Farm Equipment

Buying a tractor, implements, mowers, towing vehicles, and trailers can be daunting; here’s a little help from the experts to get you started.

Every one of you who owns a farm has dreams of perfect pastures, well-manicured stable areas, and hassle-free transport of your equine companions. The reality is that to fulfill these dreams, you're going to need some expensive equipment. Tractors, lawn mowers, trucks, and trailers are among the biggest purchases you'll make for your farm, and the markets for these items are filled with complex jargon about engines, hitches, and implements. So it's not surprising that for the uninitiated, buying farm equipment can be an intimidating and confusing process. In this article we'll have experts share their knowledge to give you a leg up on your next major purchase.


"Don't be intimidated by looking for a tractor, people who are buying this stuff typically don't know what they're doing, that's the norm," says Neil Messick, who works in tractor sales at Messick Farm Equipment in Central Pennsylvania. "Three out of four tractors we sell are going to someone who has never been on one before."

According to Messick, a compact tractor will meet the needs of most horse farm owners. In The Compact Tractor Bible, author Graeme R. Quick defines the compact tractor as a "mobile machine that meets a need for a versatile, self-driving compact power unit and tool carrier for working smaller areas," and that those in the tractor industry generally consider machines up to 55 horsepower as compact tractors.

Most horse owners are looking for a compact tractor to perform chores such as moving manure and hay bales, grooming riding arenas, and carrying small loads. Generally the starting price point for new machines is about $10,000 and, according to Messick, most horse farm owners will find something to suit their needs in the $10,000 to $15,000 range. "In the horse business, it's unusual to see someone spending more than $20,000 on a machine," he says.

Farm owners must buy implements for the compact tractor separately, and these items can add another few thousand dollars to the overall cost, according to Messick. He says a loader is at the top of most horse owners' lists, along with manure spreaders, snow blades, and harrows to smooth riding areas.

As years have gone by, Messick says manufacturers have refined tractor designs to make it much easier to take implements on and off the tractors. "Years ago it would take 20 minutes to take a loader off, today you can do that in two to three minutes," he says.

New electronic systems in compact tractors are also making rookie tractor drivers' lives easier. Instead of a manual transmission, new compact tractors now have computers that can sense the weight of loads and change gears automatically. "You used to have to spend a lot of time in the driver's seat to learn how the machine works, but new technology has allowed the average driver to more easily get 100% capacity out of the tractor," says Messick.

As with many consumer items, with tractors you generally get what you pay for, and keep in mind that the used tractor market is very different from the used car market. "Tractors do not depreciate in value nearly as quickly as cars do," says Messick. "To really save money on a used tractor, you typically have to buy something that's pretty old and pretty beat up."

That doesn't mean buying a used tractor is a bad idea, it's just best to stick to one that is a brand name so that you are easily able to find parts for repairs. The big names in the compact tractor world are Kubota, John Deere, and New Holland, which together make up about 90% of the market share. Messick warns against buying a tractor from smaller, lesser-known companies, as often buyers will only save 10% to 15%, and they will not have the parts and service support the larger companies offer.

"It's just not smart to save $1,500 if you have to buy from a company that might be unstable," he says. "This is something you're going to have for the next 30 years, so that company's ability to provide long-term parts support is pretty darn important."

Lawn Mowers

While some farm owners can get by with using a compact tractor with a mow deck implement for their lawn care, smaller lawn tractors are often better suited to cutting grass around barns and fencelines because of their maneuverability.

In the last 20 years riding mowers have evolved from simple lawn care machines with 12-horsepower engines to small tractors with 17- to 25-horsepower engines that aren't limited to grass cutting duties. Today these tough little machines can pull carts and push snow blades. Depending on features and engine power, the price of riding mowers can range from $1,500 up to $6,000 for a nice garden tractor.

The most important thing to consider when purchasing a lawn tractor is the size of the area you'll be mowing and the terrain, according to Dan Spaulding, corporate sales manager at Reynolds Farm Equipment, one of the largest John Deere dealers in the Midwest. "The customer is going to know his or her yard the best," he says. "Know your landscape and terrain and let the salespeople know what your big vision is for this machine."

Another important factor to consider is how much time you want to spend mowing versus what you can afford to pay for a lawn tractor. A small machine with a 42-inch-wide mower deck with only two blades might cost $1,500 less than a machine with a 48- or 54-inch mower deck with three blades, but it will take much longer to mow a large area. "Let's say you're cutting three acres; on a bigger mower you can sometimes do that in an hour, where a smaller mower will take you three hours," says Spaulding. "Even if you only save one hour of time every time you cut your grass, over the 10-year life of a mower, that's pretty substantial. It all comes down to what your time is worth to you."

