Ask dairy farmer Mark Doble to list the jobs he gives his skid-steer loader and he comes back with a quick reply: “It’ll be quicker to tell you the jobs it doesn’t do.”
The machine has become an indispensable tool used every day on the 58ha all-forage farm he runs with wife Helen and son George.
It cuts silage out of the pit, fills the feeder, offloads and stacks big square bales of hay and straw, cleans out the cattle yards, and unloads trucks laden with cattle cake and bagged sawdust.
“We bought our first skid-steer for one particular job, but it now does almost everything,” says Mr Doble. “It’s so quick and handy; we use it for all sorts of carrying and handling jobs.”
The dairy enterprise at Causeway Farm, Blackdown near Beaminster in Dorset has 70 milking cows and 60 head of youngstock reared as replacements. Grass, supplemented by 6ha of forage maize, mostly ends up in pits at the centre of a yard where roomy sheds almost surround cramped brick buildings.
“We don’t like the idea of knocking down the old buildings because they’ve got such character,” says Helen Doble. “In fact, the latest shed partly covers and protects one of our old brick buildings.”
The skid-steer loader’s ability to enter this shed through a narrow passageway helped in the decision to make use of the space it covers – but it was the straw supplier’s insistence on switching from conventional to big square bales in the mid-1990s that first brought this type of machine on to the farm.
“We bought our first skid-steer for one particular job, but it now does almost everything.”
“We keep our straw in an old brick threshing barn and although the doors are wide enough for a big bale to pass through sideways, there’s not enough height for a tractor and loader,” explains Mr Doble. “We needed something smaller, so I bought a second-hand Bobcat 743 skid-steer for £5,500.”
The machine quickly proved itself adept at offloading and stacking bales, and carrying them into the cattle yards. But other jobs became obvious candidates for the little machine with its 38hp engine and 600kg lift capacity.
“When we changed from using a forage box to a diet feeder, I found I had to park it away from the pit to leave enough room for the tractor and loader to swing round,” Mr Doble recalls. “With the skid-steer being able to spin-turn through 90 degrees, the feeder can be parked up close and time spent loading the two morning and afternoon mixes is easily cut by an hour a day.”
With a few niggling faults arising and the machine having become a key player on the farm, Mr Doble decided to replace the Bobcat after 18 months with a new 773, a bigger model costing around £16,000.
A longer wheelbase provided a welcome improvement in fore and aft stability for a machine Mr Doble knows from experience is easily put on its nose. An increase in engine power to 46hp and a lift capacity of 860kg improved productivity.
Seven years on, while still in good shape and worth about half its original value, it was replaced by the Bobcat S175, which has similar performance, for £19,000.
“But this time we had a little luxury – a cab with a door, which helps keep a cleaner working environment when loading slurry, as well as keeping out dust from the cubicle sawdust dispenser,” says Mr Doble. “It also has a heater, which is very welcome in the winter.”
The loader will easily lift fertiliser bags off a truck, as well as straw and hay bales, cattle cake in tote bags and bagged sawdust delivered on pallets. Small implements such as the farm’s tractor-mounted sprayer and the fertiliser spreader are also placed on pallets so they can be moved or easily recovered from the back of a shed.
Loading and handling machines of all shapes and sizes will feature at Livestock 2012 at the NEC, Birmingham on 4 and 5 September.