Heavy Metal: Farm Tractors

Keeping horses on your property? Then you don’t need me to tell you how much work there always is to do. In addition to all the actual horse care, there are endless weeds to whack, riding rings or tracks to be harrowed, bales of hay to be moved from one end of the property to the other, a manure pile to be dealt with (somehow), a driveway to be plowed in winter…the list goes on and on.

At some point, as your operation grows, you will find that your wheelbarrow and pickup truck just aren’t cutting it anymore. You need some heavy metal. You need a tractor.

But if you’ve never purchased one before, the prospect of shopping for a tractor can be a daunting one. Walking into one of those dealerships where the five-story-tall, three-quarter-of-a-million-dollar combines and harvesters and balers and seed drills and Heaven-knows-what loom in the front lot like shiny invaders from another planet could tax the courage of the most fearless eventer. How in the heck do you sort out the Series 2013 Super Utility Combo Extra Supreme Plus model (with overdrive) from the 4WD, megahydraulic, 187 HP F9000.3, with optional front-end loader? How do you know how much tractor, and which attachments, are right for you?

As a self-professed tractor neophyte, I find myself in exactly this position. Here’s what I found out about tractors.

Small Is Beautiful: Lawn And Garden Tractors

For many small horse operations, the best little workhorse for all those chores might not be a traditional tractor at all, but a heavy-duty lawn and garden tractor. Technically, this class of tractors, which ranges up to about 22 HP (horsepower), is the "riding mower" type, and mowing grass is one of the things they do best. But the larger, more rugged machines in the group, sometimes designated as garden tractors, demonstrate their versatility by tackling a number of other jobs, too.

One of the big advantages in thinking small is maneuverability. Do you want a machine that can turn tight corners or be driven down the narrow aisle of your barn or between fencerows? Do you have limited space in which to park or store your tractor? Lawn and garden tractors have it all over their larger country cousins in this regard.

A mowing deck is standard with most tractors in the lawn and garden category, but there are several other attachments you can add. Tillers, snowblowers, blades (for pushing snow or arena footing), buckets, and rotary brooms are just some of the gadgets a garden tractor can run, with the help of a "power take off," or PTO, feature on the front end. (A PTO turns like an auger and provides power to the attachment.)

Pulling power is another feature of a lawn and garden tractor. Most are equipped to tow a small trailer, and have surprising towing power for their size. The maneuverability of a tiny tractor makes it a great choice for pulling a chain harrow to smooth out the footing in your riding ring or indoor arena…or you can transport hay bales out to the back forty to feed your pastured horses, move sacks of grain from your truck to the feed room, or even run a compact, ground-driven manure spreader through the barn at mucking time and straight out into the field for spreading.

Eric Peterson, sales manager at Heming Ltd., a tractor dealership in Peterborough, Ontario, says the first step in choosing the right machine is to ask yourself what you want the tractor to do for you. Prioritize these tasks. If mowing the lawn is Job One, and barn work a secondary consideration, then you’ll probably be able to get away with one of the smaller, less expensive models. But if you expect the tractor to be at work in the barn on a daily basis, go for one of the larger, more heavy-duty garden tractors, which have bigger tires and are built to take more abuse.

"If you’re not farming," says Peterson, "you don’t need a large machine. But you have to know what you want the tractor to do—and you also have to take into consideration whether your lot is hilly or flat, for example."

Although driving a lawn and garden tractor isn’t difficult, Peterson notes that many people prefer to choose a model with hydrostatic transmission (in essence, an "automatic" rather than a gear-shifting model). Running a machine like this is practically idiot-proof; like a golf cart, it has one pedal for forward, another for reverse, and that’s it. A diesel engine is another feature to consider. While not essential (and not a significant money-saver, with the small amount of fuel you’ll be going through), diesel engines do have a reputation for lasting longer.

Depending on the size of the machine you choose, and the features you add on, expect to spend between $2,000 and $10,000 (U.S.) on a lawn and garden tractor. Front buckets, blades, and small rear manure spreaders (with a capacity of about 50 bushels) are probably the most popular attachments for horse operations, and are priced separately in most cases.

An alternative to the lawn and garden tractor is a recreational or "utility" vehicle, such as a four-wheeled ATV or six-wheeled "gator." These machines can’t accept any power-driven attachments, but can pull a small trailer. This limits their use on the farm, but they can pull a chain harrow, for example, and they generally are simple to operate. Their other advantage is that they can go quite a bit faster than a lawn and garden tractor—so if you have a lot of property to cover (for instance, if you are building a cross-country course, or if you have a broodmare band turned out in a hundred-acre field), an ATV might be just the fun little machine you need to go zipping around on.

More Power!

A miniature machine is likely all you need if you have a four- or five-horse operation. But if your herd is larger than that, or if you have a lot of acreage to contend with, you’ll probably want to consider a "real" tractor. However, unless you’re doing your own haying or harvesting crops, you won’t need one of those bruisers in the "agricultural" class, with 130 to 150 HP. Instead, consider one of a new class of "compact utility" tractors, an in-between machine that can fulfill almost any function demanded of it by a horse farm. And it still takes up a relatively small parking space.

Any tractor with a horsepower greater than 22 is likely to be classified as a compact utility, but the average is about 35 to 40 HP, a number which is "more than sufficient for most horse operations," according to Bob Young, consumer products sales manager at Greendale Farm and Garden Supplies in Omemee, Ontario. In comparison with cattle or field crop operations, "Horse farms don’t require anything elaborate (in terms of equipment)," he adds. "A good basic machine, new or used, will often do the job."

