Mini skid steers are appearing on more job sites across the country as contractors discover their exceptional versatility and maneuverability. Landscapers, more than any other industry segment, have embraced the mini skid steer as one small machine, equipped with the right attachments that can perform multiple functions and help to reduce labor needs.
"The thing that I still think is driving the interest in mini skid steers is the lack of available labor in the landscape industry," says Jon Kuyers, utility product segment manager for Vermeer. "The landscape industry is labor-intensive, and contractors find that employee retention can be difficult. If the general laborer can make more money per hour on another less labor-intensive job, they will probably leave."
According to Kuyers, demand for mini skid steers has increased by almost 20 percent in the past two years. Since 2002, there has been a significant increase in the amount of units sold into the landscape industry.
A mini skid steer can also make a crew more productive. The machine doesn't tire by the end of the day and can quickly move mulch to the backyard all day long or dig trees without getting tired. The unit can dig out material and load it into a truck versus using typical manual labor when, at the end of the day, the crew is exhausted. This machine decreases that situation.
Dan Christie with Metropolitan Forestry Services, located in Ballwin, Mo., agrees. "There's a tight labor market in the green industry, and mini skid steers are minimizing the need for manual labor," Christie says. "In fact, it cuts down on labor needs in all phases of our business. The mini skid steer will be on the job site day-in and day-out."
Christie founded Metropolitan Forestry Services in 1976. The company has more than 20 employees that provide landscape, tree maintenance and plant health services. Christie is also a Certified Forester and a Registered Consulting Arborist.
Mini skid steers can be used in a variety of ways. The most common is loading out material, like mulch, dirt or rock. But these units also have the power to dig out old plants, shrubs and small trees when refurbishing a landscape. With the right attachment, these units can be fitted with an auger to dig a hole ranging up to three feet in diameter for planting trees. A trencher or plow attachment can help the contractor easily install drainage tile or an irrigation system — all with just one little machine.
But are landscape contractors using them to their fullest ability? Christie feels the potential uses are greatly underutilized.
"I doubt we have scratched the surface of what this unit can do," Christie says. "We purchased our mini skid steer last year for its versatility to access small backyards, along with the payload capabilities. But we are discovering this machine can wear many hats just by changing out attachments."
Christie uses his Vermeer S600TX mini skid steer for a variety of projects like tearing out trees, shrubs, bushes and debris; hauling dirt, mulch and landscaping supplies to and from a site; carrying pallets of stones and bricks for design/build projects; and digging holes with the auger attachments to plant trees and plants. He also purchased nursery tongs to help move trees around their nursery operation and a rotor tiller to reduce labor when preparing landscape beds.
Contractors can also expand their service offering with the addition of a few attachments. A landscape contractor who's been focused on design and build could add a vibratory plow and begin installing irrigation systems provided they have been educated and certified. The ability to change out attachments on a mini skid steer can create new business opportunities. Instead of subcontracting out irrigation work, a contractor should consider using a mini skid steer and the right attachments.
"Some landscape contractors may be reluctant to expand into other service offerings, like irrigation installation, because they lack experience or formal training in the area," Kuyers says. "But there are extensive educational material and programs available through state and national landscape associations and the Professional Land Care Network to gain knowledge and experience into these different aspects of the landscape business."
While Christie has found multiple uses for his mini skid steer, he also sees a need for a dedicated unit in his operation.
"We still rent a walk-behind trencher from time to time when we need to create a drainage tile trench," Christie says. "This makes more sense for us since we just don't use a trencher that often. This eliminates having a trencher attachment sitting around collecting dust."
Kuyers notes that there are approximately 40 different mini skid-steer attachments, but sometimes a dedicated unit may be the best choice for a project.
"Generally, a dedicated unit is going to be more productive in one application," Kuyers says. "A dedicated trencher is going to perform better in the same category horsepower than a multipurpose unit. That's because it's specifically designed for that application."
A dedicated trencher can't move mulch, however, so contractors need to determine where the majority of their work lies. For example, an irrigation contractor installing systems 80 percent of the time may need the extra performance of a dedicated unit. But if it's 15 percent of the time, a more versatile unit should suffice.
There are a number of factors to consider when purchasing a mini skid steer. Aside from productivity, Kuyers encourages contractors to look at the lift capacity of the unit to determine if it has the necessary reach into the back of the truck. Another consideration is whether to select a gas- or diesel-powered unit. Contractors who use a lot of hydraulic attachments will find a diesel engine provides increased torque over the gas engine.
Then there is the question of track or wheel undercarriage. Tracks provide less ground disturbance, due to low ground pressure exerted, and more sidehill/slope stability than tires. Tires offer more durability and speed, but can damage turf due to the skidding action created when making turns.
Ease of operation and control are also very important considerations. Some units are more difficult to operate. Also contractors should pay close attention to the control ergonomics and safety features. Don't look for the least expensive unit. Instead, look for a unit that will provide the power and the versatility you need to do your job right.
"I would look for a dealer who's going to take care of you," Christie says. "Also consider the maintenance requirements of the machine and select a manufacturer with a dependable reputation."
Kuyers notes that a mini skid steer may be able to double the amount of work completed in a day by a two-person crew. Instead of hiring more employees, a landscape contractor could add a mini skid steer for around $500 per month rather than spending four times that amount in wages (based on a $26,000 annual worker salary) according to Kuyers. That's a significant savings.
"In our business we have eliminated wheelbarrow work and hand carrying of materials to and from the job," Christie says. "We can make fewer and faster trips across the lawn, reducing turf damage, and our workers don't tire as much by the end of the day. Contractors can buy one of these machines and help make their existing crews more productive without adding workers."
Provided by: Vermeer Corporation Pella, Iowa
Kuyers agrees that landscape contractors have only scratched the surface of what these units can do.
"A lot of them are just using the basic functions," Kuyers says. "They're trenching, loading material and planting trees or digging post holes with the auger. But there are so many other uses that can help save time and reduce labor. These machines are great for using a hydraulic breaker attachment to knock out an old concrete patio, or a plate compactor or vibratory roller to pack the base material for a new patio or walkway."
Kuyers notes the most common attachments for a landscape contractor include a bucket, land leveler, pallet fork, trencher, and auger. But other attachments — a Harley rig, tiller, sod cutter, and grading bucket — may help round out your service offering.