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

A rookie's guide to adding some mechanical muscle to your horsepower collection.

©EQUUS Magazine. All Rights Reserved.

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.

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.

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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.

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