How to Select the Best Tractor for Your Homestead

How to select the best tractor for your homestead, including basics on how a tractor works, and selecting the right tractor for your land.
By the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Editors
November/December 1985
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If a small landowner is interested in purchasing a used tractor, a gasoline-powered vehicle is probably a better choice than a diesel.
PHOTO: FOTOLIA/SASCHA BURKARD


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Learn how to select the best tractor for your homestead with these handy tips. 

Choosing and Using a Tractor Part I

If you live on and work a piece of land of any size, you'll eventually find yourself faced with a task that human muscles alone simply can't handle. Perhaps you'll need to spread five tons of lime over a couple of acres of rundown pasture, or drag some kitchen-sink-sized stones from the vegetable garden. Maybe you'll have stumps to pull, logs to skid, or acres of brushy land to mow, plow, harrow, and seed to grass.

And when that time comes, you'll have two choices. One is to hire someone with a tractor—or perhaps a team of horses—and the appropriate implements to do the job for you. Most communities have a "custom" worker who can be called upon to do plowing, harrowing, seeding, mowing, and other tasks for a set hourly rate. If the job you have in mind is a one-shot or occasional deal, such as preparing a new garden patch, that may be the best approach for you.

But if you find that you could use the services of a tractor more or less regularly, you may decide to select the best tractor for your homestead and invest the money you spend hiring others to work for you might better be put toward a machine of your own. After all, when hiring work out, it's rarely possible to have it done exactly when you'd like it to be—when the field first becomes dry enough in the spring, or when the hay is just right for cutting because there may be others in line ahead of you, or because the custom worker has a job to do on his or her own land.

By owning your own tractor, you'll be able to light into those big jobs when you're ready, not when someone else is. And if you have the time and inclination, you may be able to offset some of the cost of that capability by doing some custom work yourself for others in the area.

How a Tractor Works: The Basics

Everyone knows what a tractor looks like: It has two big, cleated tires in back, two smaller ones in front, a steering wheel, and a seat for the driver. What's less obvious, though, is that a tractor is much more than a powerful pulling machine with low gearing and high ground clearance. To understand that fully, let's take a look at the simplest type of "tractor" I know of.

In northern New England, where I live, the doodlebug is fairly common. These are make-do farm machines improvised by taking an old pickup truck—usually one so badly corroded from exposure to road salt that it can no longer be used on the highway—and stripping it down to a bare motor and chassis. The springs are blocked up for increased clearance, and oversized tires are mounted, often fitted with chains for better traction. The result is a singularly ugly machine, but one that works surprisingly well for light-duty chores-hauling pumpkins from the back field, dragging a hay rake, or cruising the edges of the woodlot for firewood.

Still, there are many more jobs that a doodlebug can't handle, because it lacks two vital features found on nearly all tractors. The first is a power take-off, or PTO.

A PTO is a splined shaft driven by the vehicle's engine. It's located behind the operator's seat, between the drive wheels, so that when implements like balers, mowing machines, manure spreaders, and rotary tillers are drawn by the tractor, they can be powered by a detachable drive shaft extension. The utility of the PTO isn't limited to running field machinery, though. A wide variety of other implements can be PTO-driven, as well. And since a live PTO can be engaged when the tractor is in neutral, it makes a tractor into a versatile stationary power unit. (Be warned, though, that not all PTO systems allow this!) A partial listing of commercially available PTO-powered devices would include winches, arc welders, air compressors, cement mixers, posthole augers, irrigation pumps, and electric generators.

Another advantage the doodlebug doesn't have is a three point hitch, which means that implements can only be fastened to it with a simple one-point arrangement, in the same way you'd attach a small boat trailer to the back bumper of a car. That system is satisfactory for implements that simply need to be dragged along behind-such as a set of smoothing harrows or a wagon-but when closer control is required, things can get considerably more complicated.

Plowing with a one-point hitch, for example, calls for the use of a trailer plow. As its name implies, the trailer plow rides on wheels; the depth of its bite is regulated with a system of levers, ratchets, and control rods. While that system works—similar controls have been used with horse-drawn machinery for more than a hundred years—it's cumbersome to adjust and makes for long-bodied implements that are difficult to turn around in a confined space.

The three-point-hitch plow is much simpler. The two lift arm pins on the plow fit into sockets in the lift arms on the tractor and are secured with snap-on linchpins. The upper end of the plow frame is attached to the tractor with an adjustable top link. Once the plow is mounted on the tractor, it can be precisely controlled from the driver's seat. By moving a control lever, the operator activates a powerful hydraulic cylinder that raises or lowers the lift arms and determines how deeply the plow bites into the soil.

The three-point hitch makes it much easier to turn around at the end of a row, too, since the implement fastened to the hitch can be lifted clear of the ground, reducing the assembly's turning radius to that of the tractor alone. Furthermore, three-point-hitch implements are easier to transport, particularly if you ever need to take your tractor on a public road. A set of three-point disc harrows, for example, can be taken anywhere you can drive the tractor, provided that you raise the hitch enough to keep them from digging into the roadway—but the road commissioner is not going to be pleased if he finds you pulling a set of drag harrows along the centerline, slicing the asphalt behind you as you go. (That sort of use won't do the harrows much good, either.)

Finally, hydraulics provide increased traction for heavy pulling chores. Imagine, for instance, that you want to drag a big stone out of your potato patch. To do that, you'll mount a drawbar between the lift arms of the three-point hitch, and fasten a pin-mounted grab hook to the drawbar. Once the offending rock has been dug free to the point that a heavy chain can be fastened around it, the chain's other end can be fastened to the hook. Then you can simply ease the tractor ahead until the chain grows taut, and carefully add more throttle until the stone comes loose.

How do the hydraulics come into play? Well, if the stone gives up as easily as the one just described, you won't need them. In many cases, though, you'll find that the tractor's wheels begin to spin before the stone surrenders its grip on the soil. There's no easy solution to that problem if your tractor isn't equipped with hydraulics. If it is, however, you only need to back up until the drawbar is as close to the rock as possible, refasten the chain to eliminate any slack, and raise the lift arm a few inches. That serves to raise the stone slightly, transferring some of its weight to the drive wheels—the same idea as placing some cement blocks or a bag of sand in the back of a pickup truck for better traction on slippery wintertime roads.

I've gotten ahead of myself, though. Pulling stones is more properly a topic for Part II of this article, which will deal with some of the specifics of safe and efficient tractor operation. But having brought the subject up, I should go on to caution you that there's such a thing as too much traction. Attempting to pull too heavy a load with too heavy a hand on the throttle and the drawbar raised too high can cause a tractor to pivot on its rear axle and flip over backward—with perhaps fatal consequences for the operator.

Selecting the Right Tractor

One aspect of choosing a tractor that probably isn't particularly important, except as it relates to the availability of good service or spare parts, is the manufacturer's name painted on the side of the machine. Most of the firms around today produce, and have produced, good and reliable tractors. So don't pay too much attention to the nameplate, but do concentrate on the features offered.

And what are those features? Foremost among them is horsepower. If you delve into tractor manuals, sales brochures, or other references, you'll notice that two horsepower ratings are usually given for each machine. PTO horsepower is the higher value, and refers to the energy output available at the power take-off when the tractor is stationary—the power available, in other words, for operating water pumps, generators, and other accessories. (PTO horsepower is sometimes called belt horsepower, since stationary implements driven by older tractors often ran on a flat belt-and-pulley arrangement, rather than on a drive shaft coupled directly to the PTO.)

Drawbar horsepower, typically 10% to 15% lower than the PTO horsepower, measures the pulling force available at the drawbar when the tractor is in motion. It's less than the PTO horsepower-which, roughly speaking, is the total output of the engine-because some power is consumed in wheel slippage and in moving the dead weight of the tractor itself. Drawbar horsepower is the more commonly used power rating, so all the recommendations I'll be making here are based on it.

For all-around use, a tractor of 25 to 30 horsepower is a good choice. If you'll be doing mostly heavy work, however—such as large-scale rotary tilling, mowing brush, skidding logs, or plowing heavy clay soil—a 35-horsepower model is even better. In any case, I feel that there's little point in opting for anything with less than 20 horsepower unless, of course, you're looking for a machine that will only be mowing the lawn and maintaining a one-family garden.

If a small landowner is interested in purchasing a used tractor, a gasoline-powered vehicle is probably a better choice than a diesel. Gasoline engines run at a much lower compression than do diesels, which means that they tend to age more gracefully. It's easier to get gasoline than diesel fuel, and it's convenient to be able to fill your tractor, lawn mower, and tiller—and, in a pinch, your car—from the same fuel container. New diesel engines, on the other hand, are remarkably trouble-free-but when you're dealing with one that's 25 years old, problems are a lot more likely to crop up.

Virtually all tractors manufactured within the past ten or fifteen years are of the wide-front-end type—that is, the front wheels are spaced as far apart as the rear ones. Before that time, though, tricycle-type tractors were more popular. In the tricycle design, the two front wheels are placed very close together or are replaced by a single wheel. Both types have their advantages and disadvantages. In older tractors not equipped with power steering, the tricycle configuration made turning easier by giving the steering increased leverage against the wheels. Tricycle tractors were—and are—considered good choices for row-crop cultivation, because there's no wide front axle to interfere with forward visibility at ground level.

A disadvantage of the tricycle design is that it does not steer well on slippery surfaces or on light, sandy soil. Under those conditions, the closely spaced front wheels often skid sideways when turned, rather than biting in and bringing the front of the tractor around as they should. Of greater concern is the fact that tricycle-type tractors are inherently less stable than their wide-stanced counterparts, and are more subject to a deadly sideways rollover when driven on irregular or sloping terrain.

