When a property has been allowed to return to a natural state of twisted grasses, thick-barked brush and trees grown well beyond the sapling stage, it’s time to call in that little Sherman tank (also called a compact track loader), fitted with a brush-buster attachment. Equipping a compact track loader (or even a skid steer) with the right brush cutter is the first task, because attaching an oversized cutter or an undersized one can waste time and money. Enter Chad Ekeberg. He is a matchmaker.
“There is not a skid steer or track loader, an excavator or backhoe we can’t match a brush cutter to,” says the national sales manager for Cross-Tech Mfg., maker of Brush Wolf cutters. “What makes us a little different is we don’t make a hundred different kinds of attachments and dabble in a few different models of brush cutters. Other than two demolition grapple buckets, our brush cutters are our bread and butter and have been from the beginning.”
Brush Wolf cutters come in 30 different models, ranging from a popular 42-in.-wide unit that can be fitted to a compact track loader up to 16-ft-wide units that can be fitted to site prep tractors. Its largest track loader/skid steer model cuts a 90-in. swath. The most popular standard Brush Wolf model is the 7200, a 6-ft-wide cutter that comes in three hydraulic flow versions. The low-flow 7200 unit requires 15 to 20 gpm, the standard unit (biggest seller) needs 21 to 25 gpm and the high-flow 7200 is for track loaders producing 26 to 40 gpm.
All Brush Wolf cutters will attack brush, but the 72 M-AX model will take down 8-in.-diameter trees. Generally speaking, Brush Wolf low-flow models handle 1 to 2 in. in diameter trees, standard flow chew up 3- to 4-in. trees and high-flow 4- to 5-in. trees. Available in either a three-blade or four-blade configuration, the 72 M-AX is termed “extreme duty.” Cost of the cutters? With a three-year warranty on the deck, Brush Wolf cutters retail from $4,000 for the 4200 model on up to $14,000 for the 72 M-AX.
Brush-clearing attachments generally come in three designs: the rotary blade cutter, the rotary mulcher (a disk with mulcher teeth) and the drum-style mulcher. The targeted property determines which is best. A rotary cutter will handle ground-hugging brush and grasses, but for dropping taller vegetation including trees, a drum mulcher is more effective. A rotary mulcher can be the best choice for both brush and trees. Valley Tool Mfg. has long catered to the excavator brush cutter market. Three years ago, company engineers rolled their design heritage into a model for compact track loaders — the FHX Defender mulcher. It has a cutting width of 54 in. and is designed for compact carriers with a hydraulic flow of 17 to 40 gpm.
“Our goal in designing the Defender was to accommodate lower horsepower and standard flow machines,” says John Wilkins, Valley Tool sales rep. “When someone tells us, ‘I don’t have a high-flow skid steer or track loader,’ we tell them we have a unit that is going to work well.”
The FHX Defender mulcher was engineered for efficiency. Instead of utilizing relatively blunt carbide knives, it employs “very sharp” rotatable, four-sided Quadco knife blades. A guide on the mulcher head prevents the knives from over-biting the wood. “We wanted to use the weight of the drum and efficiency of the cutting tool instead of just throwing horsepower at the overgrowth.” Wilkins says the Defender can drop a tree 10 in. in diameter and continuously chew through 6-in. ones.
The unit is more versatile than some competing cutters because of the sharper knives. “It performs really well on the light stuff as well as in heavier wood,” Wilkins says. “Blunter knifes really do not do as well in grasses and only do better in harder material if more horsepower is thrown at it.” Wilkins acknowledges that relying on the sharpness of blades instead of horsepower does require more frequent change out of the blades, but the blades are an off-the-shelf item in local stores.
Compact track loader manufacturers want to accommodate brush cutter attachments. Some even have dedicated models for brush clearing. ASV Posi-Track compact loaders come in six classes (eight models), all of which will run a brush cutter, plus the company offers a RT-120 Forestry unit that is powered by a Cummins 120-hp diesel engine. This 120-hp ASV loader is “forestry qualified,” according to Buck Storlie, the company testing and reliability specialist, “and we sell smaller track loaders to consumers who want to do a little brush cutting.”
Options to protect the operator and machine from flying debris are available for each ASV track loader, but full protection fittings come standard on the RT-120 Forestry. These include engine guards, light guards, a cage for the air conditioner and heavy-gauge reinforced roofing for tree-fall protection. The manufacturer also has gone to some lengths to reinforce windows against impact. The door is tested to resist 8,000 lbs of pressure applied to its center. “You can’t do that on some competitors’ flimsy, non-framed doors,” Storlie says.
Because of the risk of fire in dusty and dry shredding conditions, particularly in pine forests, “cleanliness is a big deal,” according to Storlie. So ASV forestry track loaders feature side-by-side coolers to reduce debris buildup on radiators, a reversible fan, easy access to machine areas for cleaning and an open-rail and drive-sprocket design for faster undercarriage cleanup. JCB’s skid steer and compact track loader product manager Randy Tinley says he has seen a shift in the market, with even low-flow skid steers commonly running brush cutters now.
While all six of JCB’s compact carriers can accommodate a cutter, the Tier 4 74-hp 325T Forestmaster is dedicated to the task. The Forestmaster was introduced in 2015 and features various protection guarding for operator, equipment and glass, plus a unique 15,000-lb capacity “recovery winch” welded to the rear of the machine. When the track loader becomes bogged down or otherwise trapped, it can be hooked to a nearby tree or piece of equipment and pull itself out.
On non-forestry models, JCB consumers typically don’t opt for all the protective guards for operator and machine, according to Tinley. That’s because the compact track loaders are only used part-time to clear brush and the safety guards are superfluous, perhaps bothersome, for doing other tasks. Equipped with a mulcher drum, the Forestmaster can chew through an 8-in. tree trunk — or bigger. “We say you can do an 8-in. tree,” says Ryan Connelly, JCB’s aftermarket sales manager, “but it really depends on how much patience you have. You can go bigger if you have the time.”
The best-engineered track loaders and brush cutters still can be victimized by operator abuse. Shredding trees and brush vigorously tests the durability of machinery, but operators themselves can put a hurt on a machine. “You have operators who are really great at maintenance and try hard to take care of machines,” says Connelly. “But then you have the guys who run a machine to its limits. We can perfectly match an attachment to a track loader, but the rest of the story is how the operator uses the machinery.”
Brush cutter maintenance concerns are minimal, say manufacturers of the attachments. As Ekeberg says, “Before brush cutting you should walk the area and remove barbed wire and flag the location of large rocks or stumps. Inspect hoses and couplings for leaks and replace if damaged. Tighten nuts according to your models operations manual.”