Few things say farming like the sounds of a chugging motor or clanking implements associated with a farm tractor. Tractors come in all shapes, sizes and prices but what’s the right size tractor for your homestead?
Selecting the tractor that fits your homesteading needs is one of the more serious — and potentially most expensive — decisions you are going to make after buying your land. You don’t want to buy something too small and end up frustrated when it can’t do the work you want. Conversely, buying too much tractor for your farm can easily wipe out your bank account and, worse, result in serious injury or death to an inexperienced tractor driver.
What do you want to do with your tractor?
Used properly, a tractor can be an incredibly useful piece of equipment on a homestead. Not only does it serve as an extra pair of hands with chores, those extra hands are far more powerful and stronger than your own.
“The first thing I would ask anybody thinking of buying a tractor is, ‘What do you want to accomplish with it on your homestead or farming operation?’” said Rich Taber, grazing, forestry and agriculture economic development specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Chenango County in New York. “The second thing I’d ask is, ‘What implements are you going to want to use with it?’”
With a tractor you can lift large bales of hay, plow significant acreage, cultivate crops, dig post holes, remove snow and pull loaded trailers, all from the comfort of the machine’s driver’s seat.
Other potential tractor uses that help determine size selection, according to Taber, include:
—Brushing meadows and pasture for grazing management.
Mike Zurface has used and sold a lot of tractors over the years at Meade Tractor in Shelbyville, Kentucky. When a new customer comes in, Zurface said taking the time to discuss what chores they have waiting back on their farm or homestead helps him direct them to the tractor they need.
There’s a big difference, he said in tractor size and price between a machine capable of lifting a 1,000-pound round hay bale versus one that will be used primarily to mow and till small fields.
“A lot of times people think it’s a good idea to try and save money and buy the smallest tractor as possible,” Taber said. “That is really not always the best idea.”
At the same time, a tractor is not something that should be purchased with the thought you will grow into it.
“Get the size you need at the time to do the work you have now,” Zurface said. “If your operation grows, you can always trade [the tractor] in for a larger one down the road.”
Like cars, tractors can indeed be traded in at a dealership for a newer model.
What is the right size?
In addition to physical size, tractors are measured in the amount of power — measured in horsepower — it has. And one does not always have anything to do with the other.
“Size does not equal horsepower,” Zurface said. “Some of the smaller compact tractors have more horsepower than a larger farm tractor.”
This is where a little tractor math comes in.
Dave Colson, farmer and director of agricultural services at the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, said a good rule of thumb for tractors used for field work is to plan on needing 20HP for every ploughshare. A ploughshare is the blade on the plow that digs into the dirt to plow it up.
“So for a double-bottom blow, you are going to want at least a 40HP tractor,” Colson said.
If the tractor is also going to use a rototilling attachment on the farm, Colson said you will need 10HP for every one-foot of tiller width.
“For that kind of farm work, a good all around tractor is a 50HP machine,” he said. “That is going to let you plow, till and will pull pretty much everything you need to haul.”
But if you plan to do a lot of heavy lifting using a bucket loader mounted on the front of the tractor, it’s the physical weight of the machine, not the HP you need to consider.
The heavier the load your bucket is lifting, the more you need to compensate by adding weight to the back of the tractor to prevent the rear wheels from rising off the ground and potentially toppling the machine.
But again, it’s important to assess what the tractor is going to be primarily used for, and extra weight is good for front end loading, but not good for field work.
“If you are doing field work with that tractor, the added weight is not the best thing,” said Colson. “All that added weight is going to compact your soil as you drive over the fields.”
If your homestead gets to the point where the chores requiring a tractor are that diverse, it could mean it’s time for two tractors.
“I have three tractors on my farm,” Colson said. “My first one I bought for the bucket loader and then I got a 50HP that pulls my two-bottom plow and I have a smaller four-wheel-drive tractor for lighter work.”
For the farmer or homesteader just starting out, Colson said a good, all-purpose tractor to get you going is a 45- to 50hHP tractor with a front end bucket. There are multiple attachments made for that size tractor and it can do some helpful lifting, hauling and field work around the farm.
Getting right size tractor for you pocketbook
The larger the tractor and the more horsepower, the more you’ll spend, especially if you are shopping for a brand new, current year model tractor, Taber said.
“You can really shell out a lot of money for a new tractor,” he said. “Buying a used tractor is fine, you don’t need something right off the assembly line.”
A new 40HP to 75HP farm tractor can cost up to $50,000.
A used tractor in good condition can be half that cost, but Taber recommends not getting something too old, as newer tractors have a lot more safety features than their predecessors.
These safety features include roll-over protection systems, or ROPs, bars that prevent a tractor from crushing the operator should it flip or roll onto its side.
The newer ones also have a bit of comfort including enclosed heated cabs, power steering and automatic transmission.
What is the best make of tractor
Those who use and love tractors are very devoted to their preferred makes and models. There are John Deere fans, International Harvester fans, Allis Chalmers fans, Ford fans and so on.
According to Taber, they are all great tractors and brand selection really comes down to logistics.
“Get what brand your local dealer supports,” he said. “And keep a good relationship with your local dealer [because] when your tractor breaks down in the field, you don’t want to be driving hundreds of miles for parts and service.”