Don't let their size fool you. In fact, these powerful machines' small size could be their greatest advantage.

Hydraulic attachments are useless if you can't get them where you need them. A project might require you to dig a hole for a tree or a trench for irrigation pipe or just move some earth, but if your skid-steer loader can't get through a gate or squeeze into that space, you'll have to do those tasks manually. Fortunately, two new classes of power equipment - the compact utility loader and the mini-loader - are filling the niche where large equipment is overkill but the labor is still backbreaking. The difference between a compact utility loader and a mini-loader is really a matter of terminology and operator position. Generally, the operators of compact utility loaders stand on a rear platform (even though one model is a walk-behind). Mini-loaders, on the other hand, typically have operator seats. Manufacturers have different names for their products, and the terms mini-loader and mini-skid-steer loader have also been applied to stand-on units - it can be confusing.

Attachments lend a hand The recent surge in sales of compact utility loaders is the result of their "can-do" attitude. These are the little engines that could - they can do anything, given the right attachments. Available attachments include snow throwers, rotary brooms, augers, trenchers, buckets, hammers, pallet forks, plows and stump grinders.

"The biggest problem contractors in the United States have is the lack of qualified hand labor to do the job," says Marleen Smith, marketing manager at The Toro Company, Bloomington, Minn. Toro has teamed up with Dingo Digging Systems to manufacture the Dingo compact utility loader. "Contractors don't have enough people. That's where the Dingo can come in. It can potentially replace two people from a five-man crew. It can do [some tasks] in a shorter period of time more expertly. So, you save your hand-laborers' time, save them from back-straining jobs, and you allow your business to take on more jobs with the same labor force."

"It's a power unit on wheels, like a Swiss Army knife," says Dana Ellefson, director of marketing in the products division of Finn Corporation, Fairfield, Ohio. Finn unveiled its "compact skid steer," the Eagle 250, at the 2000 International Lawn, Garden & Power Equipment Expo in Louisville, Ky. "We don't like to call it a `loader' because we are not competing with the full-sized skid steers. You can load with our compact skid steer, but the machine really is a hydraulic tool on wheels. It drives attachments. So, the most important thing is the [hydraulic] flow rate you can give to those attachments."

The burgeoning number of specialty attachments is the result of operator feedback - customers are telling manufacturers what they want. "There is an explosion of attachment ideas going on now. It's very exciting, and it will continue to grow," adds Don Reed, marketing manager at Ramrod Equipment, a division of Leon's Manufacturing Co., Inc., Yorkton, Saskatchewan, Canada. Ramrod makes the Taskmaster series mini-skid loaders. "But understand, these mini-skid loaders are not meant to replace a skid steer. They are designed for their own market."

"It's the size and versatility of the machines that makes them popular," says Mark Tanis, production manager at Kanga Loaders USA, Bixby, Okla. "They have post-hole and tree-planting augers, trenchers, a specialty bucket and a tiller. Customers tell us it saves labor and time."

Stand up, start up The stand-on compact utility loader was invented in Australia in the late 1970s as a hydraulic wheelbarrow. Today, with the myriad of hydraulic attachments, many compact utility-loader manufacturers claim their units can do the work of two or more laborers when digging, augering, trenching, sweeping and doing many other tasks. Granted, one machine can cost $20,000, but it shows up for work every day. As the product information for the Australia-based Dingo Co. colorfully states, "It lifts, carries, pushes, grabs, digs and sweeps. It works hard all day and doesn't complain, need a smoke break or holidays. It's the cheapest employee you'll ever get."

The compact utility loader came from the Land Down Under when the Jaden Group of Companies, on Australia's East Coast, developed the first "stand-on" mini-skid steer in 1981, according to Mark Tanis at Kanga Loaders. Jaden's original mini-skid was called the Dingo.

"The Jaden Group was the original designer of the Dingo loader," explains Tanis. "But in a partnership breakup, one of them bought the Dingo. At that stage, the remaining partners had the option to purchase the equipment back, but they had decided to design another. They called it the Jaden Loader, and then changed the name to the Kanga Loader when we came to North America." The Kanga-Mini-Skid-Steer Loader was introduced in the United States in 1997.

The Dingo, today manufactured by Toro, stemmed from the original invention. Australian Gary Briggs purchased the Dingo Co. in 1991. He met Roger Braswell at a North Carolina equipment show in 1995. Braswell, convinced the machine could save "loads" of labor, became the North American Dingo distributor. Braswell bought the rights from Briggs and formed Dingo Digging Systems. In September 1997, the Toro Company formed a partnership with Dingo Digging Systems. The duo has rights to produce and market Toro SiteWork Systems' Dingo in North and South America. Gary Briggs remains president of the Australian-based Dingo Co.

Meanwhile, in Canada, Ramrod Equipment began importing these compact stand-on machines from the Reese Corp. of Australia. In 1982, Ramrod began manufacturing its own 750 Skid Loader, a similar stand-on unit, says Reed. The first units featured a bucket and a fork attachment. "We thought they were the best things since sliced bread, but nobody else did then. People said, `These are toys my kids could use - I have a Bob-Cat or a Case,'" Reed recalls. "Over that period of time, what has happened is the concept of space changed. These units aren't meant to replace the skid steer - they are an extension of them in places where you can't go with a big unit. Plus, you can think of it as a hydraulic toolbox. It is now looked at as a hydraulic pump that drives a whole range of attachments."

