Tractor Talk: A Rookie's Guide to Buying a Tractor

A rookie's guide to adding some mechanical muscle to your horsepower collection. By Joanne Meszoly for EQUUS magazine.
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The property of your dreams is finally yours: a 12-acre spread with house, barn, a few paddocks and a large field for your horses to romp around. The first month or so is nothing but delight as you savor the joys of farm ownership and having your horses on your own land at last. But then the honeymoon ends; the reality of just how much work is involved sets in.

©EQUUS Magazine. All Rights Reserved.

©EQUUS Magazine. All Rights Reserved.

The fields need mowing, a section of rotting fence posts has to be replaced, and the mammoth, ever-growing manure pile must be disposed of. And there you are with a wheelbarrow, hand implements and push mower whose only motive power is you. Suddenly, you've developed an overwhelming urge to go shopping for some more horsepower--the kind produced by farm tractors.

Whether it's too many horses, too much land, too little time or all of the above, you've reached the point in your life with horses where you can't operate without a tractor to do the hauling, mowing, heavy lifting, pulling, digging and more. Built to perform on rough terrain and produce impressive amounts of horsepower, tractors provide the means to tackle the daunting jobs required in keeping up a larger farm property. Yet operating a tractor is a demanding exercise, both physically and mentally. Steering, shifting gears and depressing the clutch require more effort than the pedals and wheel of a car, and contending with uneven ground and maneuvering around your farm are more challenging than cruising down the highway in a car. Safety is a major concern in tractor operation, demanding full focus and knowledge from the driver and others working around the machinery.

To the tractor novice, buying and operating one of these mechanical monsters can be intimidating, but once you let the right one into your life, you'll wonder how you ever lived without it--just like with flesh-and-blood horses. Here's how to take stock of your needs and find the machinery to make managing your dream property less of a trial.

When Does a Tractor Pay Off?
In calculating your need for tractor power, consider the size of your acreage, the terrain, the horse population and your management practices. Manure handling and pasture maintenance are the two horse-farm jobs most likely to involve routine tractor use, yet your particular circumstances may exempt you from this major purchase. If, for example, your horses are not stabled or your property is largely wooded, a tractor might be underutilized. Likewise, if you have fewer than three acres that require mowing maybe two or three times annually, you can probably get by using the same mower you use for your yard. In these smaller setups, you can minimize the need to mow even further by your management practices.

"Cross-fence your pastures into smaller portions using temporary fencing," suggests Alayne Blickle, director of the environmental horsekeeping program Horses for Clean Water in King County, Wash., "and use your horses as lawn mowers to intensively graze the areas."

The larger riding lawn mowers or garden tractors may provide enough power to help out with the chores on horse properties as large as about five acres. "They are much more maneuverable for small grazing areas, and a garden tractor with 16 to 18 horsepower can pull some implements," says Blickle. Riding mowers at the upper end of their seven- to 25-horsepower range may be able to push a snow blade or pull a small chain harrow or ground-driven manure spreader.

If, however, your property exceeds five acres of mowable pasture, if the terrain is rugged or if you regularly do chores demanding more horsepower, you've entered real tractor territory. "There's no hard-and-fast guide to counting horses and considering terrain and tractor needs, but the more horses you have and the more time they're stabled, the more bedding and stall waste you'll have to move," says Garry Stephenson, an extension faculty member with Oregon State University. "And for any grazing-based farm, be it for cattle or horses, mowing is essential for the health of the pasture and for weed control."

Tractors range from 16-horsepower models for the small "farmette" to 500-horsepower machines for huge commercial operations. Although the horsepower designations of lawn/garden equipment may overlap with those of smaller tractors, their "horses" are two different animals entirely. The 16-horsepower lawn mower is lighter weight and equipped with an air-cooled engine and smaller tires. The same horsepower in a small tractor has a water-cooled engine, larger tires and heavier frame that provide the traction and toughness needed for farmwork.

How Much Tractor Do You Need?
Given a suitable tractor, appropriate implements and the skill to operate them, you'll be able to take on upkeep chores, such as fencing, grading driveways, clearing debris and maintaining arena footing, that otherwise you'd pay someone else to do or simply let slide as beyond your physical capabilities.

But how, precisely, do you determine a tractor's suitability for your setup? First of all, forget about all the things that matter when choosing a car--its make, model, year, mileage and luxury features. Tractors are all about work. Draw up a job list you expect the fuel-powered workhorse to perform, and let that be your guide. Farm-equipment dealers are the primary resources in deciding which tractor will best power the implements needed to do the jobs under your farm conditions.

