How Ranch Trucks Work

Image Gallery: Trucks

A ranch worker sets fire to the hillside on the Adkins Ranch along U.S. 56 in Morris County, Kan. Burning old grass is a common practice in the Flint Hills region of Kansas. The fresh growth improves the quality of the pasture.
AP Photo/Orlin Wagner
A ranch worker sets fire to the hillside on the Adkins Ranch along U.S. 56 in Morris County, Kan. Burning old grass is a common practice in the Flint Hills region of Kansas. The fresh growth improves the quality of the pasture. See more pictures of trucks.

Life on a ranch is far different from life in other places. Ranch life is all about work: working the land, working the livestock and working to make sure that a treasured American way of life doesn't falter in the face of suburban sprawl and massive agribusiness. Living on a ranch means living for the ranch, and working on a ranch means dedicating yourself to taking care of all the interconnected parts that make up the ranch as a whole.

Of course, to do all that, ranchers need the right tools.

To understand the tools ranchers need, you have to understand what a ranch is. Now, anyone can get a plot of land and call it a ranch. Traditionally, however, a ranch is dedicated to raising livestock. In the United States, that typically means cattle or horses, though some ranchers raise sheep or even more exotic animals like bison. In contrast to farms, ranches are not dedicated to raising crops, but to raising a wide-range of grazing animals for meat. By comparison, if a farm raises livestock, it generally does so in a confined space, or it may have a herd of cows for milk, not meat. Because it takes a lot of land to support a herd of grazing animals, ranches are typically found in the western half of the United States.

Up Next 

With such a specific purpose and way of life, ranches must have specific tools. One of the most important of those tools is a ranch truck. As long as cars and trucks have rolled across the American West, ranchers have used them in almost every aspect of ranch life, from caring for animals to improving the land and yes, even for basic transportation. Keep reading to learn about what kind of ranch truck ranchers typically look for, accessories that can help them work harder and even maintenance.

Ranch Truck Requirements

Rancher John Simmons heads back to his truck after a short walk on his property on near Burnet, Texas.
A rancher loads up for the day.

More than anything, a ranch truck needs to be tough. That's because life on a ranch isn't always easy. Working on a ranch may seem easy enough -- get some livestock, stick them on a field and watch them eat -- but in reality, there's a lot more to ranch life.

Ranch trucks are used for a number of different jobs. What all the jobs have in common is that they're extremely rugged. Because living on a ranch means going where the work takes you, ranch trucks have to be able to reach the entire ranch. That means four-wheel drive is a must, as is beefy, durable construction that can withstand punishment.

Ranch work is also pretty heavy-duty stuff. Ranch trucks are often used to transport food to livestock, to take livestock to market and to haul other machinery around the property. That means that ranch trucks need to have large payload and towing capacities. For the most part, the best ranch trucks are heavy-duty trucks that are strong enough to haul several thousand pounds worth of hay or feed and that can tow a large trailer filled with livestock.

With such heavy-duty work to accomplish, you might think that fuel economy isn't a concern for ranch trucks. In actuality, it is. After all, if you live on a remote ranch an hour away from the nearest gas station, you don't want to have to make the long drive to fill up constantly. Diesel engines are common among ranch trucks, not only because they tend to get better fuel economy than gasoline engines, but also because they provide more torque, which is key for moving heavy loads. As an added bonus, diesel engines can run on biodiesel, which can be made at home -- a big plus for a self-sufficient rancher.

Finally, ranch trucks need to be versatile. Ranchers frequently modify the trucks, removing the traditional truck bed in favor of a flat one or pulling the tailgate off to make it easier to tow a gooseneck trailer or load hay into the bed. One thing you'll notice is that a ranch truck doesn't have to be pretty: Ranch trucks are rough-and-tumble tools. They're meant to get the job done, not win beauty contests.

Ranch Truck Accessories

Author Max Evans sits on the tailgate of his pick-up truck outside his house in Albuquerque, N.M., on Nov. 22, 2003.
AP Photo/Jake Schoellkopf
Author Max Evans sits on the tailgate of his truck outside his house in Albuquerque, N.M., on Nov. 22, 2003.

