In Praise of the Front-End Loader

When we first started shopping for a tractor for Longleaf Breeze more than a year ago, my brother Dave Gray told me to make sure it had a front-end loader. I complied with his instructions, even though I didn’t understand why it was important. Now I know.

In a small farm operation like ours, there’s just no end to the tasks that a front-end loader helps you accomplish. Its essential function is that it lifts objects, even sometimes quite heavy objects, and then places them exactly where you need them to work with them. And it does it all with the almost magical power of hydraulics. In the roughly 20 months I’ve owned Tractor, I’ve continued to discover new uses for my front-end loader, and I suspect I will discover many more in the years to come.

It lifts things. Duh! I use Tractor’s bucket to move clay gravel all over the farm to repair and build up roads, to place drainage pipes, and to firm up low spots. I also use it to carry equipment and supplies from one side of the property to the other. Using Tractor’s drive wheels allows me to drive into a pile and get a full load of material that I can scoop up and take wherever I need it.

One of the first things I learned from Dave Gray about doing this, though, is to clean up after myself. After I’ve driven into a pile a few times, I will have dug ruts with Tractor’s drive wheels that will make the area around the pile bumpy and uneven and make it muddy after a rain. I’ve learned that I need to police up the area around the pile every 10-12 loads to keep it smooth. I usually use the box scraper, which is my default rear implement. In particular, I need to smooth out the area around the pile when I’ve finished pulling from it for a while.

lee-using-bucket-to-fill-spreader-for-blogIt’s a mobile table. We still don’t have a workbench, although we hope to have one soon. Without a work surface, we have found the front-end loader invaluable as a traveling adjustable work table. It’s my work surface of choice, for example, to sharpen the chain saw, to assemble any equipment in the field, and even to get a good luck at a tool.

Here’s a good example from just last week; the 50 lb. bag of fescue seed goes into the loader (when the bucket is low, of course), and then I use Tractor to lift the bag high so I can tip the bag into my spreader just enough to fill the spreader. That’s not a big deal, but it sure is a lot easier on my back than lifting that bag of fescue seed myself.

You also can’t overestimate the utility of having a surface that’s uncluttered where you can put things like screws and washers and see them easily. When you’re a long way from any man-made structure, it’s handy to be able to lay things out on the floor of the bucket at just the right height as you’re taking a piece of equipment apart and then easily find everything when it’s time to reassemble.

It’s a a tow truck. Longleaf Breeze is nothing but hills. As I’ve already said before here, I made a mistake in getting two-wheel drive for Tractor. I should have held out for 4-wheel drive, because on our hilly terrain, there are too many ways you can get stuck. Going in forward or reverse downhill is no problem. Going uphill in forward is also easy, because Tractor’s weight rocks back on his rear wheels and they can bite easily and pull up. The problem is backing up uphill, when you get exactly the opposite effect. Tractor’s weight rocks forward on the unpropelled front wheels and away from his drive wheels on the rear, and he can hardly pull himself up backward even on the mildest of hills, let alone any kind of load.

What has saved Tractor and me more times than I would like to admit is the ability to plant the bucket, rotate the bottom edge forward, and force Tractor backward 8-10 inches. Then I apply the brake, lift and reposition the bucket, and repeat the process. Generally I’m able to work myself out, slowly but surely. Not always, but most of the time.

It’s a fork lift. Again on Dave Gray’s advice, I splurged and bought the pallet fork when I got Tractor. He has quick release (almost indispensable), which allows me to change from the bucket to the pallet fork in 2-3 minutes. So it’s easy to drop the bucket and pick up the pallet forks when I need to move something. This easy ability to move pallets is at the heart of how we’re organizing our materials. We will put whatever we can on pallets, even things like the radial arm saw. I plan to bolt the saw to a pallet and store it high and out of the way, and then pull it down only when we need it. Ditto things like the pressure washer and the portable gasoline generator. And of course all that firewood I’ve told you about is on pallets. This system works only because it’s so easy to convert Tractor to a fork lift.

We even have a weird idea that we might mount the splitter itself on a big custom pallet that we build. This would get it off the barn floor and out the way except for those rare times when we need to pull it down and use it for splitting. I don’t know how likely this is, but we’re thinking about it.

My pallet height is limited. Tractor is a John Deere 5310, and the highest I can store a pallet with it is about 9 feet off ground level. But that’s enough with ten-foot uprights to get a ground level and two other levels above that, so I think it should help us keep everything organized. The height of levels 1 and 2 will be constrained, to something like four feet. The top level will accommodate taller objects, up to six feet or so, which should be as tall as we would ever want to go.

It’s a crane. We use Tractor to lift things all the time. It’s not at all unusual to bring things to the farm in 1-HO, our pickup. If they’re on a pallet, we use the pallet forks to put them where they need to be, but if they’re not on a pallet, we lift them with a chain hitched to the bucket and place them where we need them.

Right now we don’t have a chain that’s short enough. The shortest chain we have is about 20 feet, and it’s too long to be practical, so we end up winding it around the bucket and going to a lot of extra trouble to keep it out of the way. One of those lingering tasks I know I need to address is to produce a 5/16″ link chain that’s 6 feet long or so, with cletus hooks on each end.

It’s a poor man’s cherry picker. I haven’t done this yet, because Amanda has been successful so far in resisting my encouragement that she learn to operate the bucket so I can perch in it to do tasks that require elevation. Of course, the manuals all say never, never, never to do this, but I know we will need to lift me into position from time to time. The advantage we have is that we always do things like that very, very slowly and never get in a hurry. And for a 55-year-old man like me, standing in a nice firm bucket wide enough for me to spread my legs beats working from a ladder any day.

It’s an excavator. Okay, this is a stretch, because the loader doesn’t do this very well at all. But the fact is that, in a pinch (and what is subsistence farming if not one pinch after another?), you can tilt the bucket down, power the bucket down, and dig 6-7 inches into reasonably soft soil. And believe me, it’s a lot faster and easier for Tractor to dig those first 6-7 inches than to wait for Amanda to do it. Just kidding, Honey.

It’s a bulldozer. Again, this is pushing it, but you can use the bucket to push a fire together, or push a pile of debris together, and that’s awfully handy from time to time. You can’t push a tree down or anything like that, but you can push loose piles around all day long.

My particular loader is a John Deere 520, and Tractor is a John Deere 5310. The bucket holds about 1/3 yard of material or about 1/12 cord of firewood. Its control is a joystick. I know that farmers with loaders have used the dual control arrangements (one for lift and the other for tilt) for decades, but after spending just a few minutes with a dual-control bucket, I can tell you that the joystick is (literally) a joy by comparison. Up and down for lift, of course, and side to side for tilt. Left to tilt inward, right to tilt outward. I understood it in minutes and (almost) never pushed in the wrong direction.

Knowing as you do that Amanda and I will be working to minimize all purchases from off the farm, you’ll also know that I pay close attention to fuel consumption. The nice thing about the tasks we do with the front-end loader is that everything we’ve done with it so far has been at very low throttle. You really don’t need to rev it up to get the lifting power you need. And at low RPM, Tractor can run on and on, seemingly forever, on five gallons of diesel fuel.

Yes, I know there will come a time when diesel fuel will be $10+ per gallon and may be unavailable completely. It’ll be worth $10/gallon to us, because Tractor uses so little fuel to do so much work. If diesel fuel is unavailable completely, we’ll just have to address that then.

If you are going to have one tractor, as we are, it needs to have a smoothly operating, robust front-end loader. You’ll be glad. Thanks, Dave Gray.

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