According to Hood Geisbert, an implement dealer with 50 years' experience in Urbana, Md., most horse-farm owners choose compact tractors with 16 to 45 horsepower. Exactly where in that power range depends on your plans for the machine. "Talk to a reliable dealer and tell him what you plan to do, how many horses, how much property," says Geisbert. "Then check with a neighbor and friends to see if they agree with the dealer's recommendation."

Invest in a little more tractor than your job list demands. If you buy the bare-minimum horsepower to operate the implements routinely used, the machine will be in a constant state of strain and more likely to fail. Additionally, by buying the lowest possible performance, you won't have the power you need for occasional larger jobs, such as resurfacing a track.

"Go in there realistically looking at what you plan to do with your tractor," advises Stephenson. "If all you plan to do is mow and a few other things, then a lower horsepower tractor is fine, about 35 hp or less. But the minute you think about real 'farming,' like making hay, you're going to need at least that much and probably something more like 50 horsepower." At the same time, beware of overbuying power and size. A large tractor takes plenty of maneuvering room and runs into roadblocks in small sheds and gates. "You don't want to get a 70-horsepower tractor with the idea that you might make hay but then discover that the tractor is too big to get in your barn or down the aisle," says Stephenson.

One way to get more useful power without sacrificing maneuverability in smaller-farm circumstances is to buy a tractor with four-wheel drive. The additional thousands of dollars expended for this feature pay for greater stability on slick, steep or rough terrain. What's more, four-wheel drive does less damage to the ground than a two-wheel-drive machine trying to keep traction on a slippery surface. "It allows you to do more with a smaller tractor," says Geisbert, "and when you resell it, it's worth a whole lot more."

What Equipment Should You Buy?
Tractors are nothing but untapped power until they're paired with job-specific implements, which connect to that power in three different ways:

  • Via the drawbar for simple pulling
  • Through the power takeoff (PTO), a spinning driveshaft that connects to implements drawn behind and, with special installations, to "belly-mounted" and front-mounted equipment
  • By a hydraulic system powering cylinders that raise and lower a three-point hitch, usually on the rear of the tractor, a front-end loader/bucket and other movable attachments.

Even small tractors today have all three power options, but older used tractors may have only drawbars and PTOs, and if they're really ancient, there may also be a pulley on the side to operate a belt to a stationary machine, such as a feed grinder. The equipment you select needs to be matched with the tractor in size, power source and capacity, so before settling on a tractor, check out new or used must-have implements to be sure they're compatible.

Manure spreaders are the usual means for disposing of animal wastes onto cropland or pastures. An apron chain on the floor of the spreader bed is pulled from front to back, under the bed and back to the front again, to feed the litter to the "beaters," which flail the contents out behind. Most manure spreaders are powered by the PTO, which makes them capable of off-loading while the machine is standing still as well as while moving. The smaller-capacity, ground-driven models operate only as the wheels revolve.

Ground-driven models are mechanically simple with fewer breakable parts, but they may require more horsepower from the tractor than PTO-driven models because a lot of power is needed to draw the load and push the weighty manure through the beaters. Spreader capacity is measured in bushels (a large "muck" bucket holds roughly one bushel), and five-bushel to 40-plus-bushel models are available. On average, daily stall wastes per horse measure one to two bushels.

Mowers come in three types: sickle bar, hammer knife and rotary. A sickle mower has a series of triangular knives affixed to a bar that slides back and forth between a line of stationary fingerlike sections to slice grass stems close to the ground. A sickle bar is the usual cutting element in haymaking equipment because it leaves the grass stems whole in a swath to be later raked and turned to dry before baling. In a hammer-knife mower, a series of knives spin on a reel, producing a smooth finish and throwing the fine cuttings up and back.

Both sickle bars and hammer knives require somewhat skilled maintenance, leaving the rotary "bush/brush hog" as the usual choice for horse-property owners. Ranging in width from three feet to 26 feet, rotary mowers have one or more blades spinning parallel to the ground that throw the cuttings out to the side. The five- to 10-foot rotary mowers suitable for smaller horse farms require 25- to 50-horsepower tractors to pull them. They're popular, says Geisbert, because, "they're versatile and quick. You can mow almost anything you can run over with a rotary mower." Mowing implements most commonly attach to the drawbar or rear three-point hitch, but the "belly mount" between the tractor's front and rear wheels may be easier for a newcomer to operate. The machine remains in the driver's full view, without requiring continual turning around to keep an eye on a pulled implement, and it's simpler to maneuver through gates and around obstacles.

