A live-action demo of tractor loaders and telescopic handlers will feature for the first time at next month’s Dairy Event & Livestock Show. Peter Hill sets out what visitors can expect to see and the machine features they should examine.

Telescopic handlers may have revolutionised the way commodities and materials are lifted, loaded, placed and heaped on farms, but the tractor-mounted loader is fighting back.

The two go head-to-head at this year’s Dairy Event & Livestock Show at Stoneleigh Park, Kenilworth, Warwickshire, on 17 and 18 September, where organisers are staging the first live demonstration of materials handling machinery.

In the red corner, telehandler manufacturers will be keen to prove the agility and lifting power of their machines in the blue corner, suppliers will want to show that while lacking the ultimate reach and height of a telehandler, a modern tractor-and-loader combination can successfully tackle a range of handling tasks before heading out to perform in the field.

“Working machinery in a farm environment is now a firmly established and popular feature of the event,” says show organiser Nick Everington of the RABDF. “And with machinery replacement long overdue on many farms, this new demonstration will help visitors make a more informed decision on what to buy.”

telehandler

When it comes to coping with a busy daily workload, a telescopic handler’s build and
combination of lift capacity, reach and manoeuvrability take a lot of beating.

Loader versus telehandler?

It’s a question that has been debated around many a farmhouse kitchen table over the years. If you need to stack bales high to make maximum use of storage capacity or reach over gates and barriers to make bedding and feeding easier, the telehandler has no peers.

Lifting high, placing loads a long way forward of the front wheels, reaching over obstacles and being able to offload a trailer from one side are the over-riding strengths of the machine. And with the use of ladders more than a few feet above the ground now frowned on, a properly-equipped telehandler can also provide safe access for gutter repairs and similar high-up tasks.

In addition, four-wheel steering gives the telehandler excellent manoeuvrability in and around buildings, while hydrostatic or torque converter transmissions are better suited to repetitive back-and-forth shuttling than a conventional clutch.

On the other hand, electrically-modulated powershuttle transmissions and robust-but-tight-turning front axles help modern tractor/front loader combinations – and their drivers – cope with the rigours of a serious materials handling workload.

If heavyweight lifts are needed, then again the telehandler takes the lead, with capacities of 4t and more from the biggest machines. But for most livestock units, 2-2.5t is perfectly adequate for even the heaviest silage bales, let alone muck, straw or relatively light-but-bulky beet pulp, which keeps the tractor loader firmly in the frame.

Moreover, manufacturers have gone to great lengths to make their loaders more durable and able to be put on and taken off in minutes. So a loader fitted to a tractor that is often needed to tackle field work need not be an encumbrance.

They also can be equipped to a similar standard as their specialist rivals with a fingertip-operated control joystick and boom suspension for a less jarring ride over rough ground and along potholed tracks.

Ultimately, the answer comes down to workload: If there is enough handling work to keep a machine pretty much constantly occupied – and on some farms the telescopic handler often racks up more hours than any tractor, frequently topping 1000 hours a year – then a dedicated machine is likely to be the best bet.

But for a less consistent workload that releases the prime mover for other productive work, a tractor-loader combination has the appeal of greater versatility.

telehandler

Modern tractor-loader combinations may not have the lift height and forward reach of a telehandler
but they can match them in many other respects and when loading duties are over the tractor can turn to other tasks.

Which telehandler?

The term “telescopic handler” now encompasses a wide selection of machine sizes and configurations – from low height “minis” through conventional side-cab designs to heavy-weight artics.

The most common layout is an offset cab, often balanced by a side-engine installation.

This arrangement keeps overall weight in check by shifting the boom pivot as far back as possible to minimise the need for any unproductive counter-weight.

It also gives a clearer rear three-quarters view from the offset cabin and, as long as the design engineers have thoroughly thought out the packaging implications, results in decent ground-level service access to the engine and cooling system.

But what about that offset cab? It makes it easy to get in and out and there is a good sense of stability when working on a silage clamp – as well as a real contribution to a low centre of gravity. On the other hand, it constrains cabin width and creates visibility blind spots.

