One of the most pressing questions you’ll face when purchasing a tractor for your farm or acreage is, “What size of tractor do I need?” This is an essential question, and answering it correctly requires a good understanding of how you intend to use the tractor.
Prices for both new and used tractors climb dramatically based on horsepower, so too much tractor can mean money wasted. But, if the tractor you choose is underpowered, you’ll run the risk of damaging it through stress or simply by not being able to use it for its intended purpose.
When my wife and I purchased our rural property, buying a tractor was one of our first priorities. But with all the manufacturers and models, I was at a loss for where to start my search. I sat down at the table and made a list of questions I had to answer based on my personal needs. That full list is later in the article, and the following factors are things I took into consideration before buying my tractor.
Subcompact or Compact Utility Tractors
Start by determining how you’ll use the tractor. If your main uses will involve mowing, moving snow, light tilling, and some loading, a lot of subcompact, compact utility, and utility tractors can handle those chores with ease.
A variety of manufacturers and engine configurations are available in the subcompact and compact utility market. These tend to have a horsepower rating in the 18 to 40 range. These tractors can be configured with many different options, but most come with a live power takeoff (PTO), a three-point hitch, and hydraulics for lifting and moving attachments.
The versatility of these smaller-framed tractors has been greatly improved by the development of attachments for the market. Everything from posthole augers, log splitters, snow blowers, and even small backhoes for ditching and digging can make a smaller tractor a workhorse on your land. Some companies even make small hay-baling equipment for the compact utility market, but the equipment can be expensive and isn’t readily available in much of the country. If your needs for hay would involve more than 100 bales of hay a year, a heavy-framed utility tractor with a higher horsepower rating may suit you better.
While subcompact and compact utility tractors are quite capable of handling multiple tasks on small acreages, if your needs go beyond the basics, you may need to move up a tractor size.
If you’ve decided you want to be able to do everything mentioned previously, but you also want to put up hay or prepare fields larger than a few acres, check out the “utility” category. Utility tractors start with a minimum rating of 40 horsepower and go up to 100 horsepower.
Tractors in this category are designed for more production-centered farms and are larger-framed to handle the increased volume and stress associated with heftier chores. Utility tractors on the lower end of the horsepower rating can easily handle small square bales, but higher-horsepower tractors are best equipped to put up large round bales.
When equipped with a loader, utility tractors can move serious amounts of materials. They’re also fast when turning or raking hay. When used for preparing fields for planting, matching the size of the tillage equipment to the size of the utility tractor is important.
Another nice benefit of the utility tractor market is that a good supply of used haying equipment is available that’s matched to the horsepower range of the tractors. This will help keep your initial costs more affordable if you’re just starting to purchase your equipment.
New or Used Tractors
Deciding whether to purchase a new or used tractor involves not only monetary considerations, but also your comfort level with buying something a previous owner decided to part with. While a new tractor usually comes with at least a one-year warranty, buying on the used market can sometimes be a roll of the dice when it comes to engine or component longevity.
A lot of good manufacturers are in the tractor market these days, which translates into a competitive market for buyers. Quality equipment doesn’t necessarily have to come in green, blue, or red, but make sure you do your research. The reason the big three have been around so long is because of their reputation for quality and a good resale market.
Also note that different regions of the country tend to have tractor brands that are more popular based on factors such as dealer support and parts availability. Do your homework and ask your tractor-owning neighbors what their experience has been with their equipment and who they purchased it from.
If you decide your finances won’t allow you to purchase a new tractor, but you’re a little nervous about buying a used one on the open market, consider working with a dealer on used equipment. In most cases, they probably sold the equipment to the original owner, so they’ll know whether it’s been serviced and what condition it’s in. Also, dealers often stand by used equipment they sell for at least a few hours of operation to guarantee you some level of warranty after you drive away from the dealership.
If you do want to purchase a new tractor, some good incentive packages are offered on new equipment, with zero percent financing for up to 60 months and sometimes longer. Plus, new equipment carries a manufacturer’s warranty that will give you that extra level of confidence and peace of mind when making a significant investment.
Diesel or Gasoline
When considering whether to purchase a new or used tractor, you’ll also need to understand the difference between gas and diesel engines. Most new tractors use diesel fuel as opposed to gasoline, even in the smaller subcompact market.
Diesel engine popularity over gasoline comes down to the difference in how the engine is constructed. Diesels use high pressure for combustion, which eliminates spark plugs, carburetors, and other ignition components that will fail or need to be replaced in a gasoline engine. Diesel fuel also delivers more power per gallon and better fuel efficiency.
Diesels are harder to start in cold weather, and if you should run out of fuel, you’ll need to bleed the air out of the lines — which may mean a trip to the dealer if you aren’t comfortable working on them yourself.
If you’re considering a used tractor, one of the benefits of a gas tractor is that a lot of gasoline tractors are on the market, with some of them older than 50 and still running great. If you’re comfortable working on your own equipment, gasoline engines may be a good choice compared with diesels, which require a more unique set of mechanical knowledge.
I’ve briefly touched on a few of the standard options that are found on most all utility tractors, such as a PTO for running implements, a three-point hitch for connecting implements, and hydraulics to help with raising and lowering the connected implements. But will you need other features?
A loader for the front of the tractor is one of the most popular options. The ability to load and haul anything from dirt to manure, and the ability to carry large round hay bales with a bale fork, are all timesavers and additional justification for owning the tractor.
If you live in a part of the country that experiences cold weather, you should invest in an engine-block heater. This is a fairly inexpensive addition that will almost guarantee that you’ll be able to start your tractor when you need it on cold mornings.
Having four-wheel drive capability won’t always keep you from getting stuck, but it will help you cover varied terrain more safely, and it will provide more traction for pulling equipment and using your loader. Mechanical front-wheel drive (MFWD) may add to the cost of the tractor, but it’s an option that you’ll be glad you invested in when you need it, and one that will hold its value on resale.
You’ll also want to see whether the tractor has remote hydraulic ports at the rear if you plan to operate rear implements that require hydraulic power of any kind. Tractors can also be retrofitted with remote parts, but sometimes the cost of just the parts can exceed $1,000.
According to a study published by the University of Iowa College of Public Health, 10 percent of farm workers in the United States are likely to be injured each year. The study goes on to say that tractors are a particularly dangerous source of injuries, with most injuries sustained from perilous tractor rollovers.
One of the benefits of a newer-model tractor is that the industry has spent a lot of time and research on developing safer tractors. The implementation of rollover protective structures (ROPS) on tractors starting around 1967 was part of a major push for tractor safety. To be effective, the ROPS need to be used in conjunction with a seat belt to keep the driver within the protective boundary. The use of ROPS will significantly improve your chances of not being injured in a rollover.
Other safety features on most newer tractors include automatic shutdown of the engine if you leave the seat of the tractor while it’s running, better braking control, improved caution and operating lighting, and better shielding of the PTO — another major source of farm-related injury.
Selecting the right tractor for your individual situation will require some thoughtful consideration, but if you take the time to define your intended use for the tractor and do some thoughtful research, you’ll find a lot of cost-effective tractor models to fit your unique needs.
Questions to Ask When Buying a New Tractor
• How will I use the tractor? Mowing, tilling, loader work, or to put up hay?
• How much horsepower do I need?
• Will I use gas or diesel?
• How much does power takeoff (PTO) factor in?
• Do I need hydraulics? If so, how much?
• Do I need a loader on the tractor?
• How important is four-wheel drive?
• How safe is it to operate?
• Should I buy new or used?
• Will I be able to find dealer support for repairs?