Efficiency has become one of the most important factors in running any successful operation. When applied to agricultural applications like dairy farms, it comes down to balancing machine production and versatility. Regardless of size, every dairy business could benefit from evaluating areas where efficiency can be improved.

In a perfect world, dairy farmers would have unlimited time and resources to assess all operational practices, but things aren’t always so simple. The best way to improve operational efficiency is to find the common denominator among the most important and time-consuming dairy farm responsibilities. Job tasks, operator training and fleet management all have one universal factor: machines.

For many dairy operators, productivity, versatility and maneuverability gained from using wheel loaders have made them the go-to machine for maximizing efficiency. The key is to choose the right wheel loader size and configuration to optimize the material moved per gallon. Believe it or not, matching material to performance output can make a big difference in operation efficiency.

Sizing and configuration

When considering a wheel loader, it may seem logical to just choose the machine as a starting point. But to achieve maximum efficiency, the task for which that machine will be used should first be defined. Consider what materials need to be moved.

Once you have a thorough understanding of the task, select the attachment needed for the job, and only then can you pick the best wheel loader. The right machine supports the right attachment to accomplish the task at hand, providing the most efficient solution for your operation. This task- tool-machine strategy for equipment selection helps with planning ahead and making the right equipment decisions.


On dairy farms, wheel loaders are commonly used for feed management. Commodities are moved from a silage pile into a truck where a unique feed ration is mixed. Every dairy has its own special recipe with ingredients that need to be precisely measured. Sizing the best bucket to move the ingredients and fitting it with the right-sized machine can help operators accomplish this important task more efficiently.

Optimizing the number of passes required to fill the feed truck is another way to increase efficiency. Fewer required passes means reduced cycle times, which ultimately increases productivity.

This can be accomplished by matching bucket capacity to that of the feeder truck so you can load the appropriate mixture of ingredients in the quickest time possible. Fewer trips back and forth from the pile to the truck not only save time but reduce fuel costs as well.

Another factor to consider is material density, as it plays a big role in bucket capacity. Lighter material, such as corn and hay, allows the bucket to hold more of the commodity, and a smaller machine can support that weight. For most agriculture applications, a massive machine isn’t always necessary to move large loads, which could help save you thousands of dollars.

Additional pre-purchase considerations

You’ve identified the job you need to accomplish and matched it with the best attachment for moving the density of materials you need. However, there are some other factors to think about before making a purchase decision.

Considering additional features, like those listed below, can help ensure you get the best machine for your operation.

  • Choose a machine with well-balanced weight and power to optimize performance for agricultural job tasks.
  • Determine the maximum tipping load weight that can be safely carried and compare it to your needs.

Additionally, external counterweights can be used to increase lift capacity for demanding jobs rather than buying a bigger wheel loader if it’s not necessary for the majority of your work.

  • Consider a hydrostatic transmission for ease of operation as it eliminates the need to change gears and makes response time much quicker.
  • Make sure all-around visibility is clear from inside the cab to keep the operator and surrounding employees safe.
  • Look for easy access to the engine compartment and other components that require maintenance for simplified serviceability.
  • Consider adding a high-debris package if working conditions are often dusty. With hydraulics constantly at work, the air moving across the hydraulic cooler should be kept clean to maintain optimized performance.

    A reversing fan, engineered to operate on a timer, will push high-debris material out. A pre-cleaner will also help spin and fling heavy material out so air entering the system is clean before it hits the air filter. For extremely tough environments, filtered alternators are available.

  • Look for systems designed to handle extreme weather if needed. Coolers constructed to sit side by side, rather than stacked on top of one another, allow for optimized sealing so cool, clean air can be pulled across the cooling core.

Improve operator practices

The operator plays a big role in achieving maximum efficiency on any machine. For wheel loaders, there are best practices to follow that can help reduce fuel consumption and increase cycle times. Some efficiency tips for operators to remember are below.

Don’t let the engine idle for long periods. It’s often the same operator simultaneously running a wheel loader and a feed truck, jumping back and forth between pieces of equipment multiple times per day. In fact, most agriculture tasks require up to 50 percent of equipment idle time.

But be sure to shut off the loader in between feed cycles, as idling only burns fuel. Running up empty engine hours could also affect the machine’s warranty and resale value.

One exception to the no-idle rule is in cases of extreme weather. For operator comfort, it’s important to keep the heat running inside the cab when outside temperatures are frigid. In these environments, a machine with auto-idle shutdown can help decrease idle time, as it allows the engine to turn itself off after a pre-set interval.

When a machine is properly equipped, this auto-idle shutdown feature can be made temperature-dependent, so it will keep running if it’s too cold or hot outside.

Bucket sizes and other attachments can also affect efficiency. An oversized bucket requires more energy to function, so operators should properly size attachments to save both time and fuel.

Utilize a machine’s programmable functions while working on repetitive tasks to reduce cycle time. If continually returning to the same spot, the height, tilt and other functions can be programmed so you can allow the machine to work for you. This way, you can focus on safety and surroundings, while the bucket is exactly where it needs to be for each pass.

Comparing new wheel loaders from different manufacturers can be a difficult task for even the most seasoned dairy operator. But no one knows your business better than you, from the type of materials handled most often to the safety and comfort needs of your team.

By doing your homework and working with a knowledgeable dealer, you can be confident in your next wheel loader purchase and achieve maximum profitability for your operation. PD

Illustration by Kristen Phillips.

scott britton

Scott Britton
Product Specialist
Caterpillar Inc.