The decision in your case should be based on where you will use the tractor, and what sorts of jobs you'll be performing with it. If, for instance, you'll be using your tractor primarily for making hay on flat or gently sloping fields, a narrow front end need cause you no anxiety. A wide front end is a better and safer choice for use on rocky or irregular ground, or if you plan to venture into the woodlot to move logs or firewood. Many older tractor models were manufactured in both a tricycle and wide-front-end version, so if you're responding to an ad for a used implement, be sure to ask, if the front end type is not specified.

Finally, consider hitch and implement compatibility. Earlier, in discussing hitch types, I implied that all hydraulic-equipped tractors utilized the three-point-hitch system. I was simplifying things a bit. The three-point linkage is now the industry-wide standard, but in the past many tractor manufacturers incorporated a hydraulic lift system of their own design, such as Allis-Chalmers' Snap-Coupler hitch and the Farmall Fast Hitch. Those and other designs required matching implements, usually manufactured by the same company.

It's just possible that you'll find a tractor with such a nonstandard hitch already equipped with every implement you need and that you'll buy the whole outfit at once. If, as is far more likely, the attachments don't accompany the machine, you'll probably want to continue looking or adapt the existing hitch to accept the more widely available three-point-hitch implements you're bound to acquire later. That's not necessarily a severe problem. Conversion kits are readily available to fit most tractor makes and models that require them. (Sears, Roebuck and Company is one source of hitch adapters—check its farm and ranch catalog for details. Another is the Central Tractor Farm & Family Center, Des Moines, IA. Central Farm also sells a good guide to used tractor models, Farm Tractors 1950-1975, for $17.25 postpaid.) Still, the kits aren't cheap. Prices range from $200 to $600—and that amounts to a stiff jump in the price of the tractor. Sometimes it will be worth it, sometimes not.

When taking a tractor-particularly a used one-for a test run, think about the same things you would when buying a car. You want a machine that runs well and is in good condition mechanically. Scratched paint, rust spots on the sheet metal body, dents and dings in the fenders—none of these have much bearing on how well the tractor will perform. The following checklist includes some of the most important points that do have a direct bearing on performance:

[1] How are the tires? Front tires for the size tractor we're talking about run $50 each, or thereabouts, while new rear tires will set you back $150 to $250 apiece.

[2] Check the brakes. Unlike the brakes in your car, which are designed to keep you from running into things, tractor brakes are primarily an aid to steering, so each rear wheel will have its own brake pedal. Brakes that grab unevenly are a sign of bent drums, while squawking brakes probably need new shoes. Oil or grease leaking from the brake drums could point to more serious (and expensive) trouble.

[3] The engine should start easily and run without coughing, misfiring, or otherwise misbehaving. Thick, blue or black exhaust smoke probably indicates that the engine is badly worn and needs rings, valves, or both.

[4] Check the hydraulic fluid dipstick—which is usually located near the back of the tractor and the crankcase oil dipstick, which will be up front on the side of the engine. Dirty oil is a sign of poor maintenance, as is cloudy hydraulic fluid.

[5] Stand next to one of the back wheels and push in on the top of it, then pull outward. If you detect a significant amount of play, the axles and hubs are probably worn and may need to be replaced. That will cost several hundred dollars.

[6] Look under the tractor for oil or hydraulic fluid leaks. All old tractors drip a little bit, but excessive leakage should give you pause.

[7] Engage the PTO by stepping on the clutch and switching the lever near the driver's seat. It should turn steadily and smoothly-a grinding noise is bad news.

Just about all recently manufactured tractors utilize a 6-splined PTO shaft 1-3/8 inches in diameter, and that's the size that most PTO-driven implements are designed to accept. Some older.tractors, though—notably the Ferguson T020 and T030, Ford 9N, 8N, and NAA, and several other Ford models manufactured until the mid-'50s—came equipped with smaller, 11/8 inch shafts.

Adapters to step those slimmer shafts up to the now-standard 1-3/8 inch diameter are inexpensive and readily available. The adapters, however, often break when subjected to sudden stress. If you will be doing much haying or other demanding tasks that require the PTO, you'll probably want to replace the original shaft with a beefier 1-3/8 inch one. That's a surprisingly simple operation, but it will set you back about $100. (Be sure to buy a complete PTO conversion kit, rather than just a bare replacement shaft.)

[8] Raise the lift arms with some weight on them—if no implements are handy, you should at least stand on the drawbar—and leave them in the raised position for a few minutes. Occasional "hiccuping" is par for the course, but if the hydraulics can't keep the load up, or if it bobs up and down, the system is in need of an overhaul.

With the above information, you know enough to begin looking for a tractor of your own and given some patience, common sense, and perhaps a little luck, you'll find the one you need. I'll be back next issue to go into some detail about tractor-drawn implements, safety, maintenance, and repairs


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