So, to fit into ranch life, ranch trucks have to be strong, tough and adaptable. Working on a ranch often means improvising solutions, since life on a ranch comes with some unique and unexpected problems. And, as you might expect, living on a ranch and working with a ranch truck requires some accessories.

When most people think of truck accessories, they think of things that dress up or improve the way it looks. Ranch truck accessories, however, are all about getting the job done.

A common ranch truck accessory is a fifth wheel. That sounds odd, but a fifth wheel on a truck doesn't roll along the ground. It's a type of trailer hitch that's positioned in the truck bed. It's called a fifth wheel because it spins (it lays on its side, not upright like one of the truck's wheels on the ground). A fifth wheel is an important ranch truck accessory for a couple of reasons. Trucks with fifth wheels can tow more than a traditional trailer hitch because it centers the load's weight over the truck's rear axle, which is stronger than the truck's bumper.

Another common ranch accessory is a winch. Winches are often mounted on a ranch truck's front bumper. They have their own electric motor and can slowly wind rope or steel cable in and out. That's handy for ranchers who may have had some equipment (or livestock) get caught in mud or snow. With a winch, it's easy to pull them out.

Other ranch truck accessories include things like brush guards, which protect the truck's headlights and grille when driving over uncleared land and headache racks, which cover a truck's back glass, protecting it from items in the bed and keeping the sunshine out of the cab. Off-road lights are also helpful if the rancher has to go off-road at night and tool boxes, though they take up space in the truck bed, make sure that necessary tools are always close at hand.

Speaking of necessary tools, keep reading to learn how ranchers maintain their trucks.

Ranch Truck Maintenance

Peter Fonda leans against his 1952 Dodge truck on his ranch in the Paradise Valley near Livingston, Mont., on Sept. 1, 2004.
AP Photo/Garrett Cheen
Peter Fonda leans against his 1952 Dodge truck on his ranch in the Paradise Valley near Livingston, Mont., on Sept. 1, 2004.

Since life on a ranch is pretty rough and tumble, ranch trucks need to be reliable and ready to go. Part of working on a ranch is maintaining the ranch's truck (or trucks). Ranch life means being capable of tackling whatever's out there, so a well-maintained truck is essential.

When it comes to maintaining a ranch truck, the basics of car maintenance still apply. The engine oil and other critical fluids need to be changed according to the manufacturer's specifications. Tires need to be replaced when the tread wears down, and light bulbs and fuses need to be kept in working order, too.

Living on a ranch dictates some specialized maintenance for ranch trucks, however. For instance, while it's important to keep any car's radiator working well, it's especially important for ranch trucks because they're often asked to do work that strains the engine and causes it to run hot. Towing heavy loads, driving slowly across rugged terrain -- these punish a truck's engine. If it gets too hot, then the rancher is stuck with an overheated engine and an out-of-commission truck.

On the bright side, since many ranches use diesel-powered trucks for their capabilities, they get the added benefit of a diesel engine's durability. Many ranch trucks are driven hundreds of miles each day, without ever leaving the ranch. And since the trucks are tools, ranchers typically expect to keep their trucks for a long time. A ranch truck is all about work, so it won't likely be replaced just because there's a newer, better-looking truck on the market. With the right maintenance, diesel engines can outlast their gasoline counterparts, saving a ranch from having to buy a new truck (or trucks) every few years.

Some people buy trucks to drive to the hardware store on the weekend. Others buy them because they project a certain image. But ranch trucks are true workhorses. They aren't bought for the occasional towing job or because they look good. They earn their keep by hauling livestock and feed, transporting ranch hands to job sites and rolling wherever ranch work takes them.

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

Related HowStuffWorks Articles


  • Ranch Hand. "Accessories." (Dec. 29, 2009)
  • Ranch Hand. "Grille Guards." (Dec. 29, 2009)
  • Ranch Hand. "Headache Racks." (Dec. 29, 2009)
  • U.S. News. "Chevrolet Silverado HD Review." Oct. 15, 2009. (Nov. 29, 2009)
  • U.S. News. "Ford Super Duty Review." U.S. News Autos. Oct. 15, 2009. (Nov. 29, 2009)