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Power Equipment Purchasing Options

Tractor, ATV or two-wheel walk-behind—the right workhorse for your farm is out there.

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Tractor maintenance
Courtesy Bobcat
Regular maintenance is vital to extending the life of your farm machinery.

Tractor Safety
Less easy to overlook is your own age and health or that of other family members. The ergonomic design of controls and cab, as well as platform access, can impact ease of use and long-term satisfaction with your purchase. Of course, it also impacts the type of power source you are considering, notes Roberson.

“A younger person may tip his decision toward a walk-behind, while an older person with health problems may tip toward a conventional tractor,” he says.

Safety features should play a major role in the decision-making process between two tractors. When considering a tractor with a roll-over protective structure (ROPS) and one without, always go with the ROPS. If use under trees or low roofs is expected, ask if the ROPS can be collapsed or folded back temporarily. Test the seatbelt and make sure it is easy to connect and detach. ROPS are 99 percent effective in preventing injury or death from a roll over when used with a seat belt. Even without a seat belt, they are 95 percent effective.

New advances may make driving a tractor even safer. “Work is being done on an automatically deployed roll bar,” notes Roberson, who expects it to be widely adopted if successful. “The tractor industry is pretty open and willing to share when it comes to safety features.”

Excessive vibration or noise should also be considered, as should center of gravity, wheelbase and stance. A high center of gravity and a narrow wheelbase or short stance is an invitation for a roll over, as is a loss of load control or improper hitching, says Roberson.

As someone who learned to drive on narrow front-end, high-center-of-gravity two-cylinder tractors on hilly terrain, I heartily endorse Roberson’s concerns. When he adds that a tractor can tip backwards, as well, I recall dropping a disk in the ground while driving uphill. Feeling the front end of my ROPS-less tractor rise into the air is a sensation I will never forget. Lucky for me, auto-response clutching stopped it from reaching the no-return point.

Roberson’s answer to such an incident is ballast—more front-end weights to offset the rear load. “Load control can be influenced by proper ballasting with added weights,” he advises. “Check the operator’s manual, and talk to the dealer about how a tractor should be ballasted for a given load and conditions.”

Courtesy Honda Powersports
ATVS are capable of towing loads that equal their weight.

Ask Dennis Murphy, PhD, if you should buy an ATV or a tractor for farm work, and his answer is clear.

“If you need a vehicle for work, get something meant for work,” advises the professor of agricultural engineering and farm-safety specialist for Penn State University in University Park, Pa. “The things that make an ATV a recreational vehicle can be negative in work situations.”

Not all small-scale farmers—including myself—agree.

Murphy acknowledges that larger ATVs (increasingly available with a PTO option) can do many farm tasks traditionally assigned to farm tractors. My Honda Foreman has more horsepower than an 8N Ford, the sweetheart of many small-scale farming operations. As newer ATVs shoot past the 700cc mark, they bring even more horsepower to bear. In fact, it’s too much power and too much speed that concerns Murphy most, even as he acknowledges the perceived economy of a dual-purpose vehicle.

In my case, dual use and economy were important factors. I had limited agricultural needs, most of which could be handled with an ATV and at a third of the cost of a compact tractor. Over the past six years, my ATV has proven capable of those tasks and more. I’ve equipped it with a hydraulic loader with bucket, blade and small post-hole auger; a pull-type rough-cut mower; a seed and fertilizer spreader; and a spot sprayer. The total cost of ATV and all attachments/implements is still less than that compact tractor would have been in 2004.

My ATV moves snow and dirt, digs pilot holes for posts and shrubs and keeps weeds and brush in check. It pushes and pulls logs, hauls light loads, drags brush and takes me over terrain where I would hesitate to drive a tractor. And on those rare occasions when I have nothing better to do, I just go for a ride.

ATV and attachment
Courtesy Kunz Engineering
A rough-cut mower attachment lets your ATV do more work on the farm.

ATV Safety
That said, I will be the first to admit that safety is always a concern. In order to mount the front-end loader, I have to lock my front shocks. This eliminates the suspension that allows an ATV to travel at higher speeds across rough ground. It also reduces my ability to affect the center of gravity from one side to another when cornering. For my use, neither are great concerns—I rarely drive faster than 15 mph and never drive fast on rough or uneven terrain (though I probably drive faster than I should on my driveway).

While Murphy would prefer to see me and others using four-wheel tractors, he does have recommendations for those of us not willing to sacrifice speed and other recreational aspects of ATVs: 

  • Limit maximum speed to no more than 25 mph in any agricultural operation.

  • Never carry more than one-third the ATV’s total weight on the rear rack, and never tow a load heavier than the ATV and the operator.

  • Use heavier, four-wheel models with low centers of gravity when towing, avoid towing too heavy a load up a slope, and avoid towing loads on uneven terrain.

  • Select an ATV with a coil-spring shock-absorber suspension system, automatic clutch, reverse gear, shaft drive and a differential with a locking mechanism.

Making the Purchase
Roberson points out that getting questions answered during the sales process is key to long-term satisfaction.

“Dealer service should be first and foremost when making a final decision between brands or even within a brand,” suggests Roberson.

Lyons agrees that dealer service should be an important part of the decision-making process. He points out that parts and maintenance are vital to extending the life of a machine. Buying from a dealer with a good reputation for service adds value to the equipment purchased.

“People buy from the big-box stores for the price,” notes Lyons. “Often, the independent dealer isn’t any higher or not much higher, and you get parts and service after the sale. It’s important to look deeper than just the price when making a big purchase.”

About the Author: When not writing articles about equipment, Jim Ruen uses his ATV to push, pull and haul around his tree farm and home in the Bluff Country of southeastern Minnesota.

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2011 issue of Hobby Farms.

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Power Equipment Purchasing Options

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Reader Comments
I love these options, but they are pretty expensive. A good option is to buy one that needs work and rebuild the engine.
Derek, Chicago, IL
Posted: 12/12/2011 7:22:10 AM
Thanks for such an informative article. I am am about to buy something to work my small (17 acres) and you have given me questions I need to ask.
Thomas, Gaffney, SC
Posted: 11/21/2011 9:11:29 AM
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