What You Need to Know… About Tractors

If you’ve been reading my work in this forum for any substantial length of time, you know that occasionally, I like to unplug from the burning issues of the moment and talk about something different…

Something that’s useful in an everyday sense — like how to get non-ethanol gas for your small engines and equipment, or truly spill-proof fuel cans. Or Americana stuff, like farm shows and iconic cars and historic places or events. You know, things that are on the lighter side.

Today is one of those days. It’s spring, and the weather’s warming up. So I’m going to take a break from the heavy issues to talk about something that’s timely to the season — and apparently becoming more important to an increasing number of Americans these days: Compact tractors.

Despite not being a farmer of any kind, I still get around in the local Ag, tractor, and equipment communities. Why? Because I love land. As I may have mentioned, I’ve been searching for the perfect small farmette or tucked-away plot of acreage for several years now. The kind of place where you need a tractor, in other words.

So in preparation for the day when I make that move — which is seeming to get farther into the future because of the insane boom in rural real estate in my area right now — I’ve spent the last eight years geeking out on compact tractors. I’ve had six of these units so far, despite living on only two acres of land, most of it lawn. Currently, I own two of them.

Yes, I’ve been a bit self-indulgent, I admit. Maybe I even have sort of a problem. But here’s the upside for you: If you’ve recently moved out to the ‘burbs or the country, or you’re pondering doing so, you’re about to reap the dividends of my addiction.

I might need Tractors Anonymous, but YOU might need a tractor

Compact tractors are often defined as being 60 horsepower and under. But most of the units in the upper third of this range can be quite large, and would be overkill for anything but a full-scale working farm, in my opinion…

So for the purposes of this article, I’m focusing on tractors of around 40 horsepower down to smaller “sub-compact” units in the 20-horse range. Approximately 55% of the compact tractors sold worldwide fall into this category, and their share of the market is on the rise. According to industry research, the compact tractor market overall is projected to grow more than 4% annually at least through 2024.

But that’s a global projection. The evidence on the ground here in the U.S. — at least in my area — suggests exploding demand for smaller tractors over the last few years, even through the pandemic. One veteran rep I know for a fairly sizeable local tractor and equipment dealership group told me that sales for certain brands are up approximately 20% year over year. And that’s following a booming 2019, too.

Point being, small tractors are clearly in vogue, for whatever reasons. And this trend is not likely to let up anytime soon. So let’s shift gears, no pun intended, and start focusing on the machines themselves. Because the odds are good that sooner or later, you’re going to want one for yourself, whether you truly need it or not.

First off, when I talk about tractors, I’m not referring to the “lawn tractors” a lot of riding-mower companies sell. I’m only referring to machines that are capable of attaching a front-end-loader (FEL), and that are equipped with a hydraulic three-point hitch system  and a power take-off (PTO). In the sub-compact class, some of these tractors can look similar to riding mowers, but they’re very different…

A three-point hitch is what allows various implements (tillers, brush mowers, wood chippers, etc.) to be mounted on the tractor — and towed, raised or lowered to facilitate their intended functions. The PTO is a rotating, splined shaft protruding from the tractor’s transmission that allows implements that require power to draw it from the tractor’s engine, via an external driveline.


A typical three-point hitch and rear PTO from a sub-compact tractor

Also, unlike a lot of gasoline-powered riding mowers, all compact tractors currently sold on the American market have diesel engines, to the very best of my knowledge. It’s been that way for years, too. So just to recap, for the purposes of this piece, my “tractor” criteria are: Diesel engine, loader-capable, with one or more standard PTOs, and a hydraulic three-point hitch.

With that distinction out of the way, let’s talk about drivetrains.

I’ll make this quick: For the vast majority of compact tractor users, a unit with a hydrostatic transmission will be best. Even though some compact tractor models are available with various kinds of conventional, manually-shifted gearboxes, I’d advise against buying one of these. Despite slightly lower up-front costs and slightly greater PTO horsepower (not usually enough to make much difference)…

Manual transmissions can be much harder for beginner and novice users to operate smoothly. Plus hydrostatic transmissions can be used to better effect with a greater variety of implements. They’re so much easier for doing front-end-loader work, too. Believe me, I’ve owned both types — and for most uses, hydro drivetrains are just all-round superior in smaller tractors. They’re well worth the extra cash.

Now let’s cover horsepower.

Since about 2014, the government has put stringent emissions regulations on tractors with more than 26 horsepower. This has forced tractor manufacturers to put costly and sometimes temperamental emissions-control gadgetry on units above this horsepower rating for the U.S. market.

Because of this, the domestic compact tractor sector offers tremendous diversity in machines of just under 26 horsepower. In this power class, you can find tiny units of around 1,400 pounds and 45 inches in width up to surprisingly big machines of over 2,700 pounds and 64 inches in width. Front-end loaders for these tractors can range from 600 pounds in lift capacity to over 1,600 pounds.

