Selecting Farm Equipment
Almost every farm needs a good commercial-grade mower, an appropriately sized tractor, a loader, a manure spreader, and a chain-drag harrow.
Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt/The Horse
Travel to any major equine event (think All American Quarter Horse Congress or Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event), and you will see vendors advertising a variety of products for people in the horse industry. If you’re in the market for farm equipment, there are great opportunities to compare prices and products. While large farm equipment options such as tractors are not always on-site at the vendor booths, small- to mid-sized pieces, such as drags, arena-watering equipment, mowers, and utility vehicles, might be on display. Local dealers and representatives from various companies man these booths to describe the products and help you decide what you need for your property.
Manufacturers also provide information about their products on the Internet. If you’re in the market for farm equipment, online searches are a great way to start reviewing what each company offers and to find local dealers. You might also visit sites such as TractorByNet.com, which advertises itself as “the world’s largest tractor community” and offers tractor and equipment guides and reviews, forums for discussion, classified ads, and even a dealer locator.
Types of Equipment
Depending on your mowing needs, a compact tractor (a small, versatile machine with, on average, 30 to 50 horsepower) with a mower attachment might get the job done in both your fields and yard. At one farm where I used to board the owners had a lawn tractor, small chain drag, and a small friction-driven manure spreader that met all their needs. They were very good at rotational grazing, which kept the need for mowing the fields to a minimum. However, the farm was only about 15 acres and housed 10 horses, so there was not a lot of extra land to -manage.
Steven Anderson, founder of Equine Savings, a Georgetown, Ky., company that provides group purchasing benefits for horse farms, equine facilities, and individuals, says almost every farm needs the following: a good commercial-grade zero-turn mower; an appropriately sized tractor; a loader; a manure spreader; and a chain-drag harrow. A good utility vehicle is also a plus, he says. Paul Williams, senior product manager for Kubota Tractor Corporation, adds, “The single most popular piece of equipment (among horse farm owners) is a utility tractor equipped with a front-end loader. The loader handles multitudes of material, from hay and grain to (muck from) cleaning stalls and corrals.” Additionally, he says farm owners use their tractors to maintain pastures, exercise areas, and arenas, which can involve mowing, fertilizing, and dragging.
In an extension publication from Louisiana State University, Dick Parish, MS, PhD, recommends asking yourself the following questions when deciding on a tractor purchase:
- Will I want a tractor mostly for mowing, or are there other farm chores for which I need a tractor?
- Do I need a front-end loader for digging, loading, or hauling materials?
- Will I be using the tractor for extended periods of time at full power?
Once you have answered these questions, you will have a better idea of whether a compact or even subcompact tractor (which lands somewhere between a compact and garden tractor in size, typically with less than 30 horsepower) will meet your needs. It’s also important to investigate what types of attachments come with each tractor, and what must be purchased separately. Will you need a blade or plow for clearing snow in the winter? Do you need a hay spear to transport round bales? No matter what type of tractor you purchase, you should make sure that parts and repair services are available. This is especially important when purchasing an older used tractor. Some light-duty lawn and garden tractors are designed to last for a short period of time (six to nine years, according to the LSU Ag Center), and parts availability might be limited. Make sure to discuss this with any dealers before purchasing.
“When choosing a tractor that may have multiple operators, target one that's user-friendly to operate.”
Selecting a manure spreader and chain harrow is a bit simpler than choosing a tractor. However, the size of your tractor might impact the type of spreader or harrow you choose. Questions I suggest asking when choosing a spreader include the following:
- How many horses do I have, and how much time do they spend in their stalls? Ideally you’ll secure a spreader large enough to minimize the number of trips needed to empty it when cleaning stalls.
- Is it the appropriate size for the tractor I will use to haul it? Is it operated by ground-drive (connecting directly to the engine with a belt) or PTO (power -take-off, drawing energy from the engine)? You want to make sure your tractor and spreader are compatible.
- What kind of bedding will I use, and is this spreader designed to handle it? Straw bedding will require a more rugged spreader.
Selecting What You Need
“Many farms buy too much equipment or oversized equipment,” Anderson says. A local dealer or extension agent can offer useful input and help you identify your needs.
Choosing equipment that is too large for your operation will very likely end up costing you more in both initial purchase price and fuel, but equipment that is too small for your needs will require more man hours to complete the job and might cause equipment to wear out faster—leading to more repairs or replacement.
