Finding ways to cut labor costs is a never-ending task for most farmers in the Southeast, and turning to small, versatile mechanical workers is one way many are finding to reduce the cost of expensive labor on the farm.

Finding big ticket farm equipment, like a $600,000 cotton picker that bales on the go, or comparable harvesting, planting, and spraying equipment is easy enough — if you have the money. Finding a machine that can move feed, clean up brush and debris and do a thousand other small, but necessary tasks, is not so easy.

More and more of these small, versatile tractors are showing up on farms around the Southeast, and they all have some attributes in common: They save time, money and labor.

For example Caterpillar’s new line of skid steers can be configured to do many on-farm tasks that previously required one or more persons to do, and at a fraction of the time.

Jason Becker, who is an industry trade associations rep with Caterpillar, grew up on an Iowa grain and livestock farm. Growing up he not-so-fondly recalls the hard work involved in shoveling feed into the bed of a pickup truck, driving to livestock feeders and repeating the process of unloading the feed.

Now, he says, much of that kind of work on his family’s farm is done by a Caterpillar skid steer.

“Last year we had a group of people, many of them disabled veterans, come to our farm for a hunt for charity. Many of these people had some difficulty getting around in the fields we were hunting,” Jackson recalls.

“We took my dad’s 2598 Cat skid steer, with a brush cutter attachment and cut 20 miles or so of paths around the farm,” he concludes.

In the Southeast eco-agriculture and eco-tourism are rapidly growing farm and rural enterprises. Having a mechanical brush cutter and debris removal machine that can also move wildlife feed around the farm is a critical piece of equipment for many of these operations.

Compared to large, ultra-expensive harvesting equipment, the $28,000-$50,000 price-tag for these little workhorses seems like a bargain, compared to the amount of human labor these small tractors can replace.

Todd Lynnes, product solutions manager with Caterpillar, grew up on a diversified North Dakota farm. Many farms around his family farm are large and very isolated from populated areas. Obviously, just finding labor, regardless of the cost, can be a challenge.

Many farmers around his family’s farm have found some new and innovative ways to use these small, versatile Caterpillar machines. Many of the uses aren’t in the instruction manual, he jokes.

“One of the most common uses of Cats in agriculture is probably a skid steer, the Cat 2598, for example, that can be used for many jobs on a grain farm. Typically, grain growers buy used Cats and use them for a lot of maintenance work where they don’t have the labor to do it by hand.

Leasing is an option

Leasing is an option, but typically grain farmers have a lot of jobs these small Cats can do, but these tasks are usually spread out over a long period of time and aren’t always on a time schedule. So, used Cat skidders are often a good option on a large, diversified grain farm,” Lynnes adds.

On any farm there is too frequently a need to move materials from one place to another. Loading and unloading chemicals or seed bags and transporting these to storage areas and usually happens at a different time and often when a tractor or other piece of equipment breaks down and you need labor to be doing something else, Lynnes says.

Some of the new Cats can be adapted with different attachments, technically called tools, to do much more than loading, unloading and transporting materials.

A brush cutting tool, mentioned by Becker, is just one example of how these versatile machines can be equipped to do multiple chores around the farm.

With forks on the skid steer it can load and carry most anything, from oil barrels on down to bags of seed or fertilizer. The same machines can be configured to clear brush, or to do general dirt work or correct drainage problems.

Labor is rapidly becoming the most challenging obstacle for farmers in the Southeast to overcome. Lynnes points out that these newer, small, highly diversified machines not only save labor by allowing one operator to do a multitude of jobs, but these machines also save time.

“Just freeing available labor to do other things is a big advantage for farmers,” Lynnes explains.

The bigger farms get, the bigger the challenge to get things done with farm labor. Often these farms are spread out over large geographical areas, and having a machine that can lift and load and do a multitude of jobs, plus being able to move from one place to another at relatively high speeds, is a big advantage, he adds.

Becker says another advantage farmers and farm labor has with modern machinery, regardless of who manufactures it, is that this equipment is easy to operate.

“The way our machines are designed, one joy-stick does the travel and one joy-stick does the loader — just like they do on most tractors. If a laborer can operate a tractor, they can operate one of these machines,” Becker contends.

These small machines, like the Cat 2598 can be configured with a backhoe attachment that allows a farmer to dig a line out of a building. For example, “We put a new grain dryer on our farm last year, and we used a skid steer to trench the lines in and rewired the system.

“Compared to digging an electrical line by hand, the labor saving is huge. And, the time required to do this job and move on to another job is always a benefit on a large farm,” Lynnes says.

The price of these machines depends on operating capacity and the tools that are included to give them more versatility. “We have machines that go down to 1,400 pound operating capacity that sell new for $28,000 to $32,000. The mid-size machines will be in the $40,000 range, again depending on how they are equipped,” Lynnes explains.

When figuring out whether one of these machines will fit into a farm plan, farmers need to determine what kind of jobs these will do and how frequently jobs occur, and how much labor can be saved by owning a machine or leasing one for a short work period, Becker says.

Typically, if a farmer is going to use a labor-saving machine, like one of these small to mid-size cats, a good rule-of-thumb is 500 hours in a year.

If it will be used around 500 hours or so, then there is a good financial case to be made to buy a machine, again depending on what kind of jobs will be done and how much labor it will save, Becker adds.

“I grew up on a grain farm with livestock, and we bought a skid steer to do specific jobs, but we ended up using it almost every day.

“I can’t name all the things we did, and still do with our skid steer, from cleaning up grain spills, to clearing brush, even clearing snow from our neighbor’s driveway,” Lynnes concludes.