Take Care To Balance Weight In A Single-Axle Trailer

It's important to keep proper weight distribution in mind when loading a single-axle trailer, otherwise your towing vehicle may struggle to pull the load.

by J. Keeler Johnson
PHOTO: Daniel Johnson

The other day, I was happily digging holes to plant apple and cherry trees in my orchard. My plan was perfect, or so I thought: I would shovel the sod and soil into a small single-axle trailer towed by a lawn tractor, rather than spread it messily through the grass. This strategy would also eliminate the risk of killing grass if I got delayed in actually planting the trees.

But those best-laid plans got more complicated as I went along. I had originally intended to dig one hole, plant one tree, dig another hole, plant another tree, and so on. But I was into such a nice rhythm digging the holes, and the weather was so perfect for digging (nice and cool, not hot and muggy), that I wound up digging three holes without stopping to plant.

Watch Your Weight

Hmm. By that time, there was a lot of soil and sod in my trailer—more than I had expected. And for the sake of convenience I had piled more dirt behind the axle than in front of the axle, which would make it easy to shovel dirt back out of the trailer … but harder for my lawn tractor to tow.

You see, when loading a single-axle trailer, the recommendation is to load 60 percent of the weight in front of the axle. This ensures that there’s weight pressing down on the hitch, which in turn helps the towing vehicle gain traction with its rear wheels. If you put more weight behind the axle than in front, the trailer exerts an upward pull on the hitch. This can reduce traction for the towing vehicle and even lead to dangerous “fishtailing.”

So when I fired up my lawn tractor to drive back to my front yard and pick up a couple of trees, I could tell my tractor was struggling just a little. The tractor was strong enough to tow the load, but it’s a lightweight machine, and it wasn’t getting as much traction as ideal.

At that point, I should have fired up my heftier garden tractor and switched towing vehicles, but I didn’t. I loaded a couple of trees into the wagon (alongside the dirt) and set off back to my orchard.

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No Traction Action

All was fine until I tried to drive up a very mild slope to one of the planting holes. Evidently there was just enough of a hump in the slope to catch the mowing deck, and the lawn tractor—already fighting for traction—gave up and started spinning its wheels. It would go forward, and it wouldn’t go backward. It didn’t help that my farm had received 1 1/2 inches of rain the night before, rendering the grass and topsoil too slippery for the tires to firmly grip.

Even once I shifted some weight from the back of the trailer to the front, I couldn’t get enough traction.

So there I was, stuck on basically nothing in the middle of my orchard. I had to shift the dirt again (to the rear of the trailer) so I could lift the front of the trailer off the hitch and free the lawn tractor. Without a heavy load to tow, it had no trouble getting unstuck.

Then I brought out the garden tractor and hitched it up, expecting it to pull the trailer without issue. It turns out, though, that lawn tractor spinning its wheels had muddied the grass enough that I had to engage the differential lock on my garden tractor and back it down the mild slope before it could get enough traction to regroup and continue forward.

There are several ways I could have avoided these difficulties, which wasted quite a bit of time and energy. First and foremost, I should have made sure to distribute the load in my trailer properly, with 60 percent of the weight in front of the tires. Maybe the load was just too heavy for the little lawn tractor to pull, but I didn’t give it the best chance with my casual approach to weight distribution.

That’s an important thing to keep in mind when hauling heavy materials (dirt, compost, hay, etc.) in two-wheeled trailers around your farm.

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