Compact Tractors: The Horseowner`s Sports Car

Whether you’ve got two acres or 20, you already know that a riding lawn mower just doesn’t cut it for horse-farm work. But that doesn’t mean you need a crop-farming behemoth tractor with a big-bucks price tag. Today, a simple compact tractor can take the back-straining labor out of many routine horse-farm chores.

Tractors with concealed mufflers and sloping fronts, like this New Holland Boomer, are be- coming increasingly popular because of the need for good visibility. Know what you’re going to use the tractor for and what implements you’re going to need.

However, since a compact tractor is still a hefty investment, with prices ranging from $9,500 to $20,000, it pays to know how you’ll use it — both now and in the future — and what implements you need before you walk into the dealer’s show room. Some pricey options are actually worth their cost in terms of safety and convenience, while a few new-fangled ideas are better left alone.

Compact-Tractor Basics
Today’s compact tractors are similar to the heavy-duty tractors used for crop farming, just smaller. Most are fueled by diesel, although the few gas-fueled models are quieter.

Except for some economy models, most modern compacts have power steering (or, in tractor language, “hydrostatic steering”) and a Category 1 three-point hitch on the back, making them compatible with just about any brand or type of implement that attaches behind the tractor.

Your compact tractor should include a standard ROPS (roll-over protection system, or roll bar) just behind and over the driver’s seat. Most standard ROPS bars are “fixed,” but many manufacturers offer “foldable” bars that are hinged to drop down when you need to drive under low-hanging buildings or tree limbs.

A few manufacturers specialize in articulated or oscillated tractors, where the tractor’s chassis is hinged in the middle so the front of the tractor bends separately from the part of the tractor that the operator sits on. This increases maneuverability in tight places, but it eliminates the use of many common rear-driven implements. All attachments must work off the front of the tractor, except things like carts that you just drag behind. We don’t think the advantage outweighs the disadvantage.

2WD Or 4WD
Two-wheel and four-wheel drive options are much like with cars or SUVs, except that two-wheel tractors are always rear-wheel drive, not front-wheel drive. You can save about $1,000 by skipping 4WD, but you’ll be making a mistake. On slippery, muddy surfaces, that 2WD tractor simply won’t provide the traction you need to pull most common horse-farm implements. We’ll sacrifice the slightly damaged turf left behind by a 4WD’s better traction any day.

All tractors are rated by horsepower or hp. Lawn and garden tractors range from about 6 hp to 22 hp. Big crop tractors range from 45 hp to 100 hp or more. Compacts run from about 15 hp to 42 hp. And, yes, bigger is better.

Optimal engine horsepower is identified in reference to engine speed — in RPMs, or revolutions per minute, typically about 2,500 to 2,800 RPMs. The lower the engine speed required to achieve the rated horsepower, the less wear and tear on the engine and the less fuel required.

Each tractor is also rated in PTO horsepower. The PTO, or the power take-off mechanism, provides power to the implements, literally taking it from the engine. Therefore, a tractor’s PTO hp will always be a bit lower than its engine hp.

How much engine and PTO horsepower you’ll need depends on how hard you expect the tractor to work, particularly with loaded implements. For instance, it takes about 30 PTO hp to pull a 60” rotary cutter.

Many PTO-driven implements attach to the back of the tractor, so most tractors provide a standard rear PTO mechanism. Some also offer optional mid-point PTOs located under the tractor seat, which are for implements like front-end loaders and finish mowers.

Physical Tractor Size
Be sure to measure aisles, doors, overhangs and storage space — any place you plan to use the tractor — and compare them against each model’s dimensions to decide what size tractor will actually fit your farm.

Old-time farmers believed that the heavier the tractor, the better. Now, however, more weight is not necessarily better. The improved designs of today’s lighter-weight tractors offer comparable traction and stability, with better fuel efficiency. And most companies offer ballast packages, where heavyweight blocks can be attached to the tractor for improved balance.

On a tractor with a gear, or manual, transmission, you’ll have to push in a clutch and manually manipulate a gear-shift lever to go from one speed range to another. Some gear-transmission tractors offer a sophisticated gear mechanism — commonly called a synchronized shuttle or synchro-shuttle transmission — that allows you to easily shift from forward to reverse without completely stopping the tractor. This can be a real benefit when using a front-end loader.


In addition, gear transmissions have a certain number of speeds, designated, for example, as 6F X 2R or 6/2, which means six forward and two reverse speeds.

A hydrostatic transmission is similar to an automatic transmission in a car. It runs about $1,000 more than a standard-gear transmission. After you put the hydrostatic mechanism into one of two or three different speed ranges, which does require a clutch, you use a foot pedal, like a car accelerator, to go faster or slower without changing gears. A hydrostatic transmission offers an almost infinite number of speeds, making it handy for dodging obstacles or changing direction frequently.

Good visibility is important for the safety of animals and people around you and to let you work more efficiently. Body style — especially how the tractor hood slopes — greatly affects the driver’s line of sight. A streamlined design with a downward-sloping hood is a big plus.

A concealed muffler is also an asset. Mufflers on old-fashioned tractors resembled smokestacks sitting in front of the driver, partially blocking the view and blowing exhaust toward the driver. A concealed muffler directs exhaust down, away from the operator, and allows for a clear line of vision. It’s also quieter.

Tractor Tire Choices
In general, you’ll choose one of three tire types:

An ag tire (R1) is designed for traction in fields and looks like a typical big-tractor tire. This tire’s rounded surface with deep, widely spaced treads gives good grip in wet, muddy or icy conditions.

A turf tire (R3) is flatter, without a lot of deep tread. It offers little traction in mud, so it’s best suited for light mowing applications.

An industrial tire (R4)is a kind of hybrid of the two — its cleat-like tread provides significant traction, but the tire surface itself has a flat shape, not rounded like an ag tire, so it won’t tear up turf or wear out as fast on concrete or other hard surfaces. We think the industrial tire is probably the best bet for small-farm owners.

Ease Of Maintenance
Look under the hood and side panels for the location of the basics: oil filter, oil dipstick, battery, coolant, air filter. The easier to reach these parts, the more likely maintenance is to get done, adding years to the life of your tractor.

Bottom Line
The best tractor depends on your needs. To help you make your decision, we’ve devised a checklist for simplifying shopping, based on our preferences. And, yes, like a car or truck, there’s room for price negotiation with the dealer and for trade-ins, if you already have a tractor, so shop around. In addition, financing is generally available through the manufacturer and/or the dealer.

Also With This Article
Click here to view ”Take It Out For A Spin.”
Click here to view ”Specifications For Compact Tractor Models.”
Click here to view ”Useful Attachments.”
Click here to view ”Tractor Manufacturers.”
Click here to view ”Our Recommendations.”

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