Rather than memorize the owner’s manual or drag it out each day, put together a checklist of tractor-maintenance duties to accomplish before starting the day’s work. While relatively simple and fairly logical, until they become routine, it’s easy to miss one or more steps.
In preparing this article, I consulted Craig Tammel, my neighbor and a mechanic at Preston Equipment Co., the local John Deere dealership in Preston, Minn. He helped me compile these seven daily tractor-maintenance steps to help prevent problems with safety and upkeep.
1. Start with a visual inspection of your small farm tractor.
Check for leaks and worn or loose hoses or cables. Dirt buildups could be a sign of minute leaks. Repair for leaks, big or small, might simply entail tightening or replacing hoses or clamps or tightening drain plugs. Check the glass sediment bowl beneath the fuel filter for water or material. Some tractor models, especially newer ones, have check windows for hydraulic reservoir fluid levels.
This is also a good time to verify that your tractor’s safety features, such as PTO shields, are in place and lights, including hazard lights and turn indicators, are in working order. Tammel recommends checking that the neutral start switch is operating correctly. (It prevents the tractor from starting while in gear.)
2. Check the tractor’s radiator-fluid level.
Gradual loss of fluids over time can be expected in your small farm tractor; however, if a significant amount of additional coolant is needed, it may indicate other, more serious problems, such as coolant leaking into engine oil, Tammel warns.
“Coolant can enter through faulty head gaskets or cylinder O-rings,” he says. “A gear-driven water pump can also be the cause.”
3. Check the fan’s drive belt for wear and tension, and visually inspect the radiator core and grill screen.
Any dirt or debris should be cleared out using air pressure to avoid damaging the fins on the radiator. If your tractor cab is equipped with air conditioning, take a minute to check the condenser, and remove any debris built up around it, as well. If cleaning with a pressure washer, take care not to bend radiator fins or damage seals or other components.
4. Top off the tractor’s fuel tank.
It’s good to have a fresh supply of fuel for the days work, plus you can empty any sediment or water you see in the sediment bowl. It may be necessary to partially drain the tractor’s fuel tank to remove excess water. Fuel should always be fresh—no more than three months in storage, according to Tammel.
“If you are using smaller fuel storage, like 5-gallon cans, check to be sure they are clean and rust-free,” he says. “You don’t want to dump rust and contaminants into the tractor’s fuel tank.”
Gas tractors using ethanol blends pose another concern. Over time, ethanol in the presence of as little as 4 teaspoons of water per gallon can separate from gasoline and mix with the water. Tammel suggests adding a fuel conditioner to keep components in both gas and diesel fuels stable and in solution.
“John Deere and most other manufacturers offer additives,” he says. “In the winter, an anti-gelling additive is a good idea in cold climates, even when using a winter diesel blend. In the summer, additives help with lubricity now that sulfur has been mostly removed from diesel fuel.”
5. Check the tractor’s oil.
If adding gas required you to start your tractor and drive a short distance to fuel storage, you’re ready to check oil levels. If not, start the engine, and let it warm up before checking the oil. Stop the engine, and give it a few minutes before checking the dipstick or other oil-level indicator. If you have an older tractor, this is a good time to check oil levels in gearboxes with their own reservoirs. Check hydraulic and transmission fluid, as well. Some tractor models share a common reservoir for both.
Add oil as needed. Like with the coolant, low engine-oil levels are indicators of other problems. Unlike coolant, internal oil leaks will usually show up first as blue smoke in the exhaust or as reduced power.
As a final step in daily tractor lubrication, grease joints. Out-of-the-way grease zerks—the small metal fittings for inserting grease into mechanical joints—are easy to miss. When initially compiling your checklist, do a careful count of all fittings, and count them off when you use your grease gun.
6. Check the tractor’s tire pressure.
A tire-pressure check takes only a minute or two, but it’s important for safe and efficient small farm tractor use, not to mention tire life.
If you run tires with excessively low tire pressure, tread wear increases dramatically, as does fuel use. Think of the recommended pressure as a good guideline, but adjust air pressure for the type of work planned for the day ahead. If road travel is expected, add a few pounds of pressure to each tire. If tillage is on your agenda, reduce pressure by a few pounds. Loader use may go more smoothly with a few more pounds in the front tires, while heavy lifting on the rear might benefit from a few more pounds of pressure in rear tires. Checking air pressure in the spring is especially important, as tires can lose pressure over the winter.
7. Check air filter (optional).
It’s not necessary to check tractor air filters on a daily basis; however, if you find crop- or weed-residue buildup on your radiator or grill screen or you’ve been operating in particularly dirty conditions, take a look.
“Watch for air restrictions that affect power and also for dusty operating conditions that can put an extra load on air filters,” Tammel says. “Black smoke in the exhaust can also be a sign of insufficient air mixing with the fuel.”
Most air filters today have a larger outside filter and a smaller (backup) inner filter. The inner filter should not be pulled out, except for replacement. If the outer filter is visibly dirty, remove it and blow it out using no more than 35-psi airflow; then return it to the housing. Wipe out any dirt or dust before closing the housing.
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2012 issue of Hobby Farms.