A front-end loader, or bucket, attached by two hydraulic arms, is a multiuse tool that can scoop, haul, dump and push heavy materials, such as manure, bedding, dirt, gravel and snow. Depending on tractor size, a bucket can lift anywhere from 500 to 3,000 pounds. Some horse owners use front-end loaders daily to move manure directly from stalls to composting heap.

A chain harrow, also called a drag, is a reinforced, weighted section of flat chain, usually with vertical spikes at intervals, used to aerate soil, break up pasture manure piles, dethatch turf after mowing and smooth and level arena or driveway surfaces. The dragged-behind harrow requires little horsepower and no PTO on the tractor. A moderately effective homemade harrow can be devised from a section of chain-link fence weighed down with tires or a stout log.

A tractor-drawn utility cart is a particularly useful implement if you don't have a flatbed truck or front-end loader to move heavy stuff around. You can use it to deliver feed to your pasture-kept horses, move manure, haul hay bales, clear field debris, reposition arena jumps and much, much more. Carts vary in capacity and weight, but even low-horsepower garden tractors can move a useful amount of carted material on easy terrain.

A scraper blade, typically mounted on a rear three-point hitch, is a useful leveling and earth-moving implement. In addition to using it to fill driveway potholes and do minor regrading, you can use a scraper to gather manure in run-in sheds and confinement areas into an easily scoopable pile for removal by the tractor bucket.

A posthole digger (auger) is a must-have only if you have miles of fence to install or maintain. The giant drill bit is turned by the PTO and raised on the three-point hitch, saving much backbreaking labor required of the manual posthole digger.

Haymaking equipment includes the mower-conditioner (often called a haybine) that crushes the hay stems after cutting for quicker curing, possibly a tedder to fluff the hay for quicker drying, a rake to gather and turn the windrows and the baler. You'll also need a wagon or two or a flatbed truck to haul the hay from the field to storage. As you can see, haymaking exacts a serious commitment in investment, effort and time, and you'll need sufficient acreage--30 acres minimum--to make it worth your while. As for the tractor power to run the machinery, 35 horsepower is rock-bottom, suitable for operating only the smallest haying-machinery implements.

What are the Alternatives to All New?
The $20,000-plus you might spend on a brand-new mechanical stable for your farmette is a step you're not likely to take lightly. Granted, the equipment can last you a lifetime when well chosen, faithfully tended and carefully used. Yet regular maintenance and occasional repairs will be ongoing expenses in addition to the purchase price. If you can't justify a hefty expenditure for all-new equipment, you can still find mechanical help for occasional needs or purchase used equipment.

For those periodic or one-time needs, such as pasture mowing and refencing, consider getting your mechanical muscle from the following sources:

Custom work--Hire a local farmer or commercial operator by the hour to apply his skill and equipment to the task. You may pay $200 to $300 for even a quick job, depending on the machinery required and the locale, but in comparison to ownership, that's pocket change.

Rent or lease--Check with local farm-equipment dealers on their rental or leasing policies, which are typically by the day or week. Rental costs vary by region; in Geisbert's area, rental of a 30-horsepower tractor costs in the neighborhood of $10 to $15 per hour or $75 to $100 per day. Although hiring a tractor frees you of maintenance and repair costs, you still may have some headaches with poorly functioning rental machinery. "Make sure the dealership stands by their equipment's proper operation and will handle breakdowns in a timely manner," advises Ray Antoniewicz, a former state extension horse specialist who owns a farm in Oregon, Wisconsin.

Turn to the neighbors--In a perfect world, you live near a good-natured, generous soul who's willing to exchange occasional use of his equipment for something of yours that's equally valuable to him. "Trade some of your firewood for the use of a pasture harrow," suggests Blickle. "If you have extra pasture, trade grazing privileges with a neighbor short on land in exchange for their posthole digger and fencing equipment." Even more mutually beneficial would be a local "cooperative" in which several small-farm owners share ownership of equipment all would use and benefit from. Though a cost-effective concept, the reality of two or more people being responsible for monthly payments, repairs, maintenance and equable usage of equipment can be rather dicey.

