How To Pick Up Dirt With A Front End Loader?

Front end loaders, also called wheel loaders, are great machines for picking and moving dirt and other loose material like gravel and sand. The loader bucket scoops up a huge amount of material for moving or loading. 

It may seem easy and straightforward to pick up dirt with a front end loader, but it requires experience, skill, and lots of caution. 

In this guide, we explain how to efficiently and safely pick up dirt with a front end loader, as well as how to move or load the dirt onto a truck. We include a few tips and tricks that even some experienced loader operators don’t know about. 

Is It Difficult To Operate a Front End Loader?

Is It Difficult To Operate a Front End Loader

Wheel loaders have simple controls and are easy to operate, but only if you’ve practiced and have a lot of experience operating one. 

As a beginner, a front end loader may seem easy to operate, but it’s not. If you don’t know what you are doing, you could easily tip over in the loader, damage property, or injure someone. 

You have to learn how to safely operate the loader on different terrains and how to maintain balance when moving heavy materials. You also need to get used to how a front end loader steers and articulates. 

When it comes to picking dirt, a particularly difficult aspect that takes time to learn is fluid lever or joystick movement. 

To work efficiently, you’ll need to move the boom while also curling or dumping the bucket. At the same time, you need to be working the throttle to move the loader forwards. 

If you’ve just bought a front end loader, or you’ve borrowed or rented one, we recommend taking a few hours to practice on it. 

After reading the user manual, choose a spot away from people and buildings and try out the different controls. Try picking small amounts of dirt or sand and dumping it. 

Preparing The Loader To Pick Dirt 

Before you get started picking dirt, make sure the loader is in good form. Check the fluids, brakes, tires, hydraulics and other components. 

You don’t want something breaking or failing when you have a bucket-full of dirt. 

It’s also important to survey the worksite before you begin. Check the condition of the ground and the path you’ll be taking when moving the dirt. 

Make sure there’s plenty of room to move the loader around, and check for any potential hazards you need to be ready for such as steep banks or deep ruts. 

In some cases, it may be necessary to level the work area to make it easier to pick and move dirt. 

If you are loading the dirt onto a truck, make sure there’s plenty of space for both the loader and the truck, and that the ground is level and firm. 

How To Pick Dirt From A Pile With A Front End Loader?

When picking dirt from a pile, there are two important factors to keep in mind: safety and efficiency. 

You should stay safe at all times by making sure you are not pushing the loader beyond its limits or getting it out of balance. 

You also want to be efficient by getting a full bucket of dirt every time. Otherwise, you’ll be making a lot of trips back and forth carrying half a bucket of dirt. 

Here’s how to go about it. 

  1. Approach the pile straight on. This gives you maximum power to dig into the pile and get a huge scoop of dirt. 
  2. Just before you start digging into the pile, lower the bucket until the blade is touching or almost touching the ground. 
  3. Try to level the bucket as much as you can. Because you cannot see the front of the bucket, check the top of it to determine when it’s level. 
  4. Step lightly on the throttle to start moving the loader forwards. The bucket will start scooping dirt. Keep going until you feel some resistance. 
  5. At this point, you need to start curling and raising the bucket to scoop more dirt and put more weight on the front wheels to improve traction. This is where practicing fluid lever movements is handy. 
  6. Curl the bucket just slightly upwards while also raising the boom a bit. At the same time, keep driving slowly into the pile. Repeat this until you’ve raised the bucket to about the same height as your dash. By then, it should be full of dirt. Curl the bucket fully to keep the dirt contained. 
  7. Do not raise the bucket above your dash or you could destabilize the loader especially when you start backing up or turning around. 
  8. Carefully back up the loader until you are clear of the pile. Then lower the loaded bucket a few more inches down. Now you can turn and move the dirt to where you plan to dump it. 

Keep The Work Area Level 

As you work your way into the pile, the approach may get a bit steep. You may also create depressions or ruts on the ground especially if you get some wheel spin (see the next section on how to avoid wheel spin).

This can cause stability issues when you attempt to pick up dirt, increasing the risk of a tip over. 

As you come back to the pile for subsequent pickups, survey the worksite and decide if you need to level it first. Just a quick grading with the bucket to make sure you are safe and steady when picking another load. 

How To Avoid Wheel Spin 

Wheel spin is bad in a front end loader. Not only does it reduce power and performance, it also wears out the tires quickly. It also messes up the worksite with deep ruts, and can lead to stuck or flipped loader. 

Wheel spin happens mostly on soft ground with dirt, sand, soil, or ice. It’s caused by a loss of traction. 

Some modern wheel loaders, such as those from Caterpillar, have a feature where you can adjust how much torque is directed to the wheels. 

When you are on hard ground like concrete, you increase torque. When on soft ground where wheel spin is more likely, you reduce torque. 

If your loader doesn’t have that feature, here’s what you do instead. 

