Compact Tractors: What to Consider When Buying

What things factor in to choosing appropriate compact tractors?

| May/June 2010

You’ve decided to take the financial plunge because your back just won’t take all the lifting. You’ve put off those earth-moving projects long enough, but you need a machine that can do much more than dig. In two years, you want to make a little hay, but the driveway needs grading, too. You’ve decided that a compact tractor will fit the bill, but there are so many choices. And what does shuttle-shift transmission really mean?

When it comes to choosing a first tractor, the process can be daunting, but armed with a little implement understanding and machinery know-how, you can learn to speak the dealer’s language and get what you need.

Compact tractor models have proliferated in North America ever since Kubota defined the market back in the 1960s. Today, the compact tractor arena is crowded with models that run the gamut – economy, entry level to fully tricked out. Add variations in chassis size and weight with widely ranging engine power to transmission choices that are almost continuously variable, and you have a decision-maker’s mess on your mind. Figuring out what you need is a little more difficult than figuring out what you want, but the process need not be as daunting as it initially appears. 

Begin with the basics

Every tractor worth considering will have a clean, fuel-efficient diesel engine, transmission(s), rear 3-point hitch, rear drawbar, one or two power take-off (PTO) points and a hydraulic system. Most of the tractors also will be equipped with four-wheel drive (if it’s optional, I would nearly always recommend investing in the option), a loader (invariably worth the money) and occasionally a backhoe or other mounted rear attachment. You should think of the tractor as a pulling/pushing machine as well as a platform for attaching and powering implements and other tools as diverse as emergency home generators, snow plows and belly-mounted finish mowers. Basic tractors without any attachments will cost anywhere from about $10,000 to well over $30,000 depending on their power rating, size and the level to which they are appointed with high-end engines, transmissions and hydraulic systems. 

Power to the people

One of the first questions you’ll need to answer in your quest for the perfect tractor relates to power – PTO power and pulling power. Unfortunately, most makers lead with net engine power, because it is a larger number than PTO power, but PTO power is important to know when you plan to run PTO-powered implements like rear shredder mowers and rotary tillers. The PTO power rating will determine the size mower or tiller you can efficiently run with the tractor – not whether you can run one at all. If you need to mow with a 6-foot wide mower, you will need more PTO horsepower than if you will mow with a 4-foot-wide model. For most rural enthusiasts, PTO power in the 25 to 50 hp range should suffice.  

Since many makers offer several tractor chassis sizes in overlapping hp ranges, you will also want to consider the weight of implements and other devices you plan to push or pull with the tractor. In general, the more the machine weighs, the more traction you will have for moving and stopping. So if you’re like me and love the sound of a direct-injected, turbocharged diesel engine’s turbo spooling up – consider carefully whether you really need that extra power compared with the non-turbocharged engine. If you really don’t need it, save yourself some money and buy what you need, not what you want. Likewise, if you need more PTO power, but not a heavier platform, consider making the power upgrade in a smaller chassis machine. 

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