Sit down A "halfway version" between full-sized skid steer and the stand-on compact utility loader is the mini-loader. These units offer the same multi-tasking hydraulic attachments as the compact utility loaders, but they feature an operator's seat.

In 1999, Gehl Co., West Bend, Wis., introduced its Avantage series of mini-loaders. "These are a unique product, but we are going after [the same markets as] the stand-behind mini-loaders - the Dingo, the Kanga," says Richard Burckardt, marketing services manager. "One of the advantages we have, is not only do we have a skid-steer model, but we also have an articulated-steer model. The articulated model is very easy on turf." Both Gehl's skid-steering and articulated-steering styles can be as narrow as 33.5 inches and have 20-hp diesel engines.

The Gehl Avantage mini-loaders have an operator's platform with an adjustable padded seat, armrests, seatbelt and roll bar. It has full-time four-wheel drive. Like the stand-on versions, the attachments are key. Buckets, pallet forks, augers, trenchers, hydraulic hammers and mower decks are available.

"Like a full-sized skid-steer loader, the real advantage of these products is the attachments available on them," Burckardt says. "In essence, it is a portable hydraulic power source. You can do so much with it. We are also introducing a trailer that will hold one mini-loader and a multitude of attachments. The trailer can be hitched to a pickup truck, and you can have a half-dozen or more attachments all in one package."

The RC-30 by All Season Vehicles, Inc., (ASV), Grand Rapids, Minn., is a seated compact loader that has been "making tracks" since its introduction in July. Called an "All-Surface Loader," the RC-30 is a unique machine that features a rubber track undercarriage system and an operator's cage. It is compact, measuring 46.5 inches wide by 91 inches long (without bucket).

"We're not one of those mini stand-on or walk-behind machines, nor are we a mini-excavator," explains Jay Lemke, ASV spokesperson. "The RC-30 is actually the next evolution of both those machines, and currently there is nothing like it." The RC-30 has the R-Series Traction and Support System, which utilizes 24 rubber wheels and a rubber track to distribute the machine weight over a larger area. Lemke notes the unit exerts only 2.5 psi on the soil surface, making it turf friendly.

Like the compact utility loaders, the hydraulic system is the star of the RC-30. Available attachments include buckets, augers, forks and rakes. Also, a power sod roller, trencher, snow blower, leveler and a flail mower can be utilized. "We believe we've developed the perfect tool, one that will change how the world views the concept of hand labor versus heavy equipment," adds Brad Lemke, ASV director of new product development.

Better than ever Toro SiteWork Systems began producing the 41-inch wide Dingo in 1998, according to Smith. Then, in 1999, they offered the Dingo TX, a track-driven walk-behind that measures 34 inches wide. The Dingo TX is joy-stick controlled and takes only minutes to learn to operate, Smith notes.

The Toro Dingo has changed over its short life. "The first units had a chain-drive," Smith explains. "Then we introduced the 4-Paw, which features hydrostatic drive on all four wheels. We introduced the 4-Paw two years ago in a gasoline version, and last year in a diesel model." In addition, the list of attachments has grown since 1998 when only a bucket, auger (up to a 30-inch bit), trencher, leveler and forks were available.

"Since Toro has offered the Dingo, we have introduced a backhoe attachment with various bucket sizes, a soil cultivator, vibratory plow, a two-stage snow thrower and a rotary broom," Smith adds.

"[The Kanga Loader] has gone through many improvements in the past 20 years, but the basic concept of the machine hasn't changed," says Tanis. "The attachments have developed over time. People are coming up with new ideas for the machine all the time, and we are improving on them." Soon, the Kanga models will sport 24-hp engines, and Tanis says new attachments are constantly being added. Tanis notes that the company recently introduced the Kanga Kid, a smaller stand-on loader measuring 30 inches wide. The Kid offers an auger, bucket and snowplow.

Finn's 25-hp Eagle 250 is the company's first compact skid steer. Ellefson notes the company will come out with a diesel model soon. "Right now, the Eagle has the largest engine and largest flow rate, at 13.25 gallons per minute, of its class. Plus, our hydraulic system is not a series system; it is parallel, which means the flow rate is the same to all functions." He adds that the Eagle 250's flow rates are equal to that of some full-sized skid steers. In addition, a universal face plate accepts other manufacturers' attachments.

Since its first models, Ramrod's mini-skid loaders have changed "like night and day," Reed says. Safety and noise levels have improved. The engines have grown from a 10-hp Honda to a 23-hp Kohler engine. The hydraulic pressure has increased from 2,000 psi to 3,000 psi, and the number of attachments have also increased. Today, the Ramrod units have new "feather-touch" steering.

Not playthings Some manufacturer representatives confided that they don't like the prefix "mini" in the term mini-loaders and mini-skid steers. They believe it implies that these units are toys. In fact, because the array of attachments is what makes these machines valuable, some manufacturer reps don't like the term "loader" either.

"We still hear the comment, `When is it going to grow up?'" says Finn's Ellefson. "But when you demonstrate it, and it is turning a 30-inch auger as fast as it does, it amazes people. It's just total power."

"When we go to tradeshows, some people believe it is a bit of a toy," agrees Kanga's Tanis. "But then they see the machine working and they see how powerful it is."

No matter what you call them - compact utility loader, mini-loader, all-surface loader, mini-skid-steer - get one to call your own.

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