The Best Small Farm Tractor Buyer’s Guide
A Tractor Finder Guide for Today’s Modern Farm Tractors
When you’re looking for the best small farm tractor for your farm or homestead, you may gravitate toward the tractors of yore; Ford 9Ns, Farmall Cubs, Fordsons, and the such. The attraction is understandable since these are true classics of farming, offering an allure of an iconic nature and an attractive price point. You can find good deals on these, available in various stages of neglect strewn across the pages of those tractor finder magazines, but if you’re hunting for a functional tool for the farm, you may be barking up the wrong tree.
Tractors are not on the cutting edge of science, but you may be unaware of how far they’ve come and just how outdated those antiques are. Manufacturers have developed new systems and unified many interfaces since the age of the Farmall, creating best small farm tractors that are robust, agile, dependable, and easily modified to fit the task at hand. Back in the day, a tractor was a tractor, but today there is a wide array of options available, and that can be overwhelming. Follow along as I clarify a few things about today’s modern lineup, and help you decide what sort of tractor will fit you best.
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What’s The Hitch?
A three-point hitch is the interface we use to attach implements to the back of a tractor. For our purpose, we need to understand the difference between Cat-0 (category zero), Cat-1, and Cat-2. There are more categories but these are the sizes that pertain to the small farmer and homesteader. All these hitches have different pin, hitch arm, and top link dimensions.
Cat-0 implements are miniature versions of Cat-1 implements and are meant to work on the smallest of tractors. Cat-0 is a relatively new size. These implements tend to be expensive, limited in ability, and scarce in the used market. I don’t advise the purchase of a Cat-0 tractor for many reasons, availability of implements is one of them. Cat-0 tractors can only use Cat-0 implements because of size, weight restrictions, and the minimal power associated with Cat-0 tractors. Cat-0 implements are easily identified by their miniature appearance and use of 5/8” lower arm pins.
Cat-1 implements are what many consider to be a “standard” implement. Cat-1 is the most common size of hitch, and Cat-1 implements are offered in different widths to match your best small farm tractor. Cat-1 implements are plentiful, readily available, easy to find, and offer you the best chance to find a great deal, especially in the used market. Cat-1 hitches use a 7/8” lower arm pin and many Cat-0 implements can be adapted to fit a Cat-1 hitch. Cat-1 is the most common hitch found on the best small farm tractors.
Cat-2 is a larger, less common hitch size usually reserved for hard use or high horsepower implements. Cat-2 implements tend to be far more robust in their construction, hence they use the larger 1-1/8” lower arm pin size. My tractor is a Cat-2 tractor, so with the exception of my backhoe or scraper box, I need to use sleeves to adapt my Cat-1 implements to my Cat-2 hitch. It can be annoying when you misplace these stupid little sleeves, but having a Cat-2 hitch opens up my options when buying implements and allows me to use a larger backhoe.
Tractors have been using gear and clutch-style transmissions for a very long time, and many experienced operators are more comfortable with this tried and true design. Today, however, the lion’s share of tractors sold have hydrostatic transmissions, which simplify and complicate the act of motivating a tractor all at the same time, especially if you’re used to a clutch. Instead of releasing a clutch and having your tractor lurch forward, you can now select your gear or speed range, then push the forward or reverse pedal to modulate the speed and direction you want to go. This type of transmission is a proven design and tends to last longer than traditional manual transmission clutches. With a hydrostatic transmission, you can creep along without burning up a clutch, which is very useful. If you find yourself feathering a tractor’s clutch often, hydrostatic will serve you well. Try both styles out before you buy to decide which style you’re more comfortable with.
Tractor manufacturers now offer many sizes of tractors, typically grouped by “class.” These classes are designed with a target customer in mind so ability, power, options, and price points vary accordingly. Generally speaking, all tractor manufacturers offer a sub-compact, compact, mid-size, and full-size class range. Not all dealerships offer all the classes, so understanding what class you’re shopping for will help when deciding where to shop.
