The right utility tractor can lighten your load, tackle multiple tasks on your small horse ranch, and quickly become the hardest worker in your barn. With the capability to mow, tow, lift, spread, scrape, drag and drill, the possibilities of what you and your tractor can get done on your horse ranch are endless. Think of any project around the barn or horse ranch, and a tractor is probably the right tool for the job.
But a tractor is also a serious purchase and big investment for your farm or ranch. Buying a car or truck is one thing, but stepping into a tractor dealership is probably a completely new experience. Here are some questions you should ask before you buy.
Who needs a tractor?
Just about any horse owner could find uses for a compact utility tractor. Of course, the more horses you have on your property, the more often a tractor would come in handy. From daily chores to monthly maintenance and one-time big projects, a tractor adds mechanical muscle and cuts down on your manual hours. The helping brute of a tractor can also save your own body, including a sore back and bad knees, from physical stress.
How do you move hay now? If it involves bribing the neighbor kids to buck bales, it might be time for a tractor. Stall cleaning? Imagine, rather than multiple runs with the wheelbarrow, filling a big front-loader with manure and driving to the muck pile.
"I've sold tractors to veterinary clinics, horse owners with small properties, and ranchers with thousands of acres," says Dan Borchard, commercial parts manager at Central Oregon Workensport. "Anyone can find a use for a tractor."
"Maybe people are getting older, and they don't want to do all the manual labor," adds Sean Sundberg, commercial-customer planning manager for John Deere. "Or maybe their operation is getting bigger and a tractor could be great assistance, not only cleaning stalls."
Buying a tractor usually saves time and resources.
"The customer should look at what they need a tractor to do and ask if the machine is able to help," Sundberg says. "Basically, they usually find out that yes, a tractor really does save you a lot of work, which frees up time to spend with your horses, which is really what you want to be doing."
How much do I have to spend?
Good question, and the answer depends on what kind of tractor you need, what brand you prefer, and what extra implements you decide to purchase. However, plan on spending anywhere from $13,000 to $30,000 on a new tractor.
While tractors are a large purchase on par with horse trailers and pickups, Borchard says that you should view buying a tractor as an investment. "Our customers find their purchases are worth every penny," he says.
Prices for tractors range by brand, with domestics higher than imports. However, says Borchard, domestic tractors are usually easier to find parts for and less expensive to maintain.
- Make a list of what you need a tractor to do and what you'd like it to do.
- If you consider a used tractor, be sure to have a mechanic check it out.
- Basic barn chores need a minimum gross horsepower rating of 20-plus and a PTO rating of 15.
- A tandem instead of a single hydraulic pump will keep you from losing steering power when using an implement.
- A hydrostatic transmission, like an automatic with a car, is more expensive, but is also easier to operate.
Just like at the car dealership, your local tractor dealership will have negotiation cubicles where you and the salesman will "make the deal." Unless you have cash in hand, that deal will include financing options for your new tractor.
You might save money by purchasing a used tractor, but Borchard says most of his customers buy tractors for the long run, meaning there's little tractor turnover and resale prices are high. New tractors are also a capital expense, so if you're buying for your small horse business, you'll get the tax benefit of depreciating your purchase.
If you do go the used route, vet the tractor like you would a horse. Hire a trusted mechanic to inspect the tractor's engine, transmission, hydraulics and drive train. Also, keep safety in mind, Sundberg says. Newer models will have seatbelts and a built-in rollover protection structure (ROPS), which is basically a roll bar that can protect the tractor's driver in the case of a turnover accident.
What size tractor will work best on my property?
Before you buy, you need to find out what size tractor will work best on your property. That means, says Sundberg, making sure a tractor will fit down your barn aisle, if applicable, and through your property gates.
New Holland tractor company outlines four steps to choosing a tractor:
1. Select the ways you would like to use your new tractor.
2. How much land do you care for and maintain?
3. Select the terrain for each task.
4. Find what weight capacity is needed.
The company's commercial website, www.newholland.com, offers an online "product counselor" to help you define your specific needs and select the machine that will work best for you.
How much power does the tractor need?
Maybe, in your mind, horsepower includes four legs and a tail, or is stored under the hood of your pickup. Horsepower, however, also relates to the amount of power a tractor has to run the machine and operate implements. Strictly speaking, one unit of horsepower is the amount of energy needed to lift 33,000 pounds up one foot in the air for one minute.
When it comes to tractor horsepower, it's not as simple as "there are 350 horses under the hood." Actually, the amount of gross horsepower a tractor has, and the available horsepower it offers to run implements, are two different things. PTO, which stands for power take-off, is a mechanism that converts power from the circular motion of the engine to the horizontal motion needed to run implements. So PTO, or usable horsepower, is the amount of horsepower available for implements.
Note that not all manufacturers rate PTO-usable horsepower the same, so you're not always comparing apples to apples. And just as gas-mileage ratings on cars are calculated under best-case scenarios, so is maximum PTO horsepower. Bottom line, you'll probably need a minimum gross horsepower rating of 20-plus and a PTO rating of 15 to get most basic barn chores done.
"It all centers back to the size of the task, the activity and the frequency of that activity," explains Cleo Franklin, strategic marketing manager for John Deere. Your dealer will help you choose the right amount of horsepower for your specific needs.
Tractor Shopping Resources
Visit these websites for more information about specific lines of utility tractors.
Case IH www.caseih.com
John Deere www.johndeere.com
What do I need the tractor to do?
