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Between the pickup and the 18-wheeler

Brad Nelson for Progressive Dairyman Published on 06 August 2018

There is no middle ground. If your workday involves the regular use of a pickup truck, one will either see it as a necessary evil or as a marvelous do-everything machine the universe cannot exist without.

I once observed a mid-range truck hooked up to a large bumper-pull stock trailer. I was delivering hay to a remote cattle ranch where moving both saddled cow ponies and cattle was a regular chore. Still visible on the doors of the truck was the logo of a popular soft drink company.



When I asked about it, one of the ranch wives said before they got it, the guys were each wearing out a new pickup every year pulling the stock trailer to and from the various grazing areas. She said they’d had it for five years, and all they’d done to it was change the oil.

As a used pickup, it cost about a third of what a new pickup cost at the time and, not surprisingly, the ranch pickups were now lasting many times longer.

Second-career trucks

A city-delivery semi-tractor can work very well in a second career as a dairy, farm or ranch truck. For example, a beverage delivery tractor may be capable of gross combination weights (power unit plus the loaded weight of the trailer) in the 40,000- to 50,000-pound range.

At these weights, mid-range trucks will be able to run with most city traffic. Most will have automatic transmissions, since a beverage route driver needs to be a salesman first and a truck driver second. These trucks are usually replaced and rotated out of service long before they have reliability issues.

Power ratings

Operating economy and longevity are more important to commercial vehicles than racehorse capabilities and flash. This needs to be remembered when comparing the power ratings of mid-range truck engines with that of the current crop of heavy-duty pickups.


A pickup engine that advertises circa 425 horsepower will have circa 850 foot-pounds of torque. That horsepower is going to be available at over 3,000 rpm of engine speed. The torque will come on strong, starting around 1,500 rpm.

A mid-range truck engine with a horsepower rating of 230 to 320 will have a torque rating of 650 to 1,100 foot-pounds and up. The horsepower will be available at much lower engine speeds so it is available to the truck at cruising speed (55 to 65 miles per hour).

These engines, like their big brothers in the heavy over-the-road and construction trucks, cruise in the 1,400 to 1,800 rpm range, depending on the engine and application. The maximum torque will show up as low as 1,100 rpm. These are engines of less than 550-cubic-inch displacement. Making the jump to the 11-liter engine size will add massive amounts of torque.

Don’t compare the horsepower ratings with those of heavy, new pickups if you’re shopping for a mid-range truck. Moving into the second career, these trucks will be operating at half or less of their originally engineered weight range. That means overkill in cooling system, transmissions, tires and especially brakes.

Next time you see someone towing a large fifth-wheel travel trailer with a mid-range truck, ask them about it. Probably the first thing they will say will have to do with the massive ease of slowing and stopping the combination.

Expect these trucks to come with air conditioning, air-ride driver (maybe also passenger) seats and automatic transmissions. Permanent hitches will need to be attached directly to the frame and give you the capability to pull bumper-pull trailers as well as goosenecks. It’s fairly simple to add a controller for the electric brakes most trailers of this class will have.


Towing with a mid-size truck

Some things to consider when towing with a mid-size truck are:

  • If the unit will be licensed for over 26,000 pounds, a commercial driver’s license may be needed. Check with your local department of motor vehicle licensing. The 26,000 pounds may be the manufacturer’s weight rating for the vehicle rather than what you license it to be legal for.

  • There is a farm exemption that applies to a radius of operations of 150 air miles from home base. Check out the fine print for wherever you live. Not all enforcement personnel understand the exemptions.

  • If your new toy has air brakes, an air brake endorsement will be required on your driver’s license, whether or not it is a regular driver’s license or a CDL. This is a matter of reading the tutorial, gaining an understanding of how air brakes work and how to adjust them, and taking a written test.

  • Most newer mid-range trucks have air brakes. Most of these come with automatic slack adjusters. Some are showing up with disc brakes like cars and pickups have now had for two or three decades. Make sure you ask enough questions so you understand what makes your new toy stop and how to maintain it.


Engine emissions are a concern. If you live in California, check with California Air Resources Board before you buy anything, since what is legal today may not be next year.

If it’s legal where you live, and age of a vehicle is not an issue, stay with a 2006 model or older unit. After that, the whole emissions thing kind of went crazy. Some manufacturers went with exhaust gas recirculation to reduce tailpipe emissions, while others went earlier to the use of diesel exhaust fluid.

If you’re not familiar with either, find someone who is who can explain how these systems work until you are comfortable understanding it. Diesel exhaust fluid is added to the diesel exhaust downstream from the engine and reacts with the exhaust gases to reduce the oxides of nitrogen coming out the tailpipe. This, in addition to the diesel particulate filter, eliminates diesel smoke and soot.

The exhaust gas recirculation systems introduce cooled diesel exhaust gases into the intake-air side of the engine to lower the combustion temperatures and reduce the nitrogen oxides. This affects the tuning and timing of the engine, so it doesn’t really run right.

All else being equal, an engine with the diesel exhaust fluid system will be more economical to operate since it is tuned to run correctly with the emissions byproducts being removed downstream by the diesel exhaust fluid. Also, the big boys tell me the systems using only exhaust gas recirculation are much more troublesome.  end mark

Brad Nelson is a freelance writer based out of Royal City, Washington.