To a food plotter, buying a tractor is a decision that’s probably second only to buying or leasing the right hunting property, and for a good reason. Your tractor is the power center for your entire food plot operation
My wife would tell you that I am not a very good shopper because she labels me as a buyer, and for the most part, I would concur. I’m not going to spend hours scouting out the best deal on a pair of jeans or long hours on the Internet deciding which toaster is the best fit for our family’s kitchen.
I simply know what I want, or at least have a good idea of what I want, and I go buy it. Job done. But there are times when even hardcore buyers will channel their inner shopper. It could be when you are looking for a new house or new vehicle, or for a hunter, it could be a new bow, arrows, broadheads, rifle, bullets, backpack, bino, rangefinder, boots … OK, maybe I shop more than I admit.
Your tractor will be called upon to perform myriad tasks, from pulling implements to clearing paths and likely a plethora of uses you haven’t even thought of yet. A tractor is a piece of equipment that is used nearly every day and rightly becomes the iconic centerpiece of the farm because everything else revolves around it.
The tractor will also probably be the most expensive piece of equipment in your food plotting operation and require the most money and time for maintenance. All that being said, it pays to spend a ton of time shopping for the tractor that best fits your needs and budget.
When you first start looking at tractors, it can be a bit bewildering, even for someone who has some knowledge of them. Tractors come in all sizes and makes, with more options than you find on some luxury cars.
In recent years the popularity of country living has sparked tractor manufacturers to develop utility tractors that fit the needs of small rural properties. This greatly expanded the options tractor buyers have. Throw in the endless models of used tractors on the market, and it can be difficult at best to find the tractor that’s best for you and your needs.
Before you start scouring tractor specification sheets, it can be helpful to answer a few questions pertaining to how you will be using the tractor and specifics about your property.
Ask yourself this before buying a tractor
- How many acres will you plant?
- How big will the food plots be?
- What kind of equipment will you be using?
- What kind of field access do you have (narrow paths, creek crossings, etc.)?
- What other non-food plot functions will you be using your tractor for?
- Will you be moving your tractor via trailer?
- What is your budget?
How you answer these questions will help you narrow your decision to a range of tractors based on specifications, including engine horsepower (hp) size, PTO hp size, hydraulic requirements, transmission needs, and so on.
Does size really matter when buying a tractor?
Deciding on engine horsepower is the first major decision that needs to be made and is determined by several factors related to the criteria questions we previously discussed. Horsepower is defined as the force or work needed to move 33,000 pounds a height of 1 foot in one minute.
In other words, horsepower is 33,000 foot-pounds of work that is done in one minute. As it relates to tractors, horsepower is primarily related to the engine or PTO power of the tractor.
Manufacturers typically define a tractor size by the engine horsepower rating, so if a tractor is referred to as a 60-hp model, this would relate to engine power. Engine horsepower correlates to a tractor’s pulling power, which will affect the size of the pull-type implements you will pair with your tractor.
For example, a 45-hp tractor will be able to pull a 6- to 8-foot disc and a two-bottom plow fairly well. If you want a bigger disc and/or plow for a 12- to 14- foot disc and a four-bottom plow, then you will need to move up to a 70-hp tractor.
A tractor will have a second horsepower rating for the PTO (Power Take-Off), which represents the amount of power delivered to the PTO shaft. This number is normally slightly less than the engine horsepower rating.
For example, a tractor might have a 60 hp engine rating and a 53 hp PTO rating. A tractor’s PTO is used with implements such as tillers, seeders, rotary mowers, and many non-food plot implements such as post hole diggers, augers, and countless others.
Most PTO driven implements will have a horsepower range that is recommended for that implement.
For example, an 8-foot rotary mower might have a PTO range of 50 to 80 PTO hp, which means the tractor used with that implement should not be less than 50 or more than 80 PTO hp. Less than 50 will not be enough power to properly run the implement, and more than 80 might cause damage to the implement.
One final horsepower rating you might see is drawbar horsepower, which relates to the amount of horsepower delivered to the drawbar. This rating differs from regular engine horsepower in that it takes into account other factors, including tire slippage.
If you are pulling a plow and the tires of the tractor are slipping, less total power is being delivered to the implement. So, a tractor with front-wheel assist (essentially four-wheel-drive) will have less tire slippage and thus a higher drawbar power rating than a two-wheel-drive tractor with the same engine horsepower rating.
A 50 hp two-wheel-drive tractor might struggle to pull a 12-foot disc in heavy soil, but a 50 hp front wheel assist might perform adequately.
In general, most food plot tractors range from 30 to 100 horsepower, and bigger is not always better. Where your tractor will fall in that range is dependent on how you answered the criteria questions.
For example, let’s say you will be planting small one-quarter- to one-acre food plots and planting them in some fairly tight areas with narrow access. The total number of food plot acres is around three to four, and you will be using the tractor for some other light duty non-food plot jobs such as blading snow.
You also will be transporting the tractor from time to time to your house to do some mowing and landscaping. In this scenario, a 30- to 50-hp tractor would work well. This range of tractors efficiently uses smaller implements and, because of that, line up to the criteria answers.
On the other end of the scale, if you are planting up to 5-acre or bigger plots and plan on 20 or more acres with fairly open access roads, the implements you will want to use a much larger tractor. An 80- to 100-hp tractor would certainly not be out of the question in this case. Where you fall at between these two extremes will depend on your particular circumstances.
One thing that is not mentioned in the criteria questions is your time budget. Bigger tractors allow for bigger implements, which means food plot work can be done more quickly. However, it also typically requires a bigger budget.