  • Be light on the throttle. Move into the pile slowly. As soon as you feel the wheels spinning, reduce throttle. If that still doesn’t stop the spinning, stop the loader. 
  • Start raising the bucket. The weight of the bucket plus the dirt it’s already picked up will press down on the front wheels and prevent spinning. You should then be able to drive forwards again. 
  • Keep raising the bucket (and curling it as well) the deeper you go into the pile. The added weight should add more traction, giving you the power to keep going. Once the bucket is just below your dash, back out of the pile. 

Sometimes, wheels can spin simply because they are worn out. If that’s the case, it’s time to get new ones. 

In other cases, the ground may simply be too soft that even raising the bucket doesn’t help. This can happen if there’s deep mud or snow. 

If you often work in these conditions, consider switching to wheels designed for deep mud or snow, or use accessories like tire chains or over-the-tire tracks to increase traction and grip. 

Back dragging Makes Picking Dirt Easier and Safer

Most loader operators will repeat the same process when picking dirt. Drive into the pile, load the bucket, and back out. 

This works great, but there’s a way you can improve your efficiency and safety. When you go in for subsequent pickups, start by back dragging dirt from the pile. Back dragging is often used during grading, but it’s also handy when picking dirt, sand, or any loose material.

Basically, you are pulling dirt from high up in the pile and onto the ground. You then pick up the dirt you’ve back dragged. 

Back dragging has two advantages. One, it makes it easier to pick up dirt because you are not digging into a thick pile. You’ll find it’s easier and quicker to load the bucket. 

Two, it protects you from an avalanche of dirt. When you are picking dirt from a tall pile, there’s a risk that dirt from the top of the pile could come tumbling down as you scoop dirt from the bottom. 

This can overload the bucket, causing the loader to tip. Some of the dirt can also come down on the cab and damage it or injure you.  

By backdragging, you avoid destabilizing the pile of dirt since you are not picking material from right at the bottom of the pile. 

To back drag dirt, approach the pile with the bucket lifted about halfway up. Curl the bucket downwards into a dump position. You don’t have to curl it all the way – just enough for the bottom of the blade to drag dirt backwards. 

Lower the bucket until the blade is resting on the pile of dirt. Back up the loader. This should pull a large amount of dirt from the pile onto the ground. Back up further and pick up the dirt you’ve back dragged. 

Note that back dragging only works if the dirt is loose. If it’s too compact, it will not tumble down when you drag the bucket on it. 

How To Move A Front End Loader With a Loaded Bucket?

How To Move A Front End Loader With a Loaded Bucket?

You can do everything right when picking up dirt, only to mess up when moving it a short distance to the dump site or truck. 

The biggest hazard when moving a loader with a full bucket is flipping. This happens when the center of gravity is too high and the loader flips forward.  

The most common cause of flipping is having the bucket too high. When you pick up dirt and back up from the pile, the first thing you should do is lower the bucket to just above the ground. 

This keeps the center of gravity low, and the loader balanced. If the bucket is too high, even a simple turn could be catastrophic. 

Even with the bucket in the right position, you still need to be extra-cautious. Stick to a level and firm path, if possible. 

Deep ruts, steep banks, or steep slopes can lead to an accident. 

How To Dump A Front End Loader?

The final step is dumping the dirt onto another pile, onto the ground, or into a truck. 

Dumping the dirt will require a combination of moves – you’ll need to raise the boom while curling the bucket downwards. 

If you are dumping the dirt onto the ground, you don’t need to raise the boom too far; just enough to ensure the dirt doesn’t fall on you. 

Start raising the boom slowly as you approach the target spot. When the bucket is over the spot, push the lever or joystick right to curl the bucket downwards and dump out the dirt. 

Move the bucket up and down quickly to shake out any remaining dirt. 

If you are dumping the dirt onto a pile, you’ll need to raise the boom higher as you approach the pile. When the bucket is on top of it, curl the bucket to dump out the contents. Back up a bit as you dump dirt to spread it over a wider area and keep the pile from getting too high. 

If you are loading a truck with the dirt, you’ll also need to raise the boom until the bucket is right on top of the truck bed. Curl the bucket slightly so that only some of the dirt starts pouring out. You don’t want the whole bucket of dirt dropping into the truck – you can damage the truck. 

Start by dumping dirt on the side of the bed closest to you, then curl the bucket further as you inch the loader forward. This ensures dirt is distributed evenly in the truck. 

Curl the bucket back up and reverse the loader until the bucket is clear of the truck. Lower the bucket before you go for another load. 

Tip: Use the return-to-dig function to automatically return the bucket to level after dumping dirt. It makes your work easier. 

Stay Aware Of Your Environment 

Something we’ve not mentioned, but it’s very important, is staying aware of your surroundings. You’ll be backing up a lot, and it’s easy to back up into someone or something. 

Most front end loaders nowadays have a reverse camera that helps you monitor where you are going. Also check the mirrors and straight out of the back window to be completely sure it’s clear to go. 

To prevent people from accidentally wandering onto the worksite, we recommend putting up a KEEP OUT warning. 

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