Can You Make A Living With A Bush Hogging Business?
Many of us have tractors, probably because we need them for our own property, and are wondering “can I make a living with a bush hogging or land clearing business?”. We enjoy being outside, machinery and the instant satisfaction of seeing the outcome of our work so we start to think can I make a living doing brush hogging. I think the answer is yes but you have to be smart and manage your expectations. A bush hogging business is not going to be successful immediately and it takes a lot of money to get the equipment needed. It will likely take years to get to an income level where you consider yourself to be comfortable. The operations you see online offer full service land clearing. They have equipment and employees and cover large areas. They are skilled at site preparation for new construction and can do a wide variety of things that earn them money. Long-term, this is the business model to watch to make an above average income.
I have 20+ years of owning several small businesses and getting into bush hogging in the last year. My perspective is less about bush hogging than it is starting and building a business. I am fortunate that the money earned in other businesses has enabled me to purchase a nice tractor, trailer and implements initially for personal use and now for a side business. My challenges are maintenance know-how and marketing a new business just like you. Do I expect to get rich, not anytime soon. My goal is not to build a bush hogging empire but to make some money and work outside. Is it possible to make a decent living bush hogging, yes but it depends on your definition of a decent living. If you are okay making $40,000 to $60,000 for a few years you can probably do this once you go fulltime. Unless you have a unique situation, brush hogging part-time until the work load increases enough that you can quit your current job is how you should look at it.
Review the Competition
Understanding competitor rates is first thing people think of when studying the competition. If the competition is smart they charge by the job and not by the hour so it will be hard for you to know exactly what they are up to. It is important to understand the services offered in your area, how they are marketing, discounts they may be running and anything else about their business model that you can copy or take advantage of. If they just mow fields, getting a tree cutter means you can do jobs they cannot. If they are not a member of the Chamber of Commerce, you can join and form relationships with commercial or rural realtors to keep road and lots looking good. You can look at their ads to see what they say, how they are laid out and the services they highlight. Look at their website to see how it is designed, what pages are included, how it ranks in search returns and the services they highlight. Once you have a feel for the competition determine how you are going to compete. Getting started you may be competing on price alone. Eventually you will have to raise your rates to sustain and grow your business. You will one day be faced with the low rates of the new guy starting his business just like you did. A satisfied customer base is resistant to pricing pressure.
Figure out how you are going to price your work. I learned that pricing hourly means that you might get a job that only took 45 minutes but you had 3 hours of prep and transportation. If your priced it at $60/hr, you will take home just $45! Instead price it by the job knowing the least you can charge and still make a profit of 30-40%. When pricing by the job it is important to explain when the price quoted will not hold due to unforeseen circumstances. Issues such as wire fencing, large rocks, holes, trash and other large trees and other obstacles you cannot see through the brush may significantly increase your time.
Every time you do a job you should be working to schedule the next service in 3, 6, or 12 months. If you offer a discount for multiple services in a year, you are more likely to be guaranteed of future revenue. Recurring revenue is the best way to keep marketing expenses low and grow your business. Saying “no” when a job does not make sense is the hardest part of starting a new business. Someone contacted me to mow his 2-3 acres and I told him it would be at my minimum of $250. He made a snide comment and did not use my services. I could have mowed his place for less but since I value my time, I stuck to my minimum price. Between travel, fuel, my time and overhead, doing the job for less was not worth it. The only expense that can change is the value of my time and I do not work for low wages.
In the image below you can see the supply for tractor services is high which has resulted in a lowering of the prices. Most of these prices are probably just to attract customers but are not sufficient to run a business and make a decent annual income.
Run the Numbers
Bush hogging as your only source of income is risky. Start part-time and build your business until it demands all your time. I run 3 businesses all in various stages of maturity (www.fleetistics.com, www.igtech365.com, www.pubsafe.net) and bush hogging is my fourth. You have to decide how much you can handle and where your income is going to come from while you get your bush hogging business going.
Start with what you need for income and back into the finances from there. If you need to make $45,000 before taxes, you can project your income and expenses and see if there is enough left over for you to reach your income goal. If you are not able to reach your desired personal income, you have to increase your business revenue by working more hours or charging more per hour. Option 2 is to decrease your expenses. Option 3, find another business.
As a rough calculation you can use the hourly rate times two times, $45,000 = approximate annual income.
