When Hauling Heavy Loads, Respect Payload and Towing Limits

Payload capacities and towing limits for farm vehicles are more complicated than they first appear. Understanding them thoroughly will help you stay safe.

by J. Keeler Johnson
PHOTO: Daniel Johnson

Imagine you’re picking up a load of square bales to feed your livestock. Or maybe you have a collection of flagstone pavers for a decorative gardening project. You’ve fired up your farm truck and hooked up your utility trailer. Now you’re filling the trailer as high as you can.

If you tie it all down, maybe you can bring everything back in a single trip.

But is this the best approach? Not necessarily. Pieces of farm equipment—from trucks and trailers to tractors, ATVs and UTVs—have weight limits. Whether it’s described as a payload capacity, or a lifting limit, or a towing rating, there’s only so much weight they can safely handle.

Exceed these payload limits, and you’re asking to damage your equipment or suffer an accident.

Why Payload Limits Matter

Think about it. You wouldn’t place a million pounds on top of your ATV, right? Your ATV would be flattened.

On a more realistic scale, overloading your equipment can decrease performance and place an undue strain on the shock absorbers. It could even cause breakdowns.

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Just because your utility trailer can hold 3,000 pounds when parked doesn’t mean it can handle the load safely when traveling down a bumpy road at 30 mph.

But what exactly do these weight limits refer to? That’s the tricky part. If you don’t understand the various definitions, you can inadvertently overload your equipment without realizing it.

Consider the following examples:

Consider the Utility Trailer

You have a utility trailer with a payload capacity of 2,000 pounds—that’s how much weight the trailer can carry. The ball hitch on your farm truck is rated to tow 2,000 pounds. That’s a perfect match, right?


You’re forgetting the weight of the utility trailer, which must be considered as part of the towing weight. If the trailer weighs 900 pounds, you’re actually towing 2,900 pounds, which means you need a better hitch or a lighter load.

Read more: These are the 4 measurements you need to know when choosing a hitch ball.

Don’t Forget You!

Your ATV has a payload capacity of 400 pounds. That means you shouldn’t have any trouble packing 250 pounds on the racks, right? That depends on how much the driver weighs.

The weight of rider counts as part of the payload limits. So if you weigh 200 pounds, you’re actually putting 450 pounds of weight on the machine—50 pounds more than it’s rated to handle.

What’s the Pivot Point?

The front-end loader of your tractor is rated to lift 1,500 pounds to its maximum height. You want to lift 1,250 pounds with the bucket, which seems manageable. But is the lifting capacity measured at the “pivot pins” or at a point somewhere forward of the pivot pins?

This is a crucial distinction. The lifting power at the pivot pins is something of a theoretical measurement. Attachments (like your loader bucket) sit forward of the pins, and this added distance reduces the lifting capacity.

If your loader can lift 1,500 pounds at the pivot pins, but only 1,000 pounds 20 inches forward of the pivot pins, the latter measurement is a more realistic gauge of lifting power. Picking up 1,250 pounds, then, may be a bridge too far.

Weight Distribution Really Matters

Proper distribution of weight is critical. Let’s say you aim to pick up 900 pounds with a front-end loader rated to lift 1,100 pounds at a point 20 inches forward of the pivot pins.

This is realistic. But unless you’re carrying proper ballast at the rear of the tractor, your tractor is at risk of tipping forward as you try to lift.

Read more: To stay safe, be careful how much you try to lift with your tractor.

Balance the Load

Maintaining balance must also be considered when loading utility trailers. Placing all the weight behind the axle(s) of a trailer creates lifting power at the hitch. This can limit the traction of your vehicle’s rear wheels and/or cause the trailer to “fishtail.”

Either result is dangerous. So a general rule-of-thumb suggests placing 60 percent of your payload in the front of your trailer to avoid these issues.

Balance Your ATV, Too

A similar approach must be utilized when loading the front and rears racks of an ATV. Don’t just fill one rack and leave the other empty. It will throw off the balance of your machine.

If the rear rack is rated to carry twice as much weight as the front rack, and you have 100 pounds to haul, try to put 67 pounds in the rear rack and 33 pounds on the front rack to maintain the proper ratio.

As you can see, weight limits and payload capacities are a bit more complicated than they first appear. But they’re worth knowing (and following) in order to stay safe and reduce wear and tear on your machines.

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