The iconic ranch vehicle — jingling with pop cans and fencing pliers and stuffed with saddle blankets and salt blocks, driven on terrain the “going to town pickups” never see — can still be found on most cattle operations. However, on many ranches today this go-to vehicle is no longer a beat-up old pickup truck but instead a handy utility vehicle made by one of many major brands offering “side-by-sides,” as they are commonly called. The Gator, Ranger, Mule, Viking and others have become the vehicle ranch workers depend on most to perform daily chores, check fence, spray weeds, and haul feed, tools, parts, tack and, often, people. Today’s utility vehicles border on the sophistication of small road vehicles, with a wide range of efficiency, safety and comfort features and add-ons.  Yet their hardiness allows them to get in rougher country than a pickup and provide for less wear and tear on road vehicles.

Kyle Milne owns Milne Implement, a John Deere dealership in Glendive, Mont. He says the most popular machine they sell to ranchers and farmers is the 825i Gator, a crossover utility vehicle.

“For the guy with cattle, these are what they’re looking for. They can jump in and out of them all day fixing fence, just reach in the box in the back, and they’ll go virtually anywhere — through mud, rain, hills, and in tougher spots than a pickup can go.”

Utility vehicles rolled out in the late 1980s, with the John Deere AMT (all material transport) in 1987 — designed with straddle seating and a single front wheel — followed by the Kawasaki Mule in 1988, introducing side-by-side seating. With a booming market and demand for utility vehicles, manufacturers are continually upping the ante on features and productivity.

The newest models across the industry offer features such as six-passenger, offset comfort seating; three-position on-demand four-wheel drive; high-tech dual-range, automatic-transmission systems; pass-through floor bases, allowing for entry and exit on either side; cup holders; and even power outlets. Other add-ons include windshields, cabs, doors, heaters, larger tires, power lift boxes, front- and rear-bumper guards, and wenches. Most manufacturers are also now offering power steering.

Safety continues to improve as well, with most factory models coming standard with ROP (roll-over protection) and seatbelts. Milne says last year John Deere started adding either half-doors or safety-net doors to machines, providing protection to what before was open air to the ground.

Arlen Mickelsen, owner of Superior Power in Superior, Neb., sells and services Yamaha and Kawasaki side-by-sides and ATVs, also very popular, to his range of hard-using customers. “These guys live on these things,” he says. “Our customer base is ranchers and farmers who can’t live without them; they’re more than a pickup to them.”

Mickelsen also owns Superior Industries, which retrofits and builds custom accessories for Yamaha machines.

“We go around to farm and ranch shows and find out what our customers need,” Mickelsen says. “Ranchers are probably the most one-sided [consumers] in terms of needing their machines different and specialized.”

The most popular add-ons they sell are a convertible utility bed with fold-down sides; a sound-guard kit, which lessens noise, dust and heat coming from the machine; and a quieter exhaust system.

“These guys conduct business from these machines; they need to be able to communicate and be heard while they’re operating them,” he says.

5th Gear Power Sports in Elko, Nev., services up to a 300-mile-radius customer base in a very rural, traditional ranching region. Co-owner Courtney Worline says they sell a lot of side-by-sides to ranchers who depend on the vehicles for all facets of daily work but especially for transportation from one location to another on their large-acreage ranches. In this wide open country where you won’t see another person all day, “The biggest thing is reliability,” he says. “They need something that isn’t going to leave them stranded.”

Worline says in their region most of the cattle work is still done by horseback. But even ranches across the country that use horses depend on utility vehicles and ATVs in many other ways — you still have to catch the horses after all. Mickelsen notes a customer of his who called him after several weeks of torrential rain during their peak calving season.

“He said, ‘We’re in a bad situation; the only way we can get to these calves is with four-wheelers,’” Mickelsen says. “I said, ‘What do you mean? You guys have horses.’ He replied, ‘No, you don’t understand; even the horses are getting stuck. Our riders are having to get off and help pull their horse out.’

“I pulled up with a trailer full of ATVs, and the ranch hands literally came running and started jerking machines off before I could say a word,” Mickelsen says. He adds, “My customers push their machines to the limit and demand a lot of them. They won’t pick on the horses, but they’ll pick on an ATV [or utility vehicle].”

Most dealers who sell utility vehicles and ATVs also service them, and they say the percentage of customers who do their own maintenance compared to those who bring them in is about 50-50. Manufacturers recommend service every 50-100 hours, which includes greasing and checking and possibly changing the air filter, oil filter, oil and spark plugs. Newer machines are also offering both hours and mileage tracking.

Milne says their service scenarios run the gamut and depend solely on how hard the owners run the machines and how they take care of them. “You can have the same machine from the same year with the same thousand miles and one will be in really good shape and the other…,” he says.

Mickelsen says one of the common repair situations they see come into their shop is a result of owners forgetting to strap or tie down their machine. “Thank goodness Yamaha finally blessed us with a “Park” position on the ATV,” he says. “Ranchers are always in a hurry, and we see a lot of machines that have come out of the back of the pickup or off the trailer driving down the road.”

With the popularity of utility vehicles soaring among ranchers with a demanding work load, dealers are seeing and hearing about unique uses or retrofits that are a little “ranchier” than factory add-ons.

Milne said one of his favorites was a guy who brought in his Gator that had a windshield and cab; however, he had taken out the rear window, installed a piece of plywood and mounted an apartment window air-conditioner unit, complete with a generator strapped down in the box to power it.

“Before you say anything, keep in mind my mother uses this a lot,” the customer said, laughing.

It’s just added proof that utility vehicles are making work easier and more comfortable for ranchers of all ages.

See the full article and more in the digital edition of the August issue of Drovers/CattleNetwork.