During the winter, it’s tempting to put off most tractor and implement maintenance tasks until you can take care of them in above-freezing temperatures. Assuming the engine starts, a quick check of the gauges reassures you that the oil pressure is OK. You can see if the alternator is working and (hopefully) that there is enough fuel in the tank to perform the task at hand.
Sure, the hydraulics are a bit sluggish, but they’ll warm up soon enough.
You might have gotten through the winter all right. But with warmer weather comes haying, fence building, tilling, planting, new livestock to care for, logs to bring in from the back 40, road and trail repair, and maybe getting around to some new building projects.
Whatever horsepower or vintage your tractor is, spring is a good time to perform basic maintenance so it will be up to the task at hand. To celebrate Hobby Farms’ 20th anniversary, we’ve created a checklist of 20 maintenance tips so your tractor will be ready whenever you are.
Because it’s the start of a new season, let’s start at the very beginning.
Record Your Tractor Maintenance
Keep a logbook showing the date, engine hours (assuming your tractor has a functioning tachometer) and the maintenance performed. This helps you keep track. And if you sell or trade in your tractor at some point, it’ll assure the potential buyer that the machine has been well maintained.
The logbook should include the following.
- fluid/filter changes
- spark plugs or glow plugs
- new battery
- new tires
- repairs/rebuilds, such as hydraulic cylinders and valves, brakes, injectors, fuel pump, engine and transmission
Keep a Special Toolbox
If you have everything handy, you’ll be more likely to take care of the equipment. Some tractors, for example, require a special tool for checking/adding gear oil to the front gearbox or even use a combination of metric and SAE nuts and bolts.
Don’t forget to throw in tools for your implements, too. Here are a few suggestions.
- oil filter wrench
- grease gun
- spare grease zerks
- log book & pen
- white paint pen
- black Sharpie pen
- special tools, such as large Allen wrenches
- whatever you need to remove drain plugs and oil fill caps
- siphon hose (5 feet each of 3⁄8- and 5⁄8-inch)
- set of spark plugs, if your tractor uses them
- battery terminal puller
- battery post/terminal wire brush
You should think safety when performing tractor maintenance.
Wear Mechanic’s Gloves
You are almost certain to get grease, oil and fuel on your hands, all of which are known carcinogens. In addition, wearing gloves helps avoid getting oil on the steering wheels and doorknobs and eliminates the temptation to wipe your hands on whatever item of clothing is handy (as long as you remember to remove the gloves first).
Latex gloves are cheaper, but nitrile gloves are more chemical-resistant. Both allow good feel and dexterity.
Wear Safety Glasses
Even if you normally wear prescription glasses, oil and mud have a way of finding their way onto your eyeballs while you’re working under a machine.
Diesel fuel or hydraulic oil under pressure in your eye will be an excruciating and expensive ticket to the emergency room.
Remove the Ground Cable to the Battery First
When removing the battery or performing tractor maintenance that involves the fuel or electrical system, remove the negative (ground) battery terminal first.
This will avoid sparks if you accidentally short a positive wire against the frame of the tractor. You’ll also ensure that the fuel pump doesn’t pressurize the lines while you’re working on them or changing a filter.
Secure the Equipment
If pulling a wheel, make sure the tractor is in gear, brakes are set and wheels are chocked. If possible, use a jack stand to support the tractor.
Make sure you have a plan for dealing with the tire when it comes off. This may involve asking a neighbor who has a loader capable of lifting the tire to assist.
If there is any doubt—especially with a fluid-filled tire — call a professional service.
When you get barbed wire snarled under the mower, set the brakes, chock the wheels and put stable, solid blocks under the mower. Then set the mower down on the blocks and the rear lift to the full up position so that the tractor and the blocks are holding it.
Have a Safety Person
At the very least, let someone know where you are, what you’re doing and when you expect to return. A cell phone or ham radio is handy to let that person know you’re OK if you’re delayed. But don’t count on being able to use it if you’re pinned under the brush hog.
Have a person who is capable of operating the tractor and calling for help working with you.
Daily Tractor Maintenance Check
It’s almost as though gremlins come into the barn at night. Before putting your tractor to work, give it a good once-over to make sure it’s ready.
Inventory Your Tractor Toolbox
These may well keep you from having to walk in from the back 40. Resist the temptation to borrow tools from it. Otherwise, that pair of pliers won’t be there when you need them.
- pliers, adjustable wrench and locking pliers
- screwdrivers: large and small slot and Phillips
- tire pressure gauge
- bailing wire
- a couple of pins of every size your tractor and implements need
- electrical tape
- utility knife
- shear pins and tools to replace them
- ball-peen hammer
- first aid kit
Check Your Gauges
This should be done when you start the tractor and periodically when running it. While it sounds like a no-brainer, it’s easy to forget to look at the gauges, especially when your mind is on the task at hand.
The temperature, oil pressure and alternator/battery gauges will alert you to any problems before there is damage to the tractor.
Check the Hand Brake
Get in the habit of reaching down to make sure the hand brake is disengaged before moving the tractor. If the tractor doesn’t seem to roll as easily as it should, check the hand brake again!
With the tractor rolling slowly down a slight incline, put the tractor in neutral. Engage the hand brake to make sure it is working.
Check the Foot Brakes
A tractor that won’t run is a nuisance. One that won’t stop, or only stops on one side, can kill you.
If your tractor is equipped with separate left and right brakes, test them individually to make sure they both work and have about the same braking effect. Then put the metal bar across that locks them together.
A tractor with a working brake on only one side is at risk for rollover, especially on hills and making a turn at road speeds. If the hydraulic brakes feel mushy, air is probably in the brake lines. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions to bleed the air out. If it means taking it to the dealer for proper repair, so be it.
