You've heard it all before: the landscape business is changing in a way that favors efficiency, speed and volume. As revenues shrink and customers continue to expect more for less, landscape contractors need to find innovative solutions that allow them to complete complex jobs with fewer personnel.

Payroll is every contractor’s biggest liability. For many companies, capital investment in machinery is a close second. Assign more workers to a job than you need and you’re going to take a financial hit. If one of your trucks or skid steers breaks down at a jobsite, that loss is significant. The threat to your bottom line posed by excess employees and inefficient machinery is a serious one.

For these obvious financial reasons and a few less obvious ones, many business owners in the green industry are turning to compact machinery. Smaller machines like the mini-skid steer (also known as a compact utility loader) confront the evolving needs of our industry on multiple fronts.

For smaller businesses, the miniskid steer offers an economic alternative to massive machinery like the full-size skid steer. Mid-size and larger landscape companies who already own a few heavy machines still rely on minis to reach inaccessible jobsites and to simplify tasks that would otherwise require inefficient commitments of manpower.

One or two trained workers using a mini-skid steer can accomplish jobs that would require an entire crew working by hand. Even the most cursory examination of the breadth of companies using these machines tells you that there’s something for everyone in this diminutive package.

The addition of a mini-skid steer to your arsenal of machines can certainly have a positive impact on your balance sheet, but the reason most contractors swear by their mini-skid steers is these machines’ unrivaled versatility. Mini-skid steers are compatible with dozens of additional add-ons that can be easily swapped out for

the standard bucket. With the right set of accessories this one machine can accomplish almost any landscaping task imaginable—and it can do it quickly.

Jon Kuyers, product manager at Vermeer, Pella, Iowa, speaks of the importance of add-on compatibility. He says that for many contractors, the value of a mini-skid steer is directly proportional to the amount of add-ons that can be attached to the machine.

“We manufacture our minis with the universal modification plate, so our customers have access to as many attachments as possible. Most manufacturers in the business are doing the same,” says Kuyers. “It’s important for our customers to be able to purchase attachments from a third party company.”

You have to think of a mini-skid steer as a long-term prospect to increase your business volume. Like any piece of hi-tech equipment, they don’t come cheap. It is recommended that you rent a couple of different models and try them out at multiple jobsites before you commit to a purchase.

As with any major mechanical investment, you’ll want to do your homework about size, weight, engine power, compatibility and maintenance. Our hope is that this article will help you begin that process.

The skinny Full-size skid steers clock in at around 6,000 pounds per model. That’s a whole lot of tonnage to be towing around to your work sites. With gas prices on the rise and profit margins shrinking, you’d be foolish not to consider downsizing your machinery.

Mini-skid steers are relatively lightweight pieces of equipment. Most models weigh around 2,000 pounds and many come with self-towing attachments or supplementary add-ons.

These machines are light enough that a number of contractors simply load them in the back of a pickup to haul them from place to place.

The benefits of trimming down aren’t just logistical, however. Miniskid steers place significantly less pressure on the soil than full-size skid steers. For tilling and trenching jobs, that’s a blessing. Minis with treads are even gentler on the turf. Treads, as opposed to wheels, distribute the unit’s weight more evenly across a greater area of surface.

Kuyers recommends that contractors try both types before they commit to either tires or treads. The treads, he says, perform better in the mud because of their superior traction.

Wheels, on the other hand, give contractors the edge on concrete and asphalt jobsites. It really depends on where you do the majority of your work.

Mini-skid steers aren’t just logistically convenient, Kuyers explains. A single, versatile mini with a handful of add-ons can open up new revenue streams for you and your business. Rent or purchase a stump cutter addon and you no longer have to subcontract out stump removal work.

With a new add-on, maintenance contractors all of a sudden have the capacity to break up a patio. You can see pretty clearly how one mini skidsteer and some prudently selected add-ons can help you repatriate all of these lost sources of income.

Even if you aren’t looking to expand into new markets, the improved maneuverability of a mini will still benefit your business by granting you and your crew an edge when attempting to access tight jobsites. How many times have you arrived at a new site only to find the work area blocked off by an old fence or a narrow entry point? Before compact machinery, if an entry was too small to fit a full-size machine through, the only recourse left to landscape contractors was to take down a fence, or tackle the job by hand. This could mean hours upon hours of digging with shovels and hauling debris back and forth with wheelbarrows.

In extreme situations, inaccessible sites force contractors to hire additional laborers, swelling payrolls to unsustainable levels. This kind of misfortune was hard enough to absorb during the boom years; now it’s unacceptable.

Landscape contractor Julie Kopps of Outdoor Expressions in Billings, Montana, has an extreme example of this type of predicament. Kopps runs a small mom- and-pop landscape business with her husband, Ed. They rely on their mini-skid steer regularly. It was the first piece of machinery they purchased.

“Our first big investment as a business was a Bobcat mini; we bought it in our second year of operation,” says Kopps. “It gets used on any job—big or small.”

She describes a jobsite that she and her husband went to investigate a few years back. It was the construction of a new building, the last and central building in a sprawling subdivision. Why the developers waited to do the central building last, she wasn’t sure, but this site was the definition of inaccessible.

“It was just so hard to reach,” said Kopps.

With just a handful of workers and one mini-skid steer, the Kopps’ accomplished all the road work in and out of the site, ran soil conditioning and hauled out piles of dirt and debris. They accomplished all this heavy lifting in a fraction of the time it would have taken to do by hand.

“[The mini] definitely helps to alleviate some of the backbreaking labor that comes with the landscape business,” said Kopps. “On the [subdivision] job we were able to move much more material in one load than if we had guys running wheelbarrows back and forth.”

Perhaps the best financial benefit of all for the Kopps’ was that their mini mitigated their need to hire additional workers to accomplish a tedious job. Cutting down on labor is of paramount importance, according to Julie. Payroll and worker’s comp are huge expenses, especially for a small business.

The specs If these accounts of saved money and increased efficiency have you at least considering a rental, you should know what to look for when you start making inquiries with the manufacturers. As mentioned above, miniskid steers come in two main forms: tires and treads.

Julie Kopps confirms that her tracked model is much easier on the turf than its wheeled counterparts. It’s still a machine, she cautions. Customers are going to see tracks in their lawn any time a machine is used to

work on a soft surface. Tread marks will usually vanish in a few days though, whereas wheels have a tendency to leave more stubborn divots.

Another aspect to consider before you pick your model is whether you prefer standing, sitting or walking while you work. Ride-on machines allow you to maintain control from an operating console, typically mounted on top of the unit. The most commonly cited perk of ride-ons is the 360-degree visibility from the control seat.

Walk-behind loaders have similar visibility benefits and provide an easy mount and dismount for the operator. They also tend to have the most longevity, since they stop running the second the operator releases his grip. This feature almost unconsciously limits use and time spent idling, which greatly decreases wear and tear on the machine.

Kuyers sees more and more compact machinery being developed because entry-level contractors are looking for lower price machines with increased functionality.

“In our business, customers want more productivity in the same size package. On the contractor’s side, you see landscape contractors, maintenance workers and arborists all looking for new job opportunities,” said Kuyers.

Mini-skid steers and other compact machinery stand as lean, mean, revenue machines. What other piece of equipment in your shed can access the most difficult to reach jobsites, cut down on company overhead and serve as a wheelbarrow, a stump cutter, a top dresser, a trencher, a tiller and a soil leveler . . . all in a day’s work?

They’re tough little machines.

Perhaps Julie Kopp said it best: “The original is still going and we’re already planning to buy another one.”