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renting an excavator for swales... what am I shopping for?

 
Posts: 18
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I am planning to install some swales on a 2 acre property. This property sits at the corner of a conventional ag field that is rotated through wheat, cotton, and alfalfa. These 2 acres are the highest elevation for more than a mile in any direction, and receive no runoff other than what lands on these 2 acres. Even so, it still manages to generate sufficient runoff to cause erosion.
Access is limited on 3 sides by the crops being grown, and on the 4th by a 9ft tall 70 degree embankment.

I am planning to rent an excavator in the spring to install the swales, but don't really know what to look for. Most of the earthworks installers seem to think that the biggest machine available is probably the one they want. I've also heard lots of references along the lines of "I got this one because it has the bucket I like..." usually with no clues as to what that might be.

These swales will be used primarily for growing fuel wood.

I've got lots of experience with a tractor mounted bucket, box blade, and angle blade, but none with excavators.

What size machine should I be shopping for, and what questions should I be asking the companies I'm considering to make sure I get the best tool for the job.
 
master pollinator
Posts: 8714
Location: Victoria British Columbia-Canada
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I think you'll need one with an articulated bucket so that the angle of cut is not dependent on how the machine hugs the slope.

Unless you are comfortable and experienced with operating equipment on slopes, it would be wise to hire a guy who is. Rented machines are regularly tipped over by inexperienced operators.
 
Adam Baker
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An articulated bucket is what I'm after.
something like this...

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TSEzB0xYfE4&feature=youtube_gdata_player

slopes are gentle... 12ish grade at the most extreme. No worries there. My biggest problem will be accessing the property between the time the crop coming out, and the next one going in.

Not sure if a project this size needs a 6000 pound machine, or a 15000.
 
author
Posts: 946
Location: 6200' westen slope of colorado, zone 6
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More important than the machine is the operator. I am consistently amazed at what a skilled operator can accomplish with his prefered machine. In the hands of an average Joe, any machine will look crude and unsatisfactory.

I would look for an operator who has built swales before. No task is as simple as it seems on the surface. Skill trumps technology in most cases. Nothing scares me more than a gung-ho country Joe with his backhoe.
 
Posts: 2679
Location: Phoenix, AZ (9b)
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I'd second Dale and Adam Klaus on the experienced operator issue - it will probably save you time and money in the log run - either immediately with a quicker install, or over time with unforeseen problems of having installed them yourself (slope destabilization from cutting into a slope greater than 17%, improper ratio of backslope cut, berm compaction or poor berm shaping, etc. all of which could result in costly fixes).

You could also take the "Observation" approach and manually dig the swales yourself - 2 acres is not all that much land. I know Geoff Lawton dug the original swales on one of his properties that I believe was 4 acres by hand (he used it as an example in the online PDC that he taught - otherwise I'd point you to a video of it online).

Start with your highest swale and work your way down the slope. I'm assuming you know where your contour lines are, but do you know how far apart you want your swales? Do you want to run a small animal system or have veggie gardens in the areas between the swales? If so, do you need to allow for sunlight to enter for X hours a day? Determining your mature timber forest height will indicate if the spaces between the swale will get adequate sunlight (or shade) during the day. Which way does your property face (sun side/pole side). Do you want to vent grey water from a home on the property into a swale/bioswale? Do you live someplace that gets enough water that a productive fish pond at some point (probably near the lowest point) of your property makes sense or is desired?

These are some other questions that an experienced operator might be able to help you figure out/plan for. And possibly a bunch of other things that I can't recall off the top of my head like your local soil composition, how far down you might expect to hit rock (esp. up at the top of a watershed like that where soil has been eroding)...

Sounds like a great project - keep us posted on your decisions!
 
Posts: 3375
Location: Kansas Zone 6a
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+1,000 on the operator. For two acres you are better off hiring a good operator for twice the price of just renting the machine, unless you are already good or want to learn. IFF they are good.

The answer also depends on the cost per hour and transport cost. Around here, a 12-15,000 machine costs 50% more per hour and per mile transport but does twice the work per hour (or more) with equal operator skill than a 6-8,000 machine. Getting bigger than that is hard--the hour rate is a much better deal but the delivery gets very prohibitive.

Are you adding a pond or just swales? What is your total linear feet of swales you are planning? A WAG says the 15,000 will be cheaper if the machine is close, but you will be more limited to when you can use it weather wise.
 