Shop for used--Used farm equipment may be adequate for your needs and certainly easier on your budget than brand-new. From-the-factory machinery, with its warranties, sophisticated engineering and easier handling, is generally more appealing than pre-owned, but cost can override all other considerations. Compared to cars, tractors have exceptionally long useful lives, so much so that 20-year-old tractors are still considered relatively new, and "old" often refers to models from the 1940s, '50s and early '60s. "One of the old favorites is the Ford 8N," says Stephenson. "They're from the 1940s, and they still work fine." While cars are valued by year and mileage, a tractor's age is measured in hours of use, which is tallied by an engine hour meter. "Most people don't put 200 hours on a tractor in one year," says Geisbert. Yet even a 40-year-old tractor with thousands of hours on the meter may do just fine for horse-farm chores. "Some tractors can make it 8,000 hours and longer if you take care of them," says Ron Schuler, a professor in the department of biological systems engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's college of agriculture and life sciences.

Used tractors and machinery can be found through classifieds, at auctions and from individual farmers, but unless you're a mechanical whiz, you're wise to buy a used machine from an established dealership that offers a limited warranty and follow-up service. In selecting a used tractor, steer clear of "tricycle" models with the front wheels set close together, as they are subject to tipping over and hard to steer on rough ground.

Like the tricycle style, gasoline-powered tractors have disappeared from the modern lineup, but you may be faced with a choice between gas and diesel on the used market. Gasoline power has some advantages over diesel, including the ready availability of fuel, better starting in cold weather and greater responsiveness (not that you'll want jackrabbit starts with your tractor), but mechanically, they're a lot more trouble. Moisture and long periods of idleness, both characteristic of tractor use, play havoc with carburetors and can easily lead to starting problems with a gas tractor. Diesel engines are more powerful, get more work per gallon and shrug off the effects of wetness or idleness. The fuel, being less volatile than gasoline, is also safer to store and to be driving into your sheds and stable. The reduced volatility is, however, the cause of starting problems during freezing conditions, and you'll have to use an engine warmer in colder climates to have the tractor ready to fire up in the morning. You're in bigger trouble, too, if you let a diesel engine run out of fuel. The air has to be pumped out of the system before the fuel injectors will work again, and that means a service call.

What are Your Ownership Obligations?
Until someone opens a drive-thru oil change and fluid check for tractors, you'll have to be the mechanic on duty to monitor fluids and basic operations. Fundamental maintenance includes regularly lubricating all fittings and moving parts (particularly the front-end loader), and checking and renewing the oil, the hydraulic fluid, battery water, tire pressure and filters. Set up a service schedule and stick to it, recording the information on a calendar or card for ready reference. Geisbert advises owners to service their tractors every spring and fall or, for machines in frequent use, every 100 hours.

Some dealers provide service trucks that travel to the farm for routine maintenance. Otherwise, you'll have to deliver the tractor to the service center, which may mean a long, slow road trip or expensive pickup and delivery service by the dealership. Expect to pay several hundred dollars for each maintenance visit if transportation is part of the package. They come at a cost, but devoted care and protection from the elements in a shed are keys to tractor longevity.

Shopping for a tractor can be as challenging as searching for the perfect horse. Not only are both major choices, but tractors, just like horses, require careful vetting for "soundness," appropriateness and safety. And once you've made your choice, remember that tractors do not operate exactly like cars and trucks, and you may feel like a beginner behind the wheel all over again. Give yourself time and a flat, uncluttered, unobstructed driving area to accustom yourself to operating the new machine. Tractors respond much less promptly to the controls than road vehicles do, and the consequences of driver error can be alarming. A tractor can damage or crush virtually anything in its path, be it a wheelbarrow, a fence post or a vehicle.

If you were not raised on a farm or have doubts about operating machinery, you may benefit from attending a tractor-training course. Some states offer educational programs in machinery operation and safety. "There are courses for younger drivers, but I've seen adults go through them, too," says Stephenson. "They teach you how to back the tractor, attach implements and prevent rollovers." To find out about classes in your area, contact a farm-machinery dealership or your county extension office. Again, the parallel to new-horse ownership holds true: There's no shame in seeking out expert instruction when you're unsure of managing that newcomer to your stable. Once you're comfortable and in control in the saddle/seat, you wouldn't give him/it up for the world.

This article originally appeared in the April 2002 issue of EQUUS magazine.