Big Tillers: Tow-Behind Tillers and Tractor-Mounted PTO Tillers

Tackling big tillers, and top considerations when buying or renting.

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courtesy Visual Services-East Moline
Tow-behind tillers break up ground in a single pass.

When my wife and I purchased our rural land, we had several plans to develop and enhance the property. We discussed gardens, food plots for wildlife, and even the possibility of planting a vineyard.

Sitting around the dinner table, we drew maps with the locations for our projects on paper, and even laid out plot sizes. A 3-acre vineyard would allow us to plant a few hundred grape vines of different varieties, and we designated spots for a couple of 1-acre food plots for wildlife. We also wanted a garden — a big garden — for all sorts of vegetables that we never had room for in town.

After staring at the layout of our upcoming projects, a sudden wave of reality set in. We had designed more than 5 acres of land to get ready for planting, and in its current state, it was overgrown with weeds and thick prairie grass. Its soil hadn’t seen a plow in 15 years. I planned to spray a broad-spectrum herbicide in the spring to get rid of the unwanted weeds, and we owned an 8N Ford with a two-bottom plow that would break up soil. But to get ready for spring planting, it would take a lot more work and equipment.

I couldn’t wait to start working the land in the spring, and after spraying and plowing the plots, I started using a small disc that could be pulled behind my ATV to break up the plowing. Frustration quickly set in, as even working the small garden plot required hours of passing over the plowing with the disc that still left many clods that would impede planting.

I have a small walk-behind tiller that I used on my small garden in town, so I decided to start working the garden plot with the tiller. After spending another couple of hours with the small tiller, with less than desirable results, I knew I had to find an alternative. I stopped by our local farm implement dealer and asked about renting a PTO-mounted tiller. Because my 8N does not have a “live” PTO, he suggested I rent a small tractor with a PTO-mounted tiller that would do most of the work I had in mind.

I rented the tractor, tiller, and trailer for one day and was able to disc my garden and two food plots with ease. I also spread some fertilizer and lime to amend the soil, and incorporated the additives with the tiller. The rental wasn’t inexpensive — I paid 250 dollars for one day of use — but I didn’t see any other alternative if I wanted to get my various projects planted in time.

It has been 17 years since that first year of breaking up the soil on our land, and since that time I have purchased a tractor and PTO-mounted tiller and have found both to be invaluable to me when working our property. If you find yourself needing to till land in areas larger than a small garden, tow-behind tillers and tractor-mounted PTO-driven tillers may be a great option for you.

Tiller basics

Tillers have a variety of uses and come in many shapes and sizes. Regardless of the size of tiller, they all share a basic design that uses spinning tines or blades that are mounted on a central shaft that is driven by a transmission powered by either its own mounted engine or an outside power source such as a tractor’s PTO. Besides breaking up soil for planting, tilling soil increases soil aeration, and the turning blades are great for incorporating not only fertilizer but organic material like compost or manure into the soil.

Tow-behind tillers

Tow-behind tillers were designed for people who need a powerful tiller but perhaps don’t have a tractor with a PTO, or those who need to use the tiller in tight, tough-to-get-at places. Tow-behind tillers have the distinct advantage of being able to be pulled by a variety of equipment such as garden tractors, ATVs, UTVs, and even small utility tractors.

If you are not familiar with a pull- or tow-behind tiller, think of your walk-behind tiller but with a lot more power. You may find walk-behind tillers in power ranging from as little as 1/2 horsepower all the way up to 12 horsepower. Most pull-behind tillers are going to be in the 12 horsepower range, but they have the distinct advantage of not having to use their power to also propel the tiller. Tow-behind tillers can devote all of their torque to the task of turning the tines, which equates to more power to break up hard, compacted soil. Tow-behind tillers also have the advantage of covering a lot more area per tilling pass. They come in tilling widths in the neighborhood of 36 to 48 inches, and most attach via a standard hitch-pin setup.

