Drop in at a cattle auction or county cattlemen’s meeting and there are certain things you are sure to see  —  cowboy hats, boots, Wrangler jeans and a parking lot lined with full-sized, extended-cab, four-wheel-drive pickup trucks. American beef producers might differ in their preferences between Ford, GM or Dodge, but there is clear consensus that the full-sized pickup is the do-it-all vehicle on the farm or ranch, ideal for hauling loads of feed, towing a livestock trailer or driving the family into town. It is only natural that producers also use their pickups for on-farm chores, such as riding fences, checking cows or feeding supplements.

However, those are tasks for which a pickup might not be the best choice. First, there is the fuel use. The power to haul a loaded stock trailer is overkill for carrying 100 pounds of mineral to the back pasture. Then there is the wear and tear. Rough use around the farm can contribute to maintenance costs and shorten the life of the vehicle, and with some pickups costing well over $30,000, depreciation can add up to a significant expense. Also, they are too long to effectively operate in tight spaces, too wide to fit through some gates and too heavy for some bridges. Their heavy weight also can contribute to soil compaction and create ruts that lead to erosion.

Alternatives in the form of ATVs and utility vehicles offer a range of benefits including small size, light weight, easy maneuverability and better fuel efficiency than V-8 pickups. Most are available with cargo boxes, trailer hitches and hauling capacity adequate for many farm chores. Some have additional farm-friendly features such as diesel engines and a variety of attachments for snow removal, light tillage and other farm tasks.

Kansas State University agricultural engineer Randy Taylor says economic analyses comparing utility vehicles, ATVs or pickup trucks for on-farm use would be difficult due to the wide variability in how farmers and ranchers use the vehicles. Because of this variability, manufacturers are reluctant to quote specific fuel-use numbers for ATVs or utility vehicles.  With long hours of operation, the four-wheelers probably offer some fuel savings over pickup trucks, but if a rancher uses the vehicle infrequently for shorter periods, fuel savings are less significant.

In terms of maintenance and depreciation, the comparison can depend on the specific vehicles involved. Bouncing around the ranch in a new, expensive pickup truck probably contributes to maintenance costs and depreciation of the truck’s value. Using a four-wheeler could prevent some wear and tear on the new truck while offering practical advantages. On the other hand, Dr. Taylor points out that ranchers could purchase an older, used but serviceable farm truck for a fully depreciated price of $3,000 or less. The $4,000 to $10,000 price tag for a new utility vehicle might be hard to justify in strictly economic terms, but their practicality can make for a sound investment.

Aaron Wetzel, group product manager for John Deere’s Gator line, says typical customers purchase the utility vehicles with a specific use in mind, such as checking cows in a hard-to-reach pasture. They soon discover more applications, though, and end up using them more than they expected. “Access is the No. 1 benefit,” he says. The smaller utility vehicles easily go places where pickups cannot. Mr. Wetzel lists a number of other practical features, including:

  • Cargo beds that can carry substantial payloads  —  more than 1,000 pounds for some larger models.
  • Small-displacement engines offer fuel savings. Some are available with diesel engines for added efficiency and compatibility with other farm machinery.
  • Many cargo beds have either a manual or mechanical dumping feature.
  • The lightweight vehicles cause less soil compaction and damage to forage plants than heavy trucks. Mr. Wetzel says a person’s foot puts more pounds per square inch to the ground than a wheel on the company’s 6x4 model.
  • Multiple attachments are available, including wagons, snow blades, spray equipment and tillage tools, allowing land owners to adapt utility vehicles to a variety of uses.

Dr. Taylor also mentions utility vehicles or ATVs as alternatives to horses. For some tasks such as roping calves, horses can’t be beat, and many ranchers and ranch hands simply enjoy working on horseback. Four-wheelers might never replace horses, but for many jobs around the ranch, the machines can offer advantages. Foremost among these are care and maintenance. After a day of work, you typically can park the four-wheeler in the barn and forget about it, contrasting with the daily feeding, grooming and other care horses require.

In selecting an ATV or utility vehicle for farm use, Mr. Wetzel says customers need to give some thought to how they will use the vehicle. Compared with utility vehicles, ATVs typically are faster and more maneuverable but have less cargo capacity and are designed to carry one person. Utility vehicles feature seating for a driver and passenger, larger cargo boxes and more payload capacity. A steering wheel and foot pedals allow easy, car-like operation, and top speeds around 20 mph are more than adequate for most uses on the farm or ranch.