If you want a mower that really cuts down on grass cutting time, a zero-turn mower might be the best choice. Like a tank, zero-turn mowers can pivot 360 degrees, which can virtually eliminate the need for a weed-eater in the tight spots. Instead of a steering wheel, the driver operates the machine with two levers--one that controls the left side wheels, and one that controls the right. Spaulding says that these machines begin at about $2,900.

"A lot of people are intimidated by the zero-turn because it's a different steering system, but once you test-drive one, it's pretty simple," says Spaulding. "In fact, I recommend you test drive any machine you're thinking about buying because you'll learn if you like operating it."

For those unwilling to give up a traditional steering wheel, or those unable to splurge on a zero-turn, a four-wheel steer lawn tractor offers more turning ability with no learning curve and at a lower price. "It's what I call the lawn tractor's fight against the zero-turn," says Spaulding.

Much like a four-wheel-drive truck or car, all four wheels will turn, allowing the mower to maneuver sharply. "Granted, they're not turning 360 degrees, but they're easier to drive," says Spaulding.

Trucks and Trailers

Trailers and the trucks and SUVs used to haul them are an area where safety should be the top priority. When shopping for a horse trailer, the No. 1 mistake people make is trying to make the trailer fit the towing vehicle they already have. This buying process should be done in reverse, according to Tom Scheve, owner of EquiSpirit Trailers in North Carolina and co-author of The Complete Guide to Buying, Maintaining, and Servicing a Horse Trailer.

"Number one, you need to know what size horses you're going to be hauling, number two, you need to buy a trailer to fit those horses, and number three, you buy the tow vehicle based on how much weight you're carrying," says Scheve.

"I know this sounds simple, but so many people do it wrong because they'll buy a vehicle first, planning to get the trailer later on, then they end up with a vehicle that's too small," he adds.

Another common mistake that Scheve sees is people overloading their tagalong frame-mounted hitches. Hitches have their own ratings and are designed to hold different amounts of weight, regardless of the weight your tow vehicle can pull. "Theoretically, you could have a three-quarter-ton truck that can pull 16,000 pounds, but have a hitch on it that can only handle 4,000 pounds," says Scheve.

People are often confused because these hitches have two sets of ratings: a weight carrying rating (tow and tongue weight), which is the weight the hitch can safely carry on its own using just a slide-in ball mount; and a weight distribution rating, which is the weight the hitch can safely carry with the help of a weight distribution system (often erroneously called sway bars). Drivers run into trouble when they mistakenly assume that the higher weight distribution rating (which is generally double the number of the weight carrying rating) is what the hitch can handle, not realizing that extra weight distribution equipment is needed.

"People are usually worried about the size of the tow vehicle and what it can pull and are confused about hitch ratings, which can be very dangerous," says Scheve, who recommends familiarizing yourself with the different hitch ratings before ever putting your rig together. Consult an expert when navigating the waters of hitch selection.

When you have selected a trailer based on what horses you'll be hauling, then it's time to choose the tow vehicle. Scheve says that regardless of whether the tow vehicle is a truck or an SUV, there are a few important points to remember.

The first is to select a vehicle with a good wheelbase, which is the distance between the front and back wheels. A short wheelbase generally cannot handle the trailer tongue weight. The trailer puts too much weight on the back of the axle and pushes the front end of the vehicle up, like a teeter-totter. With a longer wheelbase this is less likely to happen. "I'd like to see, at minimum, 118 inches, but the more the better," says Scheve.

Secondly, Scheve likes to see a tow vehicle with some weight and substance to it. This will ensure that the trailer is not impacting the performance of the vehicle. "You won't have the tail wagging the dog if you have a tow vehicle with a good weight to it," he says.

Finally, the vehicle needs to have the right pulling capacity, which is why knowing the sizes of the horses you are hauling, and choosing the trailer first, are important. In this way you'll go into the dealership knowing exactly how much weight you need your new vehicle to tow.

Take-Home Message

When your knowledge of horsepower is limited to the four-legged kind, shopping for motorized farm equipment can be intimidating. However, the task becomes less daunting if you first determine your budget and what jobs you need your farm equipment to perform. Knowing your needs and what you can afford will help you whittle down that long list of models. Enlisting the help of knowledgeable salespeople and asking questions will ensure that you select the right machine for your needs and don't end up making an expensive error.

About the Author

Liz Brown

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