Tow-behind tillers’ versatility really comes into play when you have hard-to-reach areas, such as food plots that are off the beaten path, and several models come with pneumatic tires that allow you to safely travel over uneven ground. Most have the ability to adjust the depth of till — though limited — by several inches.

Tow-behind considerations

If you are considering purchasing or renting a tow-behind tiller, you should carefully consider what your needs are.

• How much horsepower do I need? Am I mainly using it to break up new soil, or will I be mostly doing maintenance on existing land?

• What are you going to be attaching the tiller to? ATV, UTV, or your garden or other small tractor? What kind of hitch system do I have or will I need?

• Can I get by with a 36-inch tilling width, or do I need a 48-inch?

• If you are doing remote plots, what type of tires are on the unit? Getting a flat tire a mile off the road can be a real pain. Match the tires to your usage.

• Should I rent or purchase the tiller? If you are going to be using the tiller on a consistent yearly basis, you may want to consider purchasing, as rental costs on tow-behinds can be expensive, and you could justify purchasing one if you rent too often.

PTO tractor-mounted tillers

If you currently own or are thinking about purchasing a compact or mid-size tractor, you may want to consider adding a three-point hitch mounted rotary tiller. The benefit of using your tractor’s PTO power and hydraulic three-point hitch to get your tilling work done is that it’s fast and efficient. About the only disadvantage of a tractor-mounted tiller is that they require a fairly wide-open area to operate in, so tight spaces can be a hindrance.

Tractor-mounted tillers are available in a variety of sizes to match tractor horsepower and category of hitch. From subcompact tractors with 16 horsepower to full-size 100 horsepower tractors, there is a tiller that is designed to fit your needs. Most tillers can be purchased in width sizes to match the tractor’s wheel width for one pass tilling. The depth of the till can usually be set by adjusting the shoes on the tiller and with additional control with the tractor’s hydraulic system.

PTO-driven tiller considerations

When looking for a tractor-mounted PTO-driven tiller, there are some basic considerations.

• If you have a tractor already and are looking to add a tiller, make sure you match the horsepower rating of the tiller to your tractor’s capability. Putting too big of a tiller in horsepower rating on a smaller tractor can create serious problems for both the tractor and tiller. Follow the manufacturer’s guidelines on tiller and tractor pairing.

• What type of work will you be using the tiller for, and how often? Tractor-mounted tillers come in many flavors and durability levels. You may pay more for a heavy-duty tiller but you may be able to get a lifetime out of a lighter-duty tiller based on use. Will you be breaking new soil every year and tilling heavy crop residue, or will your use be more moderate?

• What type of drive system does the tiller have? Chain drives and gear and shaft drives are the standard options. While chain-driven systems function well, gear drives tend to be heavier built and stand up to more rugged use.

• Does it have a slip clutch or use a shear pin? A slip clutch allows the tiller to disengage when it encounters a solid object such as a rock or large root. This saves excessive damage to the gear box of the tiller and mitigates the stress that can be placed on your tractor. Shear pins are a “bolt” that is designed to break if it encounters damaging torque. With a slip clutch, you can back up or lift the tiller with the hydraulics, and you are on your way. If you break a shear pin, you had better have a spare pin with you, or you’re done for the day.

• As with a tow-behind tiller, determining if you should rent or purchase a PTO-driven tiller really depends on the amount of use. Renting a tiller can be expensive, plus you have to trailer your tractor to the rental shop, hook up the tiller, load up, and drive back to your location. It doesn’t take but one or two trips before your time and effort outweigh the cost of ownership. If it is truly a one-time project, then maybe renting is the way to go.

Tillers can be one of the most versatile tools that you will ever use on your farm or rural property. Regardless of the type of tiller you choose, your tiller will help you minimize the time and effort involved in soil preparation, readying seed beds, or providing non-chemical weed reduction.

Consider plowing with pigs — you don’t need a tractor to get the crops planted.

Tim Nephew is a freelance writer who lives in Minnesota, where he owns and maintains 80 acres for wildlife to enjoy. He contributes regularly to the pages of Grit, as well as our sister publications, including Mother Earth News.

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