That's a question you need to ask yourself before you visit the dealership. The capability possibilities of tractors are seemingly endless, so pare down your needs to a specific list. Include your "must-haves" and "would-likes" in two different columns.
Sundberg's mom keeps nine horses on her property. "When I helped set her up with one of our tractors, I basically asked her, 'What are your uses right now? And what do you think you'll be doing with it in the future,' " Sundberg says. "You want to make sure you have the tractor that can grow with you into bigger chores."
Most of the tasks tractors tackle involve extra implement attachments designed for specific jobs. These implements are add-ons to the base machine and include front-end attachments and rear attachments. Rear attachments connect to the tractor and the PTO via a three-point hitch, which extends and adjusts to the angle of the implement.
Implements are easy to change on modern tractors. Usually one person can do the job. "If you have a loader on the front end, you can take it off in just a couple minutes and put a snow blower, blade or rotary broom on there," Sundberg says. "My mom had never really used a tractor, so I did a short training session and now she's pretty golden."
In the end, you have to decide which implements are worth the extra upfront costs and long-term storage. These are just a few of your options:
Moving stuff. The front-loader is a multipurpose feature that can move manure, gravel, dirt, rocks, shavings, bark, snow and hay. You can even pile jumping standards or trail obstacles into the loader to move them around the arena or into storage. The front-loader is also an indispensable tool for cleaning paddocks and stalls.
"Almost all compact utility tractors are sold with a front-loader," Sundberg says. "My mom uses her tractor to move bales of hay, drag the arena, and clean out stalls. The loader is probably the number one thing she uses."
Mowing pastures. You probably also want your tractor to mow grass for pasture maintenance and to create firebreak protection around your property, home and barn. Good pasture management leads to natural weed control, better nutrition and healthier horses.
Dragging dirt. A dragging attachment, whether commercially produced or a personal invention, comes in handy for spreading manure in dry lots and smoothing arena surfaces. Create ideal and safe footing in which to exercise your horses using specially designed dragging implements.
Drilling postholes. With a posthole-drilling implement attached to your tractor, you may never dig another hole by hand again. Get ready to build some fences.
Plowing snow. Snow blowers, blades and brooms help clear driveways and parking areas. Having a snow-removal tool around can help you get the truck and trailer out in bad weather or keep dangerous ice from building up in horse and human high-traffic paths.
Gas or diesel?
Gas is the fuel of choice for small garden tractors or riding lawn mowers. But when you move up to the big boys, you'll find most engines are designed to run on diesel.
"Diesel was a more familiar fuel with farmers, so that played a role in engine development," Sundberg explains.
What about transmissions, hydraulics and four-wheel drive?
The hydraulic pump powers implements as well as steering, which are both important functions of a tractor. So consider purchasing a tractor with a tandem rather than single hydraulic pump. That way you won't lose steering power when using an implement.
Manufacturers recommend four-wheel drive for heavy and frequent front-loader work. Due to the heavy lifting necessary around horse property, a four-wheel drive tractor is probably the best option for horse owners.
A hydrostatic transmission is analogous to an automatic vehicle. Like in car buying, the hydrostatic transmission is more expensive, but it's also easier to operate. Other transmission options include nonsynchronized, which is reminiscent of an old manual car in which you must come to a complete stop before shifting down to first gear. Partially synchronized and fully synchronized transmissions are also available.
Will it run in cold weather?
Yes, your tractor will run in cold climates, says Sundberg. "Modern tractors are designed to run in sub-zero temperatures, but you might want to give them a chance to warm up first." Some older diesels might need an engine-block warmer, so Sundberg recommends reviewing your owner's manual, just in case.
If you live in an area that experiences all the elements winter has to offer, you'll probably find that your tractor is even more useful in cold weather and snow. Four-wheel drive and a snow-removal blade will make clearing the driveway a fast and easy job, and you may even find yourself using your tractor to pull cars and pickups out of the ditch in bad snowstorms.
A better question: Will you run in cold weather? If you live in an area with notoriously difficult winters, Borchard of Workensport recommends ordering a tractor with an enclosed and heated cab. "You can stay pretty warm in there, just like a car," he says.
How do I maintain my tractor, and what kind of warranty should I expect?
Maintaining your tractor according to the owner's manual will ensure a long life for the vehicle, Bouchard says. Most shops will come to your farm for maintenance and repair, while others will haul the tractor back to the dealership.
"Owners can do a lot of the basic maintenance themselves," says Sundberg.
John Deere recommends basic maintenance every time you use your tractor, meaning you should check the air filter and coolant level, engine and hydraulic oil levels, and the battery turning the key.
Expect a warranty if you purchase a new tractor. Most manufacturers offer a 24-month basic and 36-month power-train warranty, Sundberg says.
What should I expect about the buying experience?
Buying a tractor is similar to purchasing a vehicle. Research the products online, talk to your friends who own tractors, and go browse at your local dealerships.
"The number one thing you need to do is find a dealer who'll spend time and talk to you about your needs," Sundberg says. "Most dealers will walk you through everything, because most of their customers are property owners who haven't been around these machines a lot."
You also want a dealership that will help you with parts, maintenance and additional purchases down the road.
"You definitely want that dealer you can establish a relationship with and that will be there to support you after the sale,"Franklinsays.
Once at the dealership, feel free to ask questions and test the tractors.
"You'll know you're at a good dealership if they let you get up on the machine, take you through the controls, and let you move it and use it on the [dealership] site," Sundberg says.
Once you get up in that seat and see how it can simplify your life, you'll want to take that tractor home and get to work.