Sub-compact tractors are the bottom of the power curve and are (generally speaking) a lawn tractor on steroids. Tractors in this class are limited to a Cat-0 hitch because of their size. Most of the sub-compact tractors of today are compatible with front-end loaders, but with load limits of 500 lbs or less at the bucket, they qualify as self-propelled wheelbarrows.
Thanks to the sub-compact craze, manufacturers are now offering mid-ship PTOs in most, if not all tractors. Mid-ship PTOs are “power take off” points, much like the rear PTO spline that can run your bush hog. These mid-ship, or belly PTOs allow a tractor to power a belly mower, like your typical ride-on lawn tractor, only much bigger. Having a mid-ship PTO also opens up the option of adding a front mounted, PTO-driven snow blower, which appeals to those of us in the northern climates. Many sub-compact tractors are now available with diesel engines and four-wheel drive, which is a major upgrade in usability. You can expect horsepower ratings to be in the teens or low 20’s at best, which limits what sort of equipment you can run.
If you want a big lawn tractor with a bucket loader, this just might your ticket, but I don’t advise buying a lilliputian tractor like this for farm use. If you’re serious about farming or homesteading today, you are likely to be disappointed by a sub-compact tractor’s lack of power, ability, or performance. If the biggest load you plan to lift is grass clippings and leaves, then you can expect to pay around $12,000 for this over-sized garden tractor.
Compact tractors are a bump up from sub-compact, albeit a small bump. Compact tractors are offered in Cat-0 or Cat-1 hitches. A 4×4 seems to be standard at this size, as does a three-cylinder diesel engine, which is good news. All compact tractors I’ve seen are compatible with reasonably robust bucket loaders. Robust or not, these bucket loaders are still rated for under 900 pounds at the bucket, so take that into consideration.
The compact class bridges the emissions gap, meaning many of these tractors offer horsepower ratings either side of 27 hp, which is the cutoff for non-emissions controlled engines. Why should you care? Emissions systems on tractors are a relatively new technology and have yet to be proven in reliability and longevity. Years down the line, you may be looking at expensive emission system repairs, and the inclusion of these systems drive up the purchase price. If three or four pony powers don’t really make a difference to you, and the compact class is where you’re shopping, then shoot for a non-emissions tractor for now.
Compact tractors sit in a precarious spot, bridging both the emissions gap and hitch categories, which means many compact tractors will be a little too wide for a Cat-0 implement, but underpowered for many Cat-1 implements. Despite this, I would advise leaning toward a Cat-1 equipped tractor since I’d rather have the latter problem.
Many of these compact tractors fit on a landscape trailer, which makes them easier to transport than their larger brethren. Because of their size, they also tend to be less intimidating to the first time tractor owner. They also offer a palatable price point, usually somewhere between $15,000 and $23,000 depending on options and model, making them attainable for many people. For these reasons, some people will find their best small farm tractor in this class size.
You get what you pay for, generally speaking, and the mid-size tractor category is a good example. Mid-size tractors offer more versatility, flexibility, horsepower, and conveniences than the smaller compact and sub-compact tractors, such as cab options and remote hydraulic controls. Mid-sized tractors will come with a Cat-1 hitch at a minimum, with many manufacturers offering a Cat-2 hitch with their larger mid-size tractors.
Power ratings and engines vary widely across this category, but most will feature a three-cylinder diesel engine between 35hp and 65hp. If you’re looking for a good all-around farm tractor with the capacity to run a lot of different implements, something close to the 50hp mark should serve you well. When you go north of 50hp, you will also find some manufacturers offer an “economy PTO” option, which is an overdrive for your PTO. When engaged, it allows the engine to spin slower while maintaining proper PTO shaft RPM’s, reducing fuel consumption while running equipment such as farm generators.
Bucket loader capacities vary widely in this category, anywhere between 1,200 pounds to over a ton at the bucket, which sounds excessive to some people but having a machine in this lift capacity range is far more practical for clearing land, lifting materials and moving pallets with a fork bucket. A standard size shipping pallet can handle over a ton of weight, so having a loader that can handle that safely will prove valuable to many farmers and homesteaders.
