5 Seasonal Tractor Maintenance Tasks

Periodically service your small farm tractor for optimal operation using this seasonal tractor maintenance checklist.

by Jim Ruen
PHOTO: Richard Feliciano

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. Living in the country, you might have a neighbor like him whom you can turn to for tractor-maintenance advice and counsel.

Periodic servicing recommendations are most often based on operating hours, such as changing oil every 100 hours or more; however, these are guidelines and should be treated as such, Tammel says.

If you expect to hit the recommended hours for periodic servicing, set up a tractor maintenance planner with monthly reminders. Check and note the tractor’s operating hours on the first day of each month. Compare this to a checklist of work to be done, and schedule service appropriately.

If annual service is sufficient, spread it across the calendar year or set aside a day in the fall to do everything. Fall is an especially good time to change oil in cold climates, where a lighter-weight oil may be recommended for winter use. If the tractor is expected to sit through the winter, the fresh oil prevents corrosion or damage from contaminated oil.

Follow these five steps with guidance from the tractor owner’s manual recommendations:

1. Change and evaluate tractor oil. 

“On our newer tractors, we can go up to 500 hours before oil needs changing, and coolant can go up to five years,” Tammel says. “However, if you put on fewer hours, as most hobby farmers are likely to do, with the exception of coolants, you should change most fluids and filters at least once a year.”

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Warm up the engine and run hydraulics briefly to encourage drainage. Let the engine cool so oil will be safe to handle. When changing any oil, always change the filter, as well. Place a sufficiently large pan or tub beneath both to catch and hold total engine oil volume.

Take time to evaluate the oil for water or other contaminants, such as diesel fuel. Carefully pour off oil from the collection pan, and look for signs of metal filings that can indicate other problems, such as excessive wear of moving engine parts and potential failure. If the oil or hydraulic filters are in canisters, pull them out and shine a light into the canister to detect metal fragments.

Consider an oil scan or sample program for periodic review of oil quality and a heads-up on other problems. Your dealer or mechanic can point you to a reliable oil-scan service provider. The scan can determine the type of metal filings in your oil, helping your mechanic identify the filings’ possible origin. “It’s a good idea to get a baseline scan, and then pull a sample periodically and have it tested,” Tammel says. “It only costs $10 to $12 per sample, and you get a readout of any contaminants in the oil.”

2. Change tractor filters.

If workday servicing hasn’t previously identified the need to change air or fuel filters, “seasonal or sooner” is recommended here, as well. Industry tests consistently show a 3½-percent increase in power with proper air and fuel maintenance. When it’s time to replace the outer air filter, replace the inner one at the same time.

Oil-bath air cleaners in older tractors should be serviced once per year. Following your owner’s manual’s instructions, open, empty and clean the oil bowl at the bottom of the filter and refill. Clean and replace any pre-filters at the same time.

When changing the fuel filter, begin by clamping or closing off the fuel line. Be prepared to catch fuel in the line leading to and from the fuel filter, as well as any fuel in the filter. Check your tractor owner’s manual to see if fuel-line replacement is recommended at this time. Replace the filter and reattach fuel lines before reopening the fuel line to the tank.

3. Check spark plugs.

In older gas-fueled tractors, pull spark plugs to check for signs of improper firing, such as carbon buildup. Follow manual instructions closely to identify proper gap and procedures for rethreading plugs without damaging them.

4. Check coolant.

You might not need to flush and recharge your small farm tractor’s radiator with new coolant each year; however, seasonal evaluation of water-based coolants with a hydrometer is highly recommended. Wait until the tractor engine has cooled. Cover the radiator cap with a cloth, turn a half revolution to check for any remaining pressure, and remove.

Check inside the filler neck for debris of any kind, indicating a need to flush the system. If you find none, insert the hydrometer hose into the neck, squeeze the bulb and release to fill the column. The “freeze” scale on one side of the hydrometer indicates the freezing point of the solution. It should register less than negative 34 degrees F. The reverse side displays the boiling point. Fully effective coolant should indicate a boiling point above 265 degrees F. If either freezing- or boiling-point requirements aren’t met, flush and replace the coolant. Also replace thermostats at this time.

5. Check tractor battery.

Small farm tractor-battery maintenance should be carried out at least once or twice per year, even if no problems have been noted. Inspect and clean terminals and measure voltage levels. If fluid levels are low, refill with distilled water and recharge. If the charge level remains low, replace the battery.

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2012 issue of Hobby Farms.

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