That is why a telehandler with a central cab on either a rigid or articulated chassis is the preferred option for a sizeable proportion of operators, especially on dairy and other livestock farms.

For one thing, the central driving position seems more natural after piloting a tractor and it generally gives good all-round visibility from a higher seat. For another, drivers like the more spacious cab and the two-door access that means the machine can be approached from either side.

A less attractive feature of this configuration, of course, is that the raised boom structure is directly in line with the operator’s view ahead.

telehandler

All handlers suffer from blind spots when the boom is in one position or another
but at least the side-engine configuration has improved the rear three-quarter visibility from offset-cab handlers.

Multi-steer or articulated?

Most centre-cab telehandlers are built with an articulated chassis, a configuration that doesn’t appeal to everyone.

Plus points include the ability to side-shift the attachment with the handler stationary to accurately place a bale into a stack or a potato box on to a pile. Also, swinging the chassis from side to side can help the machine “walk” out of a muddy hole.

Downsides include stability limitations when having to turn up a steep slope, as the weight is initially shifted outwards. Also, steering characteristics during road travel can be less good than with a conventional front-wheel steer arrangement.

That is something most rigid chassis telehandlers are better at, since all bar a handful of compact hydrostatic drive units can be switched from tight-turning four-wheel steer to predictable front steer.

telehandler

Centre-cab handlers – whether rigid or articulated chassis – have a familiar driving position,
access from both sides to roomy accommodation and a commanding view all round.

Traction and drive

Opinion is divided between manufacturers on the pros and cons of selectable four-wheel drive. Some machines have all-wheel drive permanently engaged while others can operate in either two or four-wheel drive – the former cutting tyre and transmission wear and tear on the road.

Hydrostatic or torque converter drive? The former has gained ground in recent years thanks to improvements in hydraulic pumps and motors and as manufacturers have sought to use its packaging advantages to produce ever more compact machines.

Hydrostatic drive is also claimed to give more progressive and easily controlled speed control, and on some machines the way the drive system responds to engine revs can be switched by the operator between two settings – fast and furious for rapid acceleration, quick cycle times and good digging performance a little gentler for tasks involving delicate placement of loads.

But telehandler makers who use a multi-speed gearbox and torque converter claim better durability, a greater choice of response settings through a powershift gearbox and, in some cases, direct mechanical drive in the top ratio for more fuel-efficient road travel.

Other features to consider

  • Hydraulics – variable flow pumps not totally dependent on engine revs can be more fuel efficient but some operators prefer the immediate response that comes from a well-charged gear pump system.
  • Suspension – largely confined to the boom hydraulic circuit on telehandlers, although axle and cab suspension have started to make an appearance, but on a loader can complement the axle and cab suspension fitted to many tractors. In both cases, it cushions the jarring that results from driving across ruts or just a rough surface, helping to keep loads secure and allowing the machine to work a little faster.
  • Controls – good old-fashioned cable controls with individual levers work well enough, but lack feel and need regular adjustment. A servo joystick brings all functions close to hand and is light to operate. But can result in some jerkiness when the vehicle is operating on rough ground.
  • Cooling – tight packaging and higher power outputs mean engine cooling is at a premium. Reversible fans or fans with reversible blades that blast debris away from grilles to maintain airflow are increasingly in evidence.

Demo action

The Dairy Event & Livestock Show is being staged by the Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers at the National Agricultural Centre, Stoneleigh, Warwickshire, on 17 and 18 September.

The live-action materials handling demo is being sponsored by Firestone to highlight the new Duraforce Utility and other tyres available for wheeled loader and telescopic handler use.

It will be run twice a day on both days of the event and will involve up to 10 handlers and tractor-loader combinations performing a series of tasks designed to show off lift height and power, dump and crowd angles, agility and ease of swapping attachments.

Plans include lifting 600kg fertiliser bags and the biggest straw bales on and off a flat-bed trailer, placing silage bales into a ring feeder, loading manure and shovelling road planings into tall-sided trailers.

* Confirmed participants: