How Many Horsepower Do You Need in a Tractor?

Powerful tractors come with big price tags, but not every farmer needs the maximum level of power. Learn what level of horsepower is right for your needs.

by J. Keeler Johnson
PHOTO: PipiLongstockings/Flickr

When it comes to machinery, people tend to believe bigger is always better. I doubt there’s a hobby farmer anywhere who doesn’t appreciate the abilities of a powerful utility tractor with engine strength measured in tens or even hundreds of horsepower, and it’s not difficult to envision yourself behind the wheel of such a tractor, easily accomplishing all of your farming tasks.

Of course, the biggest tractors also come with the biggest price tags, and not everyone can afford a top-of-the-line tractor with features and accessories and horsepower to spare. But not everyone needs that level of power. In fact, for hobby farmers, smaller tractors with less horsepower can offer significantly greater versatility and return on investment than giant tractors aimed at commercial farmers.

This raises an interesting question: Just how much horsepower do you need for common farming tasks? If you’re shopping for a tractor, here are some guidelines to help you identify how much power you need.

Working Acreage

The first question to ask is: “How much land do I intend to cultivate?” Do you have 10 acres that you’d like to prepare for planting? Do you have 20 acres of hay to cut for small square bales? Or are you mainly looking for a tractor with a front-end loader or a backhoe for more down-and-dirty farming tasks, with less emphasis on working in a field?

These are important to consider because there aren’t hard numbers to identify the amount of horsepower you need for any given task; it’s a variable equation driven by the size of the implements you want to use, the speed at which you intend to use them, the type of soil you’re working with and many other factors. It’s not as simple as: “Task Y requires X horsepower.”

Basically, it comes down to this: If saving time is a priority, or if you plan to use your tractor to cultivate large fields, a stronger tractor will let you use wider implements at a quicker pace. However, if you plan to minimize challenging field tasks have the patience to work your land at a slow speed, a tractor with less horsepower and smaller implements might be enough.

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That said, let’s break down tractor horsepower ratings into a few categories and analyze the tasks that can be accomplished with each.

Horsepower Defined

If you’re curious about the origin of terms or phrases, you’ve probably wondered about the term “horsepower” and whether it has anything to do with the power of a horse. In short, the answer is yes, though the comparison between the power of horse and machine is fraught with caveats, exceptions and generalizations.

Consider first that horsepower was meant to be a practical comparison of work accomplished over a long period of time, not a comparison of peak strength. You might wonder: “My little 17-horsepower lawn tractor is struggling to pull a heavy wagon up this incline. Does that mean I’d need 17 horses to do this same job?” The answer, of course, is no. A single horse at peak exertion is significantly stronger than a single-horsepower engine. But obviously a horse can’t sustain its peak