Within the compact utility range of tractors, there still are an awful lot of choices to make. That’s why Young finds it’s often useful to go out and see his clients’ operations first-hand before making his recommendations. "Choosing the right tractor is a very individual thing. You want the customer to get the vehicle they need," he says. "This way, I can see exactly what they need—and what they don’t."

The major advantage of a compact utility tractor over a lawn and garden model is the rear PTO, a standard feature on most machines. With this power source, you can run a disc harrow, a full-size manure spreader, a serious snowblower, or any number of other attachments—making this tractor a real workhorse.

Although a used tractor might save you some money on the initial outlay, and might be perfectly adequate for your needs, there’s one compelling reason to take a serious look at a new machine: safety features. New models of tractors now are equipped with rollbars, officially termed ROPS (rollover protection system). We’ve all heard horror stories about tractors rolling over and crushing their operators—and while a rollbar won’t prevent a machine from tipping over, it will support the weight of the machine and keep it from settling on top of its former occupant, allowing him or her to crawl out of danger. Most ROPS are capable of temporarily folding out of the way if you need to park the tractor in a tight space, or drive under low-hanging branches.

The other safety feature incorporated in many new model tractors is an automatic shutoff for the PTO drive, which activates as soon as you leave the seat of the tractor. The tractor engine remains running, but the auto shutoff on power attachments means that you won’t accidentally get caught in your snowblower or manure spreader.

A newer tractor also has a significant edge in terms of ease of operation, according to Young. If you’ve never operated a tractor before, this might be an important detail.

"Compact utilities come in gear-driven or hydrostatic (automatic) transmissions," says Young, "and I usually recommend the hydrostatic. Anyone can drive one of these; you don’t need to be an engineer to get the job done."

One thing these tractors don’t have is speed. "Highway" speed for most compact utilities is in the 18 mph range, according to Young. This, too, in its way, is a safety feature.

Although officially it’s considered an add-on feature, many compact utility tractors come equipped with a front-end bucket or fork (rather the way most cars on a dealer’s lot come with the "optional" automatic transmission and air conditioning). These can be extremely useful around the farm for heavy lifting. With a front-end attachment, you can hoist a round hay bale in the air and trundle it over to the next field with little or no effort, or transport lumber for fence-building.

Another gadget worth considering is a bush-hog, which is a lawnmower with a serious attitude. A bush-hog isn’t a subtle machine; it won’t give your front lawn a golf-green trim. But it’ll make short work of the weed patches in your pasture and around your fencelines, even to the point of taking out scrub saplings four inches thick. If you have a large acreage to care for, you’ll find you get lots of use out of this attachment.

Most horse operations also will want to acquire a PTO-driven manure spreader to go with their tractor. There are various models and sizes available, with your choice depending on the width of your barn aisle and the number of horses you muck daily. Expect to pay $2,000 or more for one of these—but calculate the cost against the number of trips you’d otherwise be making to the manure pile with your wheelbarrow (not to mention the possible expense of having someone take that pile away).

The good news about attachments is that they tend to be universal in fit—so don’t despair if your tractor is a Ford and your bush-hog a John Deere. Furthermore, most of these gadgets now are designed so that they are relatively simple for one person to attach and remove from the main tractor body, a relief for singles who aren’t particularly mechanically inclined!

While compact utility tractors come in both two-wheel drive and four-wheel drive models, Young says there’s little point in a two-wheel drive tractor. He points out that the price difference is negligible, and that the resale value of 2WD tractors is poor; furthermore, four-wheel drive is a blessing if you find yourself having to do any field work, driving through snow, or having to pull your pickup truck out of the spring mud!

"It’s twice the tractor for virtually the same price," says Young.

And what is that price? It can vary from region to region, and will certainly fluctuate considerably depending on the attachments you purchase, but Young suggests you should expect to pay between $15,000 and $22,000 U.S. for a new compact utility tractor.

Decisions, Decisions…

That’s a pretty significant chunk of cash, so if you’re going to take the plunge, you’ll feel much better if you’re confident you’re getting exactly the right machine for the job. A good salesperson can be an invaluable ally in your tractor search, particularly if you’re feeling a little overwhelmed.

"You give me an idea of what you want, and I’ll steer you toward the right machine," says Peterson.

Whatever tractor you buy, you’ll have to factor in the cost of maintenance if you want it to remain in good running condition. Young says, "It’s a cliche, but an ounce of prevention is still worth a pound of cure. Treat your tractor just as you would your car, checking the oil, giving it regular tune-ups, and so forth. Your dealer, or a small engine repair specialist, is your best bet."

In the end, buying a tractor isn’t much different from buying a car. You’ll look at a bunch, take a few for a test drive, listen to some sales pitches, ask some questions, and litter your kitchen with glossy brochures…and eventually, you’ll find the machine for you.

About the Author

Karen Briggs

Karen Briggs is the author of six books, including the recently updated Understanding Equine Nutrition as well as Understanding The Pony, both published by Eclipse Press. She's written a few thousand articles on subjects ranging from guttural pouch infections to how to compost your manure. She is also a Canadian certified riding coach, an equine nutritionist, and works in media relations for the harness racing industry. She lives with her band of off-the-track Thoroughbreds on a farm near Guelph, Ontario, and dabbles in eventing.

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