In my opinion, this is the sweet spot for most suburban or semi-rural landowners, small horse or hobby farms, etc. There’s pretty much something for everyone in this 24-26 horsepower class, in terms of bang for your buck. If your needs can be met with a unit in this segment, you’d do well to consider it. In my experience, however…

The trickiest part is determining what your tractor needs really are

With careful planning, thought, and research, you can save yourself from churning through six tractors in eight years (like me) while you figure out exactly what you do and don’t need. This section will attempt to help you drill down on that, so you measure twice and buy once, so to speak. Here are some of the things I think you should consider in making your decision…

One of the great joys of having a compact tractor is all the different things you can do with it. This can also help justify the expense of the purchase. As just one example, a fair number of compact and sub-compact tractors currently on the market can be equipped with front-mounted, PTO-driven snowblower units.

I’ve owned three of these things, and they’re lifesavers. Literally. Statistics show that shoveling snow can be one of the riskiest activities, in terms of heart attacks. Some cardiologists recommend skipping it altogether if you’re over 55 years of age. But with the 50-inch snowblower mounted on my subcompact tractor, I can clear my entire 110-yard driveway of snow in less than 10 minutes.

With a spreader mounted on the three-point hitch, I can salt it, too. I can also use that spreader to throw grass seed and fertilizer on my lawn in the spring and fall. A tiller and a core aerator round out my gardening and lawn-care implements. Then there’s the 60-inch mower deck I cut the lawn with, using that same tractor.

Now let’s do a little math…

A decent 60-inch zero-turn mower can easily cost ten grand or more. Good-quality snowblowers can routinely go for over $3,000 — while still being strenuous to use and throwing half as much snow, at half the speed. I paid $16,700 for the tractor, including the mower deck and front-mounted blower. When you add in the three-point implement capabilities (spreader, tiller, chipper, aerator, brush-cutter, etc.) and the ability to use a front-end loader for mulch, gravel, and topsoil work, a small tractor can start to make lot of sense, even for suburban homeowners.

Conversely, if you’ve got several acres to maintain — or you’re considering a small hobby farming or forestry operation — you’ll probably want something a bit larger within the compact tractor spectrum. Most of these units have much more PTO horsepower and greater loader capabilities. A lot of them also give you the ability to use things like a “grapple” in place of the loader bucket.

Basically, a grapple is like a big, clamping metal hand that goes on the front-end-loader. You can use to pick up and move logs, brush piles, stacks of lumber, piles of firewood, construction debris, hay bales, dead animals, trespassers (kidding, of course), and more. They’re incredibly useful. So are backhoes, but those can be expensive, and they take up a lot of space when not in use.

Point is, once you decide to get a tractor, you’ll then have to decide how crazy you want to go with implements and attachments. For me, there is no limit. If I had the storage space and the disposable income, I’d buy one of everything. But being a sane, well-adjusted person, you probably won’t have that problem…

The key to making the best choices about all this stuff is research, knowledge, and reflection. There’s a lot to consider before you buy a tractor — so you don’t end up with a unit that’s not optimally matched to your needs.

For instance, if you’re going to do a lot of brush- or high-grass mowing, wood-chipping, stump-grinding, or tilling, you may want to prioritize PTO horsepower over, say, loader lift capacity. If you’re going to operate the tractor mainly on your lawn or in maintained pastures, you may want to consider tractors that are lighter for their footprint, and with turf-friendly tires rather than industrial or agricultural tires. And so on and so on. With tractors, everything is a trade-off.

There are also space and transportation considerations. Where are you going to keep the tractor, and the implements? And how are you going to haul it around, if you need to? Do you have — or are you prepared to buy — enough truck and trailer to move it? Or do you plan to rely on the dealer who sold it to you for maintenance and repair-related transportation? If so, this proximity factor could limit your choice of brands and units…

See what I mean about tradeoffs?

I could write thousands of more words on this topic. But the bottom line is this: A properly scaled and deliberately chosen compact or subcompact tractor can add a lot to your life, if your circumstances warrant one. It can also save you tons of trouble and exertion. And if you’re anything like me — it can add an irrational amount of joy to your day-to-day existence.

On the flipside, if you don’t think things through, draw the right lines, and make wise choices from the get-go, the tractor experience can become more expensive and complicated than it needs to be. Trust me on this one…

But believe me on this, too: The planning, comparison of specs, test-driving and talking to dealers, learning, obsessing, and anticipation is half the fun of owning a small tractor. Don’t sell this part of the process short.

A-tract-ively Yours,

Jim Amrhein

Jim Amrhein
Freedoms Editor, Whiskey & Gunpowder

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Jim Amrhein

Just like he was 15 years ago, when first he sullied the pages of the original Whiskey & Gunpowder e-Letter and various other forums, Jim is still ornery, opinionated, politically incorrect, and shamelessly patriotic. He’s also more convinced than ever before that government can’t do much of anything right — except expand in scope and...

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