Check the Four-wheel Drive & Differential Lock
You might have used one or both controls to bring the tractor into a muddy barnyard. Driving with either one engaged, especially on a hard surface, puts undue stress and wear on the drive train.
Keep your eyes on these tractor maintenance tasks.
Consider the Tractor Dealer for Periodic Maintenance
While most country people tend to be independent in spirit. But the time saved and the peace of mind that comes of knowing that the tractor has been properly serviced is well worth the price of having a dealer mechanic give it a once-over every year.
In addition to having all the proper tools, the mechanic might spot a problem that you would have missed.
If you take your tractor to the dealer for service, schedule the service for off-season maintenance.
“You’re much better off putting out extra hay for the cows and bringing the tractor in for service in the winter when you aren’t using the tractor so much than waiting until you are ready to bail hay,” says Don Hines, service manager for Tatum Motor Co. of Anderson, Missouri.
Use a Battery Terminal Puller
Similar to a tiny gear puller, this makes removing battery terminals easier and is less likely to damage the battery than prying with a screwdriver.
When reconnecting, replace the positive terminal first. Rotate the terminals back and forth to get good contact as you tighten them down.
Clean Those Terminals
Corrosion and greenish residue on the battery terminals can reduce—or even block—the flow of electricity from the alternator to the battery, as well as from the battery to the starter.
Farm and automotive stores sell aerosol compounds that dissolve this residue and improve contact between the battery posts and wiring terminals. Or you can just apply a paste of baking soda and water, let it sit for 15 minutes, then clean it off with a wire brush or stream of water.
To prevent corrosion in the future, spray on a corrosion blocker or smear some grease over the top of the terminals. If you suspect a poor battery connection, remove the negative terminal, then the positive terminal.
Use a wire terminal brush to clean the terminals and battery posts.
If the battery has removable caps, clean around them, then remove the caps to check the electrolyte level. If the liquid in any cells is below the fill ring (about 1⁄4-inch from the top), add enough distilled water to bring it up to the fill ring.
A flashlight can be a real help in seeing into the battery cells.
Clean & Change Fuel Filters Once a Year
Do yourself a favor, and start the job by turning off the fuel valve disconnecting the negative battery terminal. On older gasoline tractors, the filter is a fine mesh screen mounted above the settling bowl that traps sediment and water.
Remove the bowl and wipe the inside clean. Carefully remove the fine mesh filter, and clean it or blow it out with compressed air.
Replace the filter and settling bowl, using a new O-ring, if possible. Tighten it just enough so it doesn’t leak when you open the fuel shut-off valve.
When replacing in-line filters, keep in mind that the arrow on the filter indicates the direction the fuel flows through it. So make sure it points toward the engine, or the filter will block the fuel flow.
Diesel fuel filters are canisters, similar to oil filters. When you remove them, dump the fuel into a used oil container to avoid putting contaminated fuel back into the tank. Diesel fuel lines typically have a primary filter to separate out any water and remove large debris, and a secondary filter for fine particles.
They may have different part numbers, so make sure you get the right ones.
When installing, tighten the filters down by hand. Open up the fuel valve, then tighten them just enough to stop the fuel from leaking. Fill the filters with fuel by removing the bolt on the top until fuel comes out or by pumping the primer.
Change the Oil at the Recommended Interval
For example, if the manual says every 300 hours or once a year, change it every year, even if you haven’t put 300 hours on the engine.
“Even if someone only uses a tractor a couple hundred hours a year, that oil will break down,” Hines says. “Being in the engine, it gets contaminated and needs to be changed once a year.”
Proper tools for removing the drain plug and filter saves frustration, bruised knuckles and a rounded bolt head. Use the white paint pen or black Sharpie to write the date and engine hours on the filter. Record the change in the logbook.
Also, use the OEM (factory brand) oil filter recommended in the owner’s manual. Hines emphasizes that name brand filters not designed for the high pressure of modern Diesel engines can fail and cause a blown engine.
When changing hydraulic/transmission oil, lower the front-end loader & rear lift. Check the manual for oil capacity to make sure you have enough empty 5-gallon buckets to hold all the used oil. Set the 5-gallon container of fresh oil on a fender (or a platform higher than the filler hole) and use a siphon hose (5⁄8 or 3⁄4-inch clear vinyl) to transfer the oil.
It will take 10 minutes or so. But you can do other tasks while you wait.
The old adage “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” may work for the washing machine. But putting off tractor maintenance can be a costly, and even dangerous mistake. Follow the suggestions in this article and use some common sense, and your tractor will serve you reliably for years to come.
As a final note, dispose of waste fluids responsibly. Check with your dealer, who should have resources for recycling fuel and oil.
Sidebar: Do a Daily Walk-around
A couple of minutes each day can save you hours of frustration and possibly thousands of dollars in repairs. Check these things each day before you get on your tractor.
- Fuel: Turn on the ignition, and check the fuel-level gauge.
- Oil: Check the dipstick to make sure oil is in the operating range. Top off if more than 1⁄2-quart low.
- Coolant: Check coolant level, and top off with recommended coolant, if necessary.
- Radiator: Remove any debris that could inhibit the flow of air through the radiator.
- Tires: Check pressure on all tires. Front tires with low pressure may look OK, but they can be damaged or come off the rim when carrying a heavy load with a front-end loader.
- ROPS/Seatbelt: Make sure the roll bar is up and locked in place.
- Lights: Check, if you anticipate using them.
- Pins & Connectors: Make sure all pins and connectors are in place and secured.
- Hydraulic Lines: Look for cracks or damage.
- Oil or Fuel Leaks: Look under the tractor for indication of leaks.
- Cell Phone/Radio: Make sure your communication equipment is charged up and working.
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2021 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.