Ex $60/hr x 2 = $120 x 1000 = $120,000 annual income when working 40 hours a week.
From this figure you will start to subtract expenses. This helps you understand why charging $50/hr is not viable if you want to do do bush hogging fulltime.
- Tractor payment
- Trailer payment
- Implement payment
- Truck payment
- Fuel, tractor (2 gal/hr x 8 hrs per day x 5 days per week x 52 weeks per years $2.40 gal = $9,904/yr)
- Fuel, truck
- Maintenance – truck, trailer, tractor, implements, chainsaws, etc.
- Wages (employees)
- Administration (infrastructure – computers, banking, cell phone, Internet)
- Miscellaneous (budget 20%. This seems high but there are always lots of unforeseen expenses.
Setting Up Your Business
- Form an LLC company to protect your assets and build the foundation correctly. If your really want to protect your personal assets talk to a business attorney about a joint trust owning the business. This makes getting to your personal assets very difficult if your follow the rules of running a corporation.
- Get GL insurance. It builds confidence by your customers and protects your family and equipment.
- Get business cards and a logo. You can get a custom logo using a company like 99designs for a few hundred dollars.
- Get a domain email. This means an email that matches your website. Having a Gmail account with your domain name isn’t the end of the world getting started. If you own the domain you can switch to a domain email later. Honestly I am using email@example.com today. In the future I will go to firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, etc. This gives you control over the emails and protects your business information as people come and go.
- Building a professional image online isn’t hard. Don’t use website services that provide a website builder for a fee that you are dependent on them for changes. You will want to do blog posts like this one, add video, images and content on your schedule without additional fees.
- Get a CRM (customer resource manager) or customer resource manager. This is where you track all calls, pricing and notes about customers, leads and vendors. Doing this from the start will make your business much more efficient in 2 years when you start to add people. A CRM protects your business and shares your information between employees. If you want to setup a CRM when you contact IGTech365, mention this video and we will get the special annual price of $399 for an unlimited number of users. CRMs like SalesForce charge $85/mo per user because it is a much bigger platform designed for mature corporations As you grow your business the IGTech365 CRM allows you to grow without huge expenses.
- Get Microsoft Office 365. With Office 365 you can get email, a phone system, mobile chat, cloud storage and sharing, and Word, Excel, etc. It allows you to organize, access, and protect you information. It is very cost effective when you add people to your business. If you mention this video when you talk to IGTech365 you will get 5% below Microsoft direct pricing.
- Determine what equipment you need to get started and what you can afford. Buy the biggest tractor you can afford and look for good deals on used equipment. If you can afford a bigger, newer, tractor, you won’t be needing to replace it for a while. We both know from buying cars you almost always lose thousands of dollars when trading in a vehicle on the shiny new one. A new tractor will be under warranty and have fewer issues which means you can more time billing or growing your bush hog business.
- About the easiest account system to use is QuickBooks Online. We have used it in all our businesses for years and it offers all the basics for a brush hogging business. If you do not like QuickBooks any online accounting system will do. You should check with your accountant (yes you need one of these eventually) to be sure they can use QB.
Summary of Infrastructure Services
- Office 365
- QuickBooks Online
I bought my first tractor from Facebook in 2019. It was an Rural King 55 with a brush cutter, grapple, bucket and harrow rake. I had it for a few months and decided I wanted something bigger and newer with less future maintenance. I went with a Massey Ferguson 4707 with a custom skid plate and a Baumalight CP572 tree cutter. I found work with my neighbors who saw me working on my property building a road, bush hogging common areas and grading the main road. I was learning the skills needed to do work for others and getting media for marketing. My challenge is gaining experience in many situations that I have yet to face.
If you don’t already own a tractor, buy the biggest one you can afford. A Class II is more rugged and will last longer but everything is more expensive. You can always use less HP but you can never add it. I found that a Class II tractor with Class I implements tears them up pretty quickly. I also recommend a cab tractor if you can afford it so you can work in all weather. If you are in the hot sun for 40 hours a week you will quickly hate your job and have skin cancer. It will keep you warm in the winter and keep the yellow jackets at bay. There is a risk to damaging the cab but the benefits outweigh the risk.
