Lakeshore Tree Farms’ success powered by skid-steer loaders
Bobcat loaders are highly maneuverable, which makes it easy for the machine to navigate through narrow tree rows, even with tree spade attachments.
Started in 1936 by Vic Krahn’s grandfather and father and based in Saskatoon, Lakeshore Tree Farms began by selling fruit trees during the height of the Great Depression. At that time, fruit was not readily available. People were trying to grow their own food, and having a fruit tree was a way for people to provide for themselves.
Since that time, Lakeshore Tree Farms has evolved. The business has been passed to the third generation, and Krahn is now the president and owner. Lakeshore Tree Farms has become the largest tree and shrub nursery in Saskatchewan. Ten acres are container shrubs and 250 acres are large-caliper trees. These shrubs and trees are sold at the two garden centers Lakeshore Tree Farms operates and are also sold wholesale directly to landscape companies in the Prairie Provinces and Ontario in Canada, as well as Alaska, Montana and North Dakota in the United States.
There’s a lot of work that needs to be done at the nursery. Seven full-time, year-round employees and 23 full-time seasonal employees, who work from April 15 until the first frost, handle most of the work. Over the years, Krahn has also seen the value of having equipment that works efficiently to meet the demands of the nursery.
Skid-steer loaders and tree spades drive productivity
Tractors have been the traditional machine of choice for the Krahn family. In fact, Lakeshore Tree Farms still uses a 1949 Farmall tractor daily. The tractor was originally purchased by Krahn’s father. Lakeshore Tree Farms has 12 tractors that it uses in nursery operations, primarily in field preparation and planting.
While the tractors are important, Krahn says that skid-steer loaders are critical to the nursery. “In our wholesale division, the skid-steer loaders are our primary harvest machine,” says Krahn.
It was in the early 1990s, when Lakeshore Tree Farms decided to become a large-caliper tree nursery, that Krahn was first led to skid-steer loaders. “We knew we needed a tree spade attachment on a skid-steer loader because they would allow us to harvest large numbers of trees in one day,” says Krahn. “You can’t harvest the same number of trees with a tractor-mounted tree spade.”
Tree spade attachments dig, transport and transplant trees and come in a number of different sizes. The compact size of a skid-steer loader and its high maneuverability make it easy for the machine to navigate through narrow tree rows without damaging trees, something that a tractor just can’t do. “Because a skid-steer loader is hydrostatic, you can move an inch sideways instead of repositioning yourself and then moving forward with a tractor,” says Krahn. “Using a skid-steer loader, you can center the tree where you need it to be without a spotter because the driver can see better than on a tractor.”
While Krahn knew he needed a skid-steer loader for harvesting his trees, he didn’t realize how much he would use the machine. In the first year that Lakeshore Tree Farms had a skid-steer loader, Krahn put 600 hours on the machine compared with only 180 hours on his field tractor. “Skid-steer loaders are used more than tractors on our farm, and yet the loaders do no field work,” Krahn says.
Useful attachments on the farm and in retail
Krahn discovered there are many attachments beyond tree spades that make it possible for his Bobcat® S300 and two 873 skid-steer loaders to perform many tasks. “The more attachments you have for a skid-steer loader, the more useful the machines become,” says Krahn, who has about 20 attachments.
Other attachments that Lakeshore Tree Farms use include augers, buckets, pallet forks and a three-point hitch adapter that enables Krahn to use the implements for his tractor on his skid-steer loaders as well. “In addition to harvesting, our skid-steer loaders are the primary machines for digging, load staging and loading,” says Krahn.
At the nursery, the skid-steer loaders blend soil mediums, load and unload trucks, and are used for leveling and excavation. Once the trees are harvested, the skid-steer loaders and attachments clean out the fields, removing stumps.
At Lakeshore Tree Farms’ two retail garden centers, the skid-steer loaders are used for unloading incoming orders of palletized goods of green material, like shrubs and perennials, and for moving them about the property. The skid-steer loaders are also used for loading bulk landscape products, like mulch.
“Our stores are open 12 hours a day, and we need the skid-steer loaders to work when called upon,” says Krahn. “They are reliable machines, which is important to us.”
There are a number of options available when purchasing a skid-steer loader, and Krahn suggests other nursery operators invest in some of these options. One is air conditioning, which Krahn says keeps the skid-steer loader cab clean. “Not only does air conditioning keep the operator comfortable, it keeps the windows cleaner since the cage surrounding the windows can be hard to clean,” Krahn says. “The air conditioning system prevents dust from getting into the cab.”
Auger attachments dig holes for new trees, and only disturb as much soil as is necessary.
Another option Krahn says is a must is a quick attachment mounting system, such as the Power Bob-Tach™ mounting system Krahn has on his skid-steer loaders. With the Power Bob-Tach system, operators don’t have to get out of the cab to change between non-hydraulic attachments, such as the buckets and pallet forks most commonly used at landscape retail centers.
“The garden center staff is there to be dressed nicely and look after clients and I don’t need them being grease monkeys and having trouble switching attachments,” Krahn says. “With the Power Bob-Tach system, all they need to do is push a button from the cab.”
Krahn says nursery owners should also consider over-the-tire steel tracks for their skid-steer loaders. As Krahn found out, the tracks are helpful when working in wet conditions, especially in the spring, because the tracks increase the flotation of the machine and reduce ground pressure. The first year Krahn had a Bobcat skid-steer loader, he could not get into the fields because the ground conditions were too wet. The leaves were popping on his trees and Krahn couldn’t wait any longer and invested in over-the-tire steel tracks. “I’ve had those tracks for the last nine years and we still use them,” says Krahn.
Krahn’s S300 is a vertical lift path loader. This means that when the loader arms are lifted, they move up and down in a straight line that is perpendicular to the ground. “I wanted the vertical lift path for pallet loading and for loading trees because the front doesn’t bobble around as much when you’re lifting,” says Krahn.
Training and maintenance
Of course, for a machine like a skid-steer loader to be effective, employees have to know how to properly operate the equipment and its attachments. Only those employees Krahn has trained are allowed to operate the skid-steer loaders. Krahn handles the training himself, and he always starts with a half-hour of safety, showing the right way to get in and out of the machine and explaining the importance of moving a load low to the ground. Then, once the employee has a good grasp on how to operate the machine, he lets them operate it for an hour to get completely comfortable with the controls. After that, the employee is trained on how to load trees, mulch and other materials onto trucks and customer vehicles.
Krahn also stresses the importance of taking care of skid-steer loaders. Each January, Krahn takes all three of his machines into his shops and gives them a thorough cleaning, washing the motors and bellies and lifting up the cabs and cleaning under them. Once a machine is clean, a representative from Bobcat of Saskatoon goes through a checklist and inspects the machine for needed repairs. Some repairs are able to be performed by Krahn and his crew. Other maintenance, such as work on the engine or hydraulic motors, is done by the dealership. “We don’t use generic mechanics to work on our machines, only our in-house people or our dealership,” says Krahn. “The reason for that is all repair records are in one place and if we have an issue it’s easier to resolve it if all records go through one shop foreman.”
Krahn has consistently put 600 hours per year on his skid-steer loaders since he first started using the machines, a testament to how much Lakeshore Tree Farms has come to depend on the equipment. From moving through the tree rows at the nursery to navigating among the displays at the retail garden centers, skid-steer loaders quickly maneuver where other equipment can’t go. With attachments, especially the tree spade, bucket and pallet forks, Krahn and his employees perform dozens of different tasks with just three skid-steer loaders, something any nursery operation can appreciate.