13 October 1995

no mere toy

Skid-steer loader is

Fun and dinky they may be, but skid-steers are more than just toys. Here

Andrew Faulkner visits a Devon farmer who uses one of these mini loaders for most materials handling work on his 150-cow dairy unit

"DADDY, Daddy can we get one of those?" Many farming fathers must have heard that tiresome whine while watching skid-steer loaders do their stuff at shows.

But these compact loaders are more than mere playthings or the preserve of intensive pig and poultry units, says Devon dairy farmer Colin Wrayford, who milks 150 cows off 130ha (320 acres) on the edge of Dartmoor. He has used skid-steers for most materials handling work at Yeo Farm, Bickington, for the past eight years.

"When lorry drivers turn up at the farm with 0.5t fertiliser bags or big bales of straw most scoff at our skid-steer, thinking unloading will take all day. They tend to have changed their minds by the time they leave," Mr Wrayford says.

"What the skid-steer lacks in lift capacity when compared with a bigger loader, it makes up for in speed and manoeuvrability."

Yeo Farm is now operating its third skid-steer, a 63hp Bobcat 853 supplied by Plymouth-based Shilston Plant Services earlier this year. Like its predecessors, the Bobcats main role is the winter feeding of the farms 150-cow dairy herd.

Most cows are still housed in the farms main and oldest cubicle shed, which, in addition to two cubicle passages, comprises a 1.5m (5ft) wide central trough with two 3m (10ft) wide feeding passages on either side.

The complex, including a covered silage clamp nearby, was designed for self-feed silage; there is no room for turning round big trailed machines. That meant that when the self-feeding regime was dropped in 1987 in an attempt to get more silage into the cows, using a forage wagon was not an option.

Having seen skid steers working at shows, Mr Wrayford reckoned they were the only machines that could get silage into the cubicle houses narrow central feed trough without making drastic alterations to the building. An on-farm demo proved they could turn through 90í within the 3m (10ft) passage and load straight into the central feed trough.

Which brings us to Yeo Farms current feeding system – what Mr Wrayford calls his own particular brand of complete diet feeding.

First step is to cut out blocks of grass silage with a 1.5m (5ft) wide Parmiter Shear Grab and lay them along the face of the clamp. The grab is then swapped for a 0.75cu m bucket, which is used to spread barley straw, brewers grains and a rapemeal/biscuitmeal/soya mix along the top of the silage. Ingredients are measured using an RDS weight gauge fitted to the loader.

After churning the diet over with the bucket, the Bobcat then ferries the resulting Maintenance + 20-litre mix to the cubicle house. Feeding time for 150 cows is about 40min.

"It is a crude system but it works," Mr Wrayford says. "I admit the mix is not as good as that from a specialist complete diet feeder, although it does compare well with the result from a conventional forage wagon which has been loaded with layers of straights.

"It is also not genuine complete diet mixing because we still top the cows up with a 21% protein cake in the parlour," he explains.

Ironically it is the same tight building layout, which precluded the use of a big wagon, that makes the Yeo Farm feeding system work. None of the feeds are stored more than 70yd from the clamp mixing point, which in turn is only 30yd from the cubicle house. Taxiing time is not a problem, Mr Wrayford says.

But Yeo Farms skid-steer is more than a self-propelled feeding machine. Other winter jobs include mucking out heifer yards and calf boxes, and in the spring/summer it is fitted with a farm-built jib for handling 0.5t bags of fertiliser, a flat-eight bale grab for unloading medium square straw bales from a merchants lorry and a Twose buck-rake for clamping grass silage.

"Skid-steers probably arent suited to big mixed and arable farms, where lift height for loading into grain lorries is important," Mr Wrayford concedes.

"But in our situation, where space is tight and lift height is not a problem, the skid-steer is as effective as any bigger loader.

"As you can turn on yourself, whatever is being loaded into or unloaded can be positioned right next to where you are working. That reduction in ferrying time makes up for the smaller load size."

Mr Wrayford plans to keep his existing machine for about five years, after which, unless his building set-up is radically different, he will probably replace it with a similar machine.