Adam Baker
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These 2 acres are northeast facing. I own the property south and west which is all south facing. There's 168 acres here in total. The soil is very deep before you hit rock. 14-20 inches of top soil then more than a hundred feet of clay. This property hasn't been managed since the early 80s at the most recent. The limited access prohibits silvopasture... and on this small a scale I probably won't. Long term plans are to divide the property south for silvopasture. I will run a alley cropping system between the trees until they are big enough to survive the herefords.
This 2 acres is a proof of concept more than anything.

The house site is not anywhere near these 2 acres, and terrain prohibits gravity feeding hard surface runoff to this system. I've got 3 contour lines marked. I may add 2 more, and a 1/8th acre pond... well see.

I've put in 2 other ponds in the past 3 years and they are doing just fine. I use a 14,000 pound John deer 4020 with a bucket and blade for most of the digging and maintenance. I could use its 6 ft bucket... but I get the impression the excavator is faster and more accurate.

Kinda leaning towards a Kubota 121-3 and hoped somebody would have some experience to share.

I'll try to load some pics of the property later.
 
Jennifer Wadsworth
Posts: 2679
Location: Phoenix, AZ (9b)
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Adam - sounds like a cool project - I look forward to the pics!

And I see what you're trying to get at with the "proof of concept".
 
R Scott
Posts: 3375
Location: Kansas Zone 6a
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I didn't realize a 4020 was that heavy. I guess with a loader and ballast it get up there fast. Maybe that is why my 7,000 lb trailer was riding low when I helped my neighbor take his to the shop

That Kubota will get the job done, and on two acres the cost difference won't be that much between any of the sizes. I wouldn't go smaller unless it has a wrist, I would choose one with a wrist regardless of size.

Edit to add: If your ground is compacted, make a couple runs along what will be the bottom of the swale with a subsoiler first. It will make the smaller machines dig much easier.
 
Posts: 171
Location: western n.c.
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I'm going to jump on the bandwagon here about hiring someone who runs a machine like this for a living. I have grown up around equipment but don't use it all the time, an experienced operator makes me look like a kid with a shovel. Not sure about your area, but around here with the bad economy, guys are running their equipment for very close to the cost of rental and you'll actually end up saving money by hiring someone since they can easily do so much more in an hour than someone who isn't really familiar with the machine. Also preparing a grade isn't really as easy as you would think it is.

That said, they are fun to operate, kinda like a big video game haha


Good luck, let us know how it turns out for ya!
 
Dale Hodgins
master pollinator
Posts: 8714
Location: Victoria British Columbia-Canada
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Around here, equipment operators are charging just enough for them to survive, but not enough to cover eventual replacement or major repairs. It's a buyer's market out there. These guys often have a big payment to make each month. They need the work if they are to avoid bankruptcy. I'd rather hire someone in this position, than learn how to operate a rented machine
 
Posts: 76
Location: Illinois, zone 6b
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The heaviest machine with the most skilled operator is always the fastest. But, consider the other options. The big machine guy needs to fit all the work into a tight schedule, get it done right the first time, and move to another job.

I have a 20 hp tractor and a moldboard plow and a grader blade. I can make awesome swales with those! And, I have the ability to come back and plow the swale again any time I want for very little cost.

I chose to make my first swale an L shape 600 ft long. I did not measure or follow the exact contour. Rather I laid it out according to what would make the spaces on both sides the most usable. I can come back and plow it as many times as necessary until the drainage is exactly right.

I know a lot of permaculture purists hate all moldboard plows and hate all exposed dirt. I believe in what I've seen that works, not just the most radical things I've read. An excavator (track hoe) is the perfect tool for digging basements, IMHO it is overkill for building swales. The moldboard plow is the simplest tool that will do a good job.
 
Posts: 252
Location: Nevada
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The phrase "compacted soil" was mentioned...keep in mind, the heavier the tractor, the more the soil will be compacted.
 
Tom Connolly
Posts: 252
Location: Nevada
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You may want to chart out your total plan for this piece of property. Is it possible/likely that having a small tractor of your own will be beneficial? How about a walk behind? I would also cast my vote to the idea of having someone do it for you...unless you plan on buying your own tractor. In that case, it may be worth while to have someone show you how to do it. I am not that familiar with tractor sizes but I have seen people do pretty awesome things with walk behinds - some with 15 or more horsepower. They will not do a job as fast as a big 6,000 pound tractor but if time is not very important to you, you will be adding to your repertoire of skills as you do it, so that if you decide you need more done - or less - you can do it yourself. Also, the cost of having it done may equal the cost of buying a used walk behind, or even a small tractor.
 
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