Obviously, that is tied to the services you plan to offer. A basic setup from my experience is an HD bush hog with a tailwheel for consistent cutting, a bucket, a box blade that is as wide or wider than your wheels, and a brush grapple. If there are a lot of dirt roads in your area a ground plane produces a nice finish.
Why did I get a tree cutter? I wanted a way to efficiently clear heavy brush that a bush hog isn’t well suited for on my property. It turns out is has enabled me to get 70% of my work early on. In my area, there is a lot of overgrown hunting land and palmetto bushes that require a very heavy cutter or a forestry mulcher. I can rough cut heavy brush for less than a forestry mulcher so I have a niche in the area.
Equipment Trailer Considerations
You will also need a reliable trailer which will run about $10,000 new. There are deals online but equipment trailers go quickly so you need to have cash in hand to get a deal. If you go cheap on a trailer, I will waive as I go by. Be sure the GVWR is higher than the combined weight of the tractor, implements and trailer. My MF 4707 with filled tires and a custom steel skid plate is about 10,000 lbs. The trailer is about 4,000. I needed a trailer with a GVWR of over 14,000 lbs. Add a 2,000 brush cutter and I’m at my trailer’s max. A gooseneck trailer will give you more towing capacity, more equipment trailer options, better turning and a safer experience. On the trailer I added a job site toolbox for a chainsaw, tools, fluids and spare parts.
This trailer was overloaded and not balanced correctly because it was not long enough.
Be prepared to do routine maintenance. When every dollar counts, taking your tractor out of service for 3 days to get a $400 oil change at the tractor dealer will eat into your profits. Get the service manual and learn how to do the basics. Click here to find your service manual. There will be times when having a tractor dealer do the work is needed but it should be for the more complicated things. If you find a dealer with a mobile technician, it can reduce your downtime even if it costs more. When you take a tractor to the shop, the dealer may let it sit for days while other work is being done. If you calculate your lost billable hours ($75 x 8 hrs x 3 days) it is costing you $1,800 in lost revenue plus the cost of the repair!
Marketing Your Business
As a small business owner and entrepreneur I have made a lot of mistakes, learned a lot of expensive lessons and taught myself how to do a lot of things that I could not afford to outsource getting started. Digital marketing is the one skill you can learn if you take the time. You will not be as good at it as a marketing firm or contractor but you can learn enough to get started. When your business grows and you outsource this function you will be well versed in how marketing works so you can make better choices.
Building Your Website & Web Presence
Your website is probably the single most important initial marketing investment you need to make. The good news it you can do it yourself. I taught myself how to work on websites, do digital marketing and do gorilla marketing because I could not afford to pay someone else to do it. I started my first business after being laid off and not having any money, $0, with two small kids, a wife, a house and two cars. I know what it is like to start from nothing and it is a lot of work. Be ready to make this level of a commitment. While building your business and working part-time, focus on marketing; build your brand and reputation.
You can get everything you need from GoDaddy by clicking here. IGTech365 is one of the companies I started and the team can help you get everything including a domain, website setup, domain email, Office 365, business phone service and a CRM. When you buy from IGTech365 you are getting GoDaddy prices and technical support but IGTech365 will help you select and configure everything. The first thing to do is to find a domain (website URL) that is available. When you find one, buy misspelling and like variations. For example I also purchased www.bushhogservices.com because it is one letter off from the main website URL and I do not want someone else to buy it.
I recommend using WordPress with a theme. WordPress is a website framework (like the plumbing, electrical and wood framing of a home) and a theme is the drywall, furniture and decorations that makes it look good. A theme makes building a great looking website very easy once you understand your way around.
This configuration gives you the control to make the site the way you want and make changes at any time. This website was built using the recommended configuration. If you want help doing these things contact www.igtech365.com. They will help you get setup as I described. There are lots of great videos on how to use Elegant themes and I can give you some pointers to get you started.
Other Marketing Tips
- Never trust anyone that says they can get you to the top of the search results. There is only 5 top spots on page 1 and 100 companies promising the top spot. The math does not work. They will suck you dry of your money and then give up.
- Establish your business on Bing Places for Business and Google MyBusiness. This is very important because when people search the web for bush hogging services your business will appear on the map in your area. Share images and videos to these once a week.
- Use yard signs from Amazon,. 100 signs with stands for $200. I stake them around the area I want to do business. Put out 10-20 and keep replacing and moving them. People will get used to seeing them and you will get calls.
