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What to look for when buying a backhoe loader

If you are looking to upgrade backhoe loaders, be prepared to wade through a proliferation of accessories and options employed by manufacturers to “niche out” their machines.

If this is the first time you’ve bought a backhoe, know that its work capacity is not determined by the machine’s horsepower. Instead, major specifications with backhoes are digging depth and lift capacity.

Whether you are a repeat or first-time backhoe buyer, you’ll need to determine exactly what capacities you require before heading to an auction or dealer’s lot because the array of models available can be confusing. 

Let’s use Caterpillar as an example. Big Yellow offers 48 models in its backhoe line. Yet this fleet of power output ranges from 69 hp. up to 137 hp. That’s a smaller horsepower range than you’ll find within many single tractor series. Think about all those different designations used by tractor manufacturers.

For instance, John Deere has nine tractor series designations. All of Cat’s backhoe loaders carry one designation denoted by the number 400. With Cat, it’s the second and third numbers and additional letters after those numbers I that differentiate capacities.

A Cat Model 415F2 (the baby of that make’s model line) runs with a 69-hp. diesel, has a lift capacity of 2,466 pounds, and a digging depth of 14.3 feet. The big boy in the Cat line, Model 450F, runs with 137 hp. and boasts a 7,871-pound lift capacity and 17.3-foot digging depth.

Variety of Options

Outside of lift capacity and digging depth, and to a lesser degree loading height, all the other variations in the Cat line are accounted for in accessories and options.

Another challenge when shopping for backhoe loaders are those letters following model numbers.

Take the John Deere 310SJ, for example. This model offers 14.5 feet of digging depth. Yet the Deere 310SK delivers an 18.4-foot depth. The difference is that the 310SK is equipped with an extending backhoe mast (sometimes called an extendable or extended dipper stick, extend-a-boom, or extending hoe).

There is a second distinction regarding differences in loader lift capacity and breakout force. Lift capacity is the sustained deadweight a loader can lift. Breakout force is described as the maximum amount of one-time lift a loader can exert to break out a scoop of packed dirt, for example. 

Examining Digging Depth

Lumping all makes of backhoes together by their general digging depth classes, I have found there are generally two lift capacity classes and then some exceptions in model differences.

The digging depth classes are:

  • 14- to 16-foot digging depth with corresponding loader lift capacities ranging from 5,500 to 8,500 pounds.
  • 16- to 18-foot depth, which generally have lift capacities ranging from 6,500 to 9,700 pounds.

There are exceptions to these general classes. For example, the JCB 3CX-17 Super offers a 21½-foot digging depth and 10,225-pound loader lift capacity.

These are a lot of numbers to throw at you. To help in your searching, I highly recommend going to and then searching for “Backhoe Loaders Spec and Charts.” It’s a great one-stop shop for all the major specs by make.


Other Feature Differences

Beyond the extend-a-boom feature mentioned before, working options that boost backhoe prices include:

Four-wheel drive (sometimes referred to as all-wheel drive). This is now common on backhoes. Figure on giving 15% to 25% more for a loader with four-wheel drive.

Closed-center hydraulics. As is the case with tractors, closed-center systems (that employ a piston pump) provide full hydraulic power at any engine speed.

Pilot hydraulic control system. This feature lets operators easily switch from backhoe- to excavator-control patterns, usually with the flip of a lever.

Cab with air-conditioning. A great many backhoes run with roll-over protection only.

Inspecting Wear and Tear

It’s no secret that construction gear isn’t always as well cared for as farm machinery because the owner usually isn’t the operator. Still, I’ve seen small contractor backhoes whose condition would rival anything selling from a farm.

Regardless of origin of the backhoe, invest your time to thoroughly inspect a potential buy. Backhoes are in the business of excavation, which puts strain on their moving parts and the tractor’s main frame. Look the entire machinery over for stress cracks, broken welds, and twisted frame members — particularly of the mast and loader.

Then, run the backhoe to determine if the engine and also the hydraulic system have problems. Backhoe hydraulics are the heart of these machines and are often pushed to their limits while running hours a day, weeks on end

Lastly, look the tires over very carefully. They are running over varied surfaces often at construction sites that can contain damaging objects. Look for sidewall cuts (on the inside of the tire as well), cracks, and rear lug deterioration.

March Auctions

March 8-13: A liquidation auction featuring the largest John Deere salvage yard in the world is being held by Polk Auction ( in New Paris, Indiana

March 12: Manche Auction Service ( will hold its 21st Annual Farm Machinery Consignment Auction in Perryville, Missouri

March 12: Coggon, Iowa, is the location for a spring equipment auction by Hoge Auctioneering (

March 19: A large multifarmer sale with four rings is set for Okawville, Illinois, by Riechmann Auction (

March 21 & 22: A no-reserve online-only dealer and farm sale will be held in multiple locations by Sullivan Auctioneers (

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