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Choose The Right Tractor — Spring 2009 | Out Here Magazine

Tractors come in all sizes, with varied horsepower and load capacity. Figure out what you need a tractor to do for you and then buy accordingly.

It's all about terrain and task

By Teresa Odle
Photography by Jeff Fraizer

Choosing the right tractor for your needs is more than a matter of "big spread equals big tractor." It's a balance of function, size, power and budget.

"You need to know what jobs you want the tractor to do for you," says Dick Parish, an agricultural engineer with Louisiana State University.

"If you plan to mow that 80 acres, then land size will have a great deal to do with what size tractor you buy," he says. "But if most of it is made up of woods that you use for hunting and fishing and you only want to mow an acre around your house, that's different."

Selection starts with riding lawn mowers and moves up through lawn tractors, lawn and garden tractors, and garden tractors to the new subcompact tractor and the ultimate compact utility tractor, which is aimed at homeowners with at least 5-10 acres who need multiple implements.

Growing crops and performing multiple operations requires a bigger machine than if you just want to mow your acreage. Once you get into farm work and rough mowing, a larger tractor with a gear transmission probably best meets your needs. Let's say you have to replace the fence that surrounds your 80 acres. "With a compact utility trailer and the right hitch, you can add a vertical auger that digs your post holes," Parish says.

The auger set-up may require up to a 40-horsepower engine. Horsepower varies depending on the model; larger manufacturers generally offer a few horsepower sizes within each frame size range.

What's most important about horsepower, says Parish, is understanding what the manufacturer means by the horsepower listed for a given tractor. "There are two main ways of rating horsepower on a tractor. There's engine horsepower and there's power take-off, or PTO, horsepower." PTO is less than engine horsepower, since it's a measure of the useful power available to a PTO implement. "If you're looking, you need to be aware to make sure you're comparing tractors on the same basis," Parish says.

The compact tractor accepts a wide range of farm implements, front-end loaders, and backhoes. You can add a bale spear, a number of blades, cultivators, scoops, mowers, and tillage tools.

New subcompact tractors are about the size of lawn and garden tractors but are built like compact tractors, with similar engines, PTOs, hitches, and hydraulics. You may find that a tractor in the lawn and garden class, many of which can support several implements, matches your needs and budget.

A good dealer can help you choose the tractor size or class based on the operations you need most. Mowing width and size affect horsepower, as can front-wheel assist, the tractor's version of four-wheel drive.

"Some of the operations are a function of horsepower, some aren't," Parish says. For example, if you need to carry feed, ask about the tractor's load capacity.

Finally, it may be a good idea to buy up in power. "In some cases, you can move up in horsepower by choosing the stripped-down or mid-range version a manufacturer offers for about the same amount you would pay for a smaller tractor," says Parish. You might give up some comfort features or settle for a less-sophisticated transmission. "But this is a trade-off only you can decide."

Teresa Odle is an Albuquerque-based writer.