by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Investing in a tractor represents a big part of any small farm’s budget. The selection can affect the farm’s efficiency and profitability. Especially if it’s a used tractor — which many farms may choose to keep costs down — the right tractor can really make a difference in the farm’s viability. No farm of any size and longevity needs big tractor repair bills. That’s why Jason Hartschuh, an agriculture extension educator with Ohio State, presented “How to Buy the Right Tractor for Your Small Farm” at the recent New York Farm Show.

“You need to ask yourself, ‘What will your tractor need to do?’” Hartschuh said.

Tasks could include loader work, hay making, woods work, plowing snow, tillage and more. Listing the activities can help you look for the features and traits you need to find in a tractor.

Mechanical front-wheel drive (MFWD) or two-wheel drive? That depends upon whether you plan to operate it in winter, such as for snow removal, moving hay and manure spreading, or just use it during the summer months for the growing season. Hartschuh said MFWD will offer better traction for wet conditions.

When inspecting a potential purchase among used tractors, look for loose universal joints, which could indicate an expensive repair, Hartschuh advised.

Low oil levels can indicate poor maintenance and undue wear.

Uneven wear on the tires shows they’re not paired correctly and, again, poor maintenance.

Take it for a test drive. If the clutch isn’t working right, “you’ll have a few thousand in repair bills,” Hartschuh said. He said dry clutches are less expensive to rebuild, “but you will have to rebuild them more often.”

Compare the cost of repair and downtime to determine which option is better for your farm. Your own ability to perform the work also makes a big difference in cost, since the labor costs represent a large portion of the repair expense.

It’s also important to look for cracks on the frame of older models. “You can weld them, but it will be weaker,” Hartschuh said.

For those with livestock operations, tractors that start easily make it easier to perform winter chores. Cabs can also make those chores more comfortable and, in some cases, safer.

Tractors with a loader need more than a rollover protective structure (ROPS) bar. Cabs can also protect the operator. “ROPS won’t stop a bale from rolling back,” Hartschuh said as an example.

Tractors manufactured before 1940 likely won’t have ROPS. Since tractor roll-over accidents account for more farm deaths than any other reason, it’s important to have professional ROPS and other safety equipment installed. Without a seatbelt, the operator cannot stay within the protection of the ROPS and can be crushed by the equipment designed to save life or by the tractor itself.

Consider the implements you plan to attach. “Hydraulics aren’t created equal,” Hartschuh said. “If you want to buy one tractor, make sure they’re the same on the tractor as the equipment you want to use.”

Hydraulics can vary in flow capacity, pump type, open center or closed center. With open center, there’s a constant flow of oil at all times and oil goes to the cooler or reservoir in neutral. With closed center, the variable oil flow pump slows or stops when the remote is in the neutral position. “The tractor has the ability to control oil flow to implement and there’s better oil cooling,” Hartschuh said.

He added that with hydraulics, it’s also important to pressure test the psi. “Worn out check valves can cause major problems,” he said. “The reservoir needs to be vented and can plug up with dirt sometimes.”

Will you need a PTO to operate equipment?

“You can add power take-offs, but it’s another expense you will have to plan,” Hartschuh said.

Farming isn’t generally noted as a cushy occupation; however, Hartschuh said operator comforts can be one factor in choosing a tractor, including the ability to get on and off the tractor easily.

“If you’re on and off the tractor multiple times a hour, you want to get off without moving controls every time,” he said.

While ear plugs and muffs can reduce noise level, “you don’t want to be the old man always saying, ‘What?’” Hartschuh said.

A sunshade and easy-to-reach controls can also help workdays seem a little shorter. But should the day stretch into evening, headlights can help get the job done.

If you want to upgrade with equipment like monitors and auto steer, look for a tractor that allows these add-ons. “Many planters, balers, and harvesters have monitors which can clutter a cab fast,” Hartschuh said.

Choosing new or used brings advantages and disadvantages.

“Used is less money,” Hartschuh said. “It is also usually for the mechanically inclined.”

He added that used leased equipment with return low hour can make a great option as a compromise between expensive new equipment and used equipment that will need parts and labor.

“The older the used machine, the less electronics and simpler they are to maintain and keep running,” Hartschuh said. “In most situations look for a machine under 5,000 hours. No matter the age, hours cause most of the wear.”

Buyers should also compare the cost of parts and service, along with the warranty that new equipment offers.

“Make sure it comes from a trusted dealer you can call for the warranty service,” Hartschuh said. “New machines can be harder to work on. Some computer controls are proprietary and illegal to be serviced by anyone besides the dealer.” He added that may be changing soon, however.

Beyond dealers, look for a tractor to buy from neighbors, classified ads, retirement sales, consignment sales and online auctions.

As for fuel type, gas and diesel “both can get the job done but there is a reason diesel has won,” Hartschuh said. “Gas usually starts easier in the winter.”

He added that usually a used gas machine needs carbonator work if used for daily chores. It’s also getting hard to get good ignition parts.

“Diesel has more torque and uses less fuel,” Hartschuh said. “It can have longer engine life. You don’t have to apply for a fuel tax refund; you can get off road fuel instead.”

Diesels are more expensive to rebuild, however.

Inspection of a potential purchase starts visually. “Shiny paint looks nice but also hides history,” Hartschuh said. “Lots of dents may show previous owner didn’t take care of the tractor. Look for caked dirt around any fittings or joints. That may be a sign of a leak.”

Buyers should:

  • Check front and rear engine and transmission seals
  • Notice how old filters look — a sign of how long the tractor sat
  • Check to see if the sticker model matches the serial plate
  • Notice wear on draw bar, 3-point hitch
  • Check controls for linkage wear

The hands-on inspection should include:

  • Checking oil level and quality on dip stick
  • Looking for any sign of water in oil
  • Checking for blue, white, or continuous black smoke — should clear quickly unless under load
  • Checking for any frame or axle welds
  • Checking the alternator and electrical system

The operator’s station should include looking at:

  • Seat quality. “You will spend a lot of time here,” Hartschuh said. “A high quality seat is expensive, but worth the money 12 hours later.”
  • Handles on controls
  • Shift lever and panel wear
  • Cab foam insulation
  • Window seals
  • Control knobs — do they all turn?
  • Steering hand pump by turning wheel prior to starting
  • Tire wear

Buyers should start the tractor and listen for any sounds of the engine knocking.

“Open the radiator look for bubbles,” he said. “Open the engine fill port, observe gases. Open all other fluids, looking for foaming and gases and film in the oil fill port.”

Other inspection points include steering, hydraulic remote, PTO, lights, hour meter and heat and air conditioning in the cab.

As with many areas of life, it may pay to go big when purchasing a tractor.

“Determine the largest implement you have or plan to purchase in 10 years,” Hartschuh said. “Undersized tractors can be dangerous to operators and will be damaged when worked too hard.”

But don’t go too big.

“Over-sized tractors use more fuel, are less maneuverable, cause more compaction, have more expensive parts,” Hartschuh said.