- Obviously word of mouth is going to be the best way to grow. Doing a great job for every customer will lead to more work. You would be surprised at how many businesses don’t return calls or are unprofessional. These businesses make my life that much easier.
- Talk to your local feed stores, game processors and farm supplies store. Try to leave them business cards and make them aware of what you offer. If they send you a lead, reward them somehow so they are incentivized to do it again.
- Social media I a great and inexpensive way to get the word out. Routinely share your jobs on your feed. Be sure to share video on Facebook and twitter. Start a YouTube channel to host and share your video just like I did with you watching this video or reading the blog version. Start a business page on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn. Listen up because this is a pro tip. Use Hootsuite to publish to them all at once! If you don’t know how, get your teenager to help you figure it out. Hootsuite will save you a lot of time sharing the same content on multiple platforms. While writing this blog I received a 1.5 ac mowing job from Facebook! I will go see it this weekend to price it and go back to cut it.
- Videos are gold. Setup a YouTube channel to host your videos like I did. Share the videos on social media and you can use the share functions of YouTube to add video to your website like you see on this site.
- List your service on Craigslist in several markets. Add pictures and links to your website and YouTube page. Don’t list prices. Get people to call, then go meet them and set a price. You can bush hog two acres per hour if it is just a field. Add in travel time and other factors and give them a job price. If you get a bunch of surprises like a lot of debris hidden in the brush, you can try to raise the rate. “This job will be $250 provided there are no surprises like junk or barbwire in the brush.”
- Network at your church, sporting events or other social gatherings.
- Join your chamber of commerce. Just being listed in the directory might result in a job.
- Put signs on your truck doors.
Getting to work
- Never forget two things 1. Time is money 2. Your time is valuable. People will try to downplay your time because they think we are glorified grass cutters. The reality is they can buy a tractor, deal with payments and headaches and do it themselves or they can pay you a fair rate. You are there because they don’t want all that goes along with owning a tractor.
- If you can do something your competition cannot, you have a niche. I chose to get a Baumalight tree cutter. I can cut and clear what a bush hog cannot for a price below a forestry mulcher. It is a middle ground service that is unique. As I mentioned, 70% of my work has required the tree cutter. Forestry mulchers are $125-250/hr when my average is $75-$100/hr.
- Try to finish the job in a full day. Coming back to do 2 more hours is super inefficient. Be sure you can stay as long as needed to finish the job and move to the next. Driving time is wasted time. It costs you fuel, depreciation and labor dollars and you are not making more on the job. If it is 18 hours of work, work two nine hour days, not two 8 hour days and a 2 hour day.
- Work jobs that need continuous work like mowing a campus, mowing hunting fields 2-3 times per, helping farms with short term projects like hay bailing each summer. This will build guaranteed and predictable income each year making each year a little better and easier.
- Carry enough fuel to work a full day and bring your lunch. Breaking for either will reduce your productivity per hour below target levels. If you get to a point where you are turning down jobs, raise your prices a little and take quick break for lunch but always have fuel.
- If you can get farm diesel from the local co-op and carry it in 75-100 gal tank on your trailer, you will save a lot by not paying taxes at the pump. Fuel will be one of your biggest expenses so reducing it by 40% is a big deal.
- Be mindful of the weather. Getting stuck in the mud can consume your entire day. Mowing wet grass will give you an inferior result. Instead of working a job, reschedule and do maintenance or other things you should not be doing on a sunny work day. Be smart and efficient at all times.
- Once you become a commercial entity you will be subject to electronic driver logs and commercial regulations. Research what is need to be compliant for ELD, what safety gear and paperwork is needed, and how to pass a DOT roadside inspection. If you get placed out of service on the side of the road, you will have big issues. Click here to get an ELD system.
- Having your tractor properly secured and your truck looking organized may just get you past the DOT officer. If you look like a hot mess, you are likely in violation because you are disorganized and unsafe.
- Get a GPS tracking system for your equipment and for vehicles when you hire employees. This increases your chance of recovery and you can monitor productivity when you hire workers. You can be sure they are driving your vehicles safely and only for work. Fleetistics can help you with a low-cost starter GPS tracking system for equipment and vehicles on the same platform as ELD.
If you have suggestions I would love to hear them. If I’m off basis, getting a correction posted is important. If you have read this far good luck with your business.
Author Eron Iler