.2 gallons per minute (gpm). This system operates at the same pressure about 3,000 pounds per square inch (psi) as the machine's main hydraulic system. A standard-flow system will power common attachments such as 4-in-1 buckets, grapples, augers and trenchers.

"A high-flow system is a second option buyers will meet in their purchase plans," Anderson says. "The flow rate on a high-flow system ranges from 30.7 to 37.6 gpm, and is capable of powering snow blowers, chipper/shredders and, in the construction trade, rock saws."

A third choice includes a 4,000 psi "enhanced high-flow auxiliary hydraulics package" designed for specialized tools usually found in the construction trade.

Both men urge buyers to budget their purchase according to the hydraulic demands of expected day-to-day use.

Mechanical vs. electro-hydraulic controls

Traditionally, skid-steers were equipped with mechanical controls which are based on mechanical foot- and hand-control linkages which meet the operator with mechanical resistance. The more response needed, the further the operator needs to push or pull levers which becomes labor intensive during a long work day.

Today, mechanical controls are still available, but electric-over-hydraulic systems are becoming more popular because of their ease of use and their reduction in operator fatigue.

"It's easier to twist a wrist than it is to push a lever with your arm or leg," Anderson explains. "Also, the new electro-hydraulic systems allow the operator to use pre-set settings which allow fine-tuning the machine's response to the individual operator.

"This technology has added tremendously to the productivity of skid-steers and CTL machines where repetitive motions in the cab are necessary," he adds.