Mid-size tractors offer a lot of power and options as well as value for your dollar, and of course, that will be reflected in the purchase price. Prices for these models will be comparable to the purchase price of a well-appointed 1-ton pickup truck. I may be biased, but when someone asks me what class to look in for their best small farm tractor purchase, I always suggest this class first.
During my most recent visit to my local Kubota dealer, I priced out a 60hp mid-size tractor with all the fixings; a bucket loader with additional forward controls for bucket thumbs, mid-ship PTO for a snow blower, rear PTO with economy gear, and a fully enclosed cab with air conditioning, heat, and radio speakers. Overkill? Maybe, but for about $40,000 you too can own a luxurious farm tractor that will operate everything on your farm implements list, keep you cool while mowing fields in July, and keep you warm while you push snow in January with a cup holder included.
Have a large farm with large implements? If you do, I doubt you’re reading my article, but if you are, you need a tractor from the git-er-done class of full-size tractors. These behemoths start around the 80hp mark and get about as big as you can imagine, plus some. If you need something in this category, be prepared to pay mucho dinero for the real deal. I’m sure you can buy some of these tractors without a cab, but that would be a special order since cabs, air-ride seats, air conditioning, heat, and the such come standard with this sort of tractor. Homesteaders and small farmers who won the lotto would love to own one, but unless you have lots of room to play, they are simply too big to do a lot of what we do. These are big pieces of machinery, and they won’t always fit where we want them to go.
A full-size tractor is above and beyond the needs of many of us, and the price points start around $60,000. The sky seems to be the limit on the larger models, many costing more than the average house. I want one.
More Things To Consider
When you set out to buy your best small farm tractor, there are a few things you should consider before you spend your hard-earned cash. Here are a few abbreviated notes to think about.
– When choosing a brand or dealership, think beyond the tractor paint colors. Consider the parts, service, and maintenance availability for that brand. Getting a tractor from a brand that doesn’t have many dealerships in the area, or even in your country, can cause you lots of problems when it breaks. Some unknown or unestablished brands sourced from other countries may be offered at bargain prices, but even simple things like oil filters can be hard to come by. I suggest buying from a well-established brand and a dealership that’s been in business for a long time.
– Four-wheel drive is a given these days, but if you happen across a brand that offers tractors with or without 4×4, do yourself the favor and buy 4×4. Traction is king when operating in the dirt, and I can speak from experience when I say you need 4×4. All the best small farm tractors have 4×4, and yours should too.
– Identify how you will be using your tractor, and pick the tire style that best suits your needs. For general farm use, I suggest opting for agricultural cleat style tires, or industrial style if you need a compromise that is road-friendly. Turf tires seldom serve a best small farm tractor well, unless you’re mowing your lawn with it. Also, consider services like ballast tractor tires if you need additional traction.
– Cabs are a luxury, but if you plan to operate in blowing snow, it could mean the difference between misery and relative comfort. Unless you like dressing up as the Michelin Man and being hit full force with winter weather, seriously think about adding a cab to your mid-sized tractor.
– Speaking of the white stuff, if you intend to add a front-mounted, PTO-driven snow blower to your tractor, I suggest buying a tractor with a mid-ship PTO already installed, or at least be sure you can add one later. Likewise, if you’re looking at a compact or sub-compact tractor and intend to buy a belly mower for it.
– Tractor brands such as New Holland, Kubota, John Deere and the recently revived Massy Ferguson are well-established brands in the United States and will likely be your best small farm tractor brand, but you will find others such as Kyote, Mahindra, Yanmar, and others. Practice due diligence and research the brand you intend to buy since this will be a long-term investment and you don’t want to buy from a brand that has the potential to disappear (like Daewoo cars, remember them?).
– Pay attention to bucket attachment systems. Some brands are more compatible than others, some have proprietary attachment designs and some don’t even detach, which should be avoided. It’s just one of those things worth considering. Likewise with the loader arms themselves. Most brands allow you to quickly and easily remove the entire loader, which makes maintenance easier.
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