How does ranch life create engine stress?

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Brian Wesner walks around his truck and load of hay parked in high floodwaters. Wesner had the hay stored in the buildings for his 200-plus head of cattle.
AP Photo/ Daniel R. Patmore
Brian Wesner walks around his truck and load of hay parked in high floodwaters. Wesner had the hay stored in the buildings for his 200-plus head of cattle.
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Most of us rely on our cars to get us to work or school every day -- a commute that can be long or short, smooth or stop-and-go. But when you're living on a ranch, the truck you rely on doesn't just get you to work; there are times when it has to do the work once you get there, too. Ranch life, similar to farm life or heavy-duty construction work, is much harder on a truck than merely sitting in traffic on your daily commute.

Dan Probert is the Executive Director of Country Natural Beef in Oregon, a group of ranches that range from 300 acres to one million acres, and every size in-between. "Where we have issues," Probert said, "is that we're not on pavement very much."

Working on a ranch often requires taking two-track dirt roads to remote areas of the land. That means the trucks need enough ground clearance to keep grass, dirt and rocks out of the engine and undercarriage, plus they need to be sealed up tightly enough to keep dirt and dust out of the electrical systems, including the power windows and locks.

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But ranch life puts the most stress on a truck's engine. It needs to have enough torque to pull a trailer full of cattle or a bed full of hay from a dead stop, and enough horsepower to get that load up to speed. It also needs to be built solid and bolted-up tight so it doesn't shake apart on rutted, washboard roads.

Keep reading to find out what kinds of stresses a ranch truck engine typically faces and how one manufacturer "torture tests" its trucks.



Types of Engine Stress

Rancher Jim Hall leans out of his pickup truck on the family ranch near Gillette, Wyo.
Ranch trucks can put major stress on their engines.

Don Ufford, Chief Engineer for the Ford F-150, says "If you consider typical usage on farms and ranches, it includes empty miles on gravel, tar and concrete. There's also empty time in fields, where there might be cornstalks and grass that slaps underneath the truck."

But that's when the truck is empty -- what about when it's got a full load? Well, Ufford said, working on a ranch often means hauling more than full loads. "Many ranches don't have a scale available, so they load until the bed of the truck is full." If a rancher without a scale fills the bed with feathers, it's much different than if he fills it with bales of hay. Ufford said this sometimes leads to overloading -- and that's something the engine has to deal with when you're living on a ranch.

The nature of the job puts enough stress on a truck's engine, but in many cases ranch life means the weather is causing problems, too. Anyone who lives in a very cold climate knows how difficult it can be to get the car started in the morning -- not to mention how long it takes for the engine to finally warm up. In the coldest climates, the engine may even need a little help from an electrical outlet and an engine block heater.

Life on a ranch often means several cold starts each day: first thing in the morning, out at the barn, along the fences while doing repair and more. Ufford pointed out that most of these are short trips, where the engine doesn't have enough time to warm up before being shut down. And there's no electricity for a plug-in far into the field. Ranch trucks have to be able to start every time, under any condition.

Dan Probert of Oregon Country Beef added that most ranchers these days have a 16- to 22-foot (4.9- to 6.1-meter) gooseneck trailer, so most of the weight is on the trailer, not in the bed of the truck. "Hauling payload in the rig doesn't happen so much anymore," he said. "It's more of a towing issue." And towing means the engine has to have enough torque to get that trailer rolling -- and enough horsepower to keep it at speed on the way to your destination.

How do truck manufacturers deal with these causes of engine stress? Continue reading to find out.



Causes of Engine Stress

A ranch worker burns old grass on the Adkins Ranch in Morris County, Kan. The fresh growth improves the quality of the pasture.
AP Photo/Orlin Wagner
A ranch worker burns old grass on the Adkins Ranch in Morris County, Kan. The fresh growth improves the quality of the pasture.

"As ranchers, we've always been half-mechanics," Probert said. But today, when ranchers open up the hoods of their trucks, "we don't know what we're looking at anymore." He added that in terms of powerplants and payloads, the selection of trucks is better than it's ever been. So while those working on a ranch may not be able to fix their own trucks, the trucks need repair work less often.

That's no accident. Manufacturers like Ford work to identify the engine stresses caused by living on a ranch, then make sure the truck can stand up to every one of those hardships. It's called "torture testing," and it could be fun if you like seeing how much you can put your truck through.

One of the tests Ford uses is a series of bumps about half the height of an average curb. The truck drives over bunch of them in a row to simulate a particularly awful washboard road. "It shakes the devil out of the truck," Ufford said. They also simulate life on a ranch by driving through a sand wash to overtax the drivetrain and check the engine for overheating. In addition, they test the truck in shallow water to make sure it doesn't kill the engine or suck up water and affect the electronics.

Without an engine, a ranch truck is useless. And since ranchers depend on trucks to get the daily work done, the engine alone -- without chassis or driver -- gets mounted on a dynomometer and run for hundreds of hours at full load. This automates the process of running the engine while speeding up, slowing down, hauling feed, animals or equipment, all without stopping.

After the tests in the lab, the trucks are ready to go out for some real-world testing to make sure they're ready for ranch life. The trucks drive up steep hills with heavy trailers, through deep mud bogs and over plenty of challenging terrain. To put a truck's engine cooling system to the test, a trailer is hitched up in 110-degree Fahrenheit (43.3-degree Celsius) desert heat -- at the bottom of a steep hill. Ford tests the opposite extreme at a special facility in Canada, where engineers do drivability and cold-start tests at 20 degrees below zero (-28.9 degrees Celsius). After all, living on a ranch sometimes means a truck will face both extremes in one year. These trucks are also tested for carrying loads with high centers of gravity, like bales of hay piled high or even in-bed campers.

There are several aspects of ranching that can stress a truck's engine; the testing has to be as harsh as -- or even harsher than -- the conditions it may face every day, all year long, on a working ranch.

For more information about ranch trucks, ranch life and other related topics, follow the links on the next page.



Related HowStuffWorks Articles


  • Ford Motor Company. "All-new Ford-engineered, Ford-tested, Ford-built Diesel Maximizes 2011 Super Duty's Productivity." Sept. 24, 2009. (Nov. 23, 2009)
  • Probert, Dan. Executive Director of Country Natural Beef. Personal interview.
    Conducted on Nov. 23, 2009.
  • Ufford, Don. Chief Engineer of the Ford F-150. Personal interview.
    Conducted on Nov. 24, 2009.