“When choosing a tractor that may have multiple operators, target one that’s user-friendly to operate,” Williams suggests. “Today the hydrostatic transmission (which offers the most maneuvering and speed control) in compact tractors is very popular, or in larger utility tractors the hydraulic shuttle transmission for easy direction changing (from forward to reverse, and vice versa) that does not require the use of a clutch pedal all the time.” He also recommends finding a tractor with a quiet, smooth-running engine for working around horses as well as excellent maneuverability for working around smaller corrals and horse barns.
Anderson says you should also consider what similar-sized farms in your area are using and with what success. “Sharing of resources and information is a great way to make sure you are getting the best value for your dollar,” he says. “Again, don’t overbuy; get the right equipment with versatility.”
The University of Nebraska “Nebraska Tractor Tests” might be of help when you evaluate the variety of tractors available. Originally designed to test tractors sold only in Nebraska, it has now expanded to include almost every tractor produced and marketed within the United States and is considered a nationally accepted standard for farm tractor comparison. The advisory group for these tests includes Nebraska farmers, implement dealers, and extension agents. Information includes, but is not limited to, engine specifications, turning radius, fuel consumption and efficiency under a variety of situations, tractor sound level, and hitch performance. Test reports are available at http://tractortestlab.unl.edu/testreports and are designed to give property owners the ability to compare tractors without product endorsement bias.
To Purchase, Rent, or Lease
Depending on your farm’s needs, you might find that renting or leasing equipment (or even joint ownership with a neighbor or two) might be more economical than purchasing all your own equipment. Iowa State University researchers have produced an article on these various alternatives that includes questions to ask before making a decision, and the advantages and disadvantages of each option. Ownership is the most popular option, as it provides long-term control of the machinery and might be less expensive in the long-run if the implement is something that will be used on a regular basis. Joint ownership might be more economical, but cooperation between the parties involved, including a written agreement on use and how dissolving the partnership will be handled, is very important.
Rental can be a good option if the equipment is something you only need for a short time. Williams believes there are some cases where renting makes good financial sense: “Some applications like ground preparation, where you would use a specialized power rake or rotary tiller, could be a good choice for renting the implement to put on your own tractor.”
Anderson has thoughts on this topic as well: “For seasonal use a rental makes great sense. You don’t need to worry about upkeep or the added purchase expense.” He recommends renting heavy equipment and farm-project items such as posthole diggers, trenchers, and stump grinders. It is probably most economical to rent anything that will only get light and infrequent use, especially for smaller operations.
Rental agreements usually guarantee the use of a piece of equipment for a short period of time. This could be a one-time use for a specific job, such as a posthole digger when installing fence, or a long-term use, such as renting hay-making equipment for a season. Edwards notes in the Iowa State article that one of the biggest concerns is how well the previous renter cared for the equipment. Make sure the company offers a guarantee on equipment condition before you take possession.
As for leasing, Anderson has the following advice: “Leasing is a great way to keep fresh equipment for large fleets; use a trusted source to help you manage your assets. For example, a low-hour user will have different needs than a large commercial equine farm or facility.”
Long-term farm equipment leases are becoming more popular, and leases of three to five years are not uncommon. Depending on the agreement, you might have options at the end of the lease to exchange for a newer piece of equipment, purchase outright, or return with no obligations.
Another option to consider would be hiring a professional to do the job for you, especially with short-term or one-time needs, such as applying fertilizer or herbicides to fields, seeding pastures, removing trees, or leveling an area for a riding ring. In this case you would be hiring an individual or company who owns and operates the equipment desired to do a specific job. An advantage is that you would not need to acquire special licensing, which some states require for applying herbicides or pesticides or for operation certain equipment. Downsides include scheduling conflicts and expense.
Any farm equipment dealer or company representative you speak with should be ready to answer your questions. Always comparison shop to ensure you are getting the best deal. You might also want to see if companies have references for others in your area who have purchased, leased, or rented their equipment. They should have clients that can speak to the service they received and the reliability of the equipment.
Anderson offers some final advice for people purchasing equipment for their farms: “Look for the best overall value; while the creature comforts are nice, they all add to inflated prices. Find equipment with rugged durability and proven track records in the industry. Seek out industry leaders (known for) reliability; spend money on quality and versatility. Doing your homework and comparing brands will pay off down the road.”
About the Author
Janice L. Holland, PhD, PAS is an associate professor of Equine Studies at Midway College in Midway, KY. Her main academic interests are equine nutrition, pasture management, and behavior.