Most tractors use a standard manual shift transmission system that is typically comprised of a combination of range and gear settings. The range is normally denoted as low, medium, high, with some having even more mid-ranges. Within each range, gear settings are selected.
For example, a transmission with a low and high range with four gear settings in each would result in a total of eight gear ranges consisting of L-1, L-2, L-3, L-4, H-1, H-2, H-3, and H-4.
A four range, four-gear configuration would offer 16 gear ranges. The more gear ranges available, and the more efficient a tractor can utilize equipment by optimizing speed and pulling power.
Another popular transmission style is hydrostatic transmissions. Hydrostatic transmissions, or hydrostats, use a system that involves a hydraulic pump and motor that allows you to increase or decrease speed by using either a hand lever or foot pedals. These systems sometimes have a type of manual transmission with three or more ranges, including low, medium, and high.
Within these ranges, you can adjust your speed without using a clutch or manual gear. There are some drawbacks to a hydrostatic system, but the ease in operating these transmission styles have made them very popular.
Power Take-Off (PTO)
PTOs are classified based on their rpm rating, with the two most common being 540 or 1000. 540 PTOs have fewer spines on the shaft than 1000 models and are the most common.
PTO-driven implements are designed to specifically work on either 540 or 1000 but not both, so it is important to check the specifications on your implements to match them with the tractor’s PTO.
There are some tractor models that give you the ability to switch between a 540 and a 1000 PTO, but in general, most implements that will be used in food plot practices will work on a 540 PTO shaft.
When analyzing the specification of a three-point hitch, there are four main things to consider.
First is the lift rating of the three-point arms. Some implements can weigh a considerable amount, so matching lifting capability to implement weight will ensure proper implement function and prevent damage to the tractor or implement.
The second thing to consider is the amount of three-point arm and upper linkage adjustment. Most three-point systems can be adjusted to allow the upper and lowermost points of the arms to be changed, which can improve the function of a particular implement. This is especially important when using three-point mounted tillage equipment such as a disc to ensure even soil cutting depth.
Thirdly, some three-point systems have adjustable draft control that controls the amount of down pressure on the three-point system and can be adjusted to allow the system to raise or lower based on the amount of pulling resistance encountered by the implement. This is also an especially important feature to consider with three-point mounted tillage equipment.
Finally, three-point systems are classified as category One or Two, with the distinction being the diameter of the hook-up points. Category One is smaller and therefore used on smaller implements, with the more common Category Two being larger and found on bigger implements.
Many tractors, especially mid-horsepower-range tractors, can accommodate either by simply switching out the hook-up point collars.
Hydraulic systems on tractors have many functions, including the three-point system, front end loader, and hydraulic cylinder control on implements. Hydraulics work based on the flow and pressure of oil, which is controlled by a hydraulic pump. The larger the pump, the more weight can be lifted and at a faster rate.
Hydraulics work off the same oil reservoir as the transmission, so be sure to evaluate the pump volume rating that is directly related to the hydraulic system. Most tractors have two external hydraulic ports, but some have more, which can sometimes come in handy.
Many of the newer model tractors have a front-wheel assist, which allows you to shift from two-wheel to four-wheel-drive. Some new and many older tractors are just two-wheel drive.
Having a four-wheel-drive will increase your pull power by increasing draw-bar horsepower because tire slippage is dramatically decreased. Four-wheel-drive also helps out in the mud and other tough terrains, and if you have a loader, the beefed-up front axle of a front-wheel assist will withstand far more wear and tear than a two-wheel-drive model.
The downside is cost, and if shopping for an older tractor, four-wheel assist are few and far between. Overall tractor weight should also be considered, especially if you are going to transport the tractor using a trailer, because the heavier the tractor, the bigger the trailer.
However, heavier tractors will have more traction and less slippage, which increases pulling power, which is especially important with two-wheel-drive models.
Buying New VS. Used
The choice between buying a new tractor versus a used tractor is completely dependent on budget and value. If you have a big enough checkbook, there are many advantages to buying new.
First, the tractor will come with a warranty, which varies between manufacturer and model, but nonetheless, you have some protection against major costs due to breakdowns. New tractors also have the newest innovations and updates, and oftentimes manufacturers will offer very low-interest rates or cashback offers.
If you are leaning toward the used tractor side, don’t expect to pay far less than new. Granted, far is a relative term, but tractors tend to hold their value fairly well, especially certain makes and models. However, they will certainly be less expensive than new ones, and sometimes you can find a bargain.
When buying a used tractor, research the make and model you are considering. Sometimes you will find there is a common problem or part that tends to break that you can ask the seller about. Tractor life is based on hours, not miles, so this will be an important number to evaluate.
A tractor with less than 1,000 hours is a relatively new tractor, while tractors up to and over 3,000 hours have been used a bit. That doesn’t mean that a tractor with 3,000-plus hours is a bad buy as long as it has been properly used and maintained, and a tractor with 1,000 hours is a good deal if it has not been cared for properly.
I like to ask the owner what the tractor was used for, which might indicate the amount of wear.
Just like buying a used car or truck, you should also check for the basics such as oil leaks, wiring problems, tire and hose wear, and so on.
Buying a tractor – playing favorites
Many people have their favorites when it comes to tractor manufacturers. I know many folks who would never think of buying anything but a John Deere, while others prefer Kubota. I bought a new New Holland seven years ago and have been very happy with it, but I also own a 1972 Allis Chalmers, which is a great tractor, too.
The truth is that many of the manufacturers have great options, especially with all the new midrange tractors being built. John Deere, Case, AGCO, New Holland, Kubota, and several others all have good options and good tractors. It comes down to which tractor meets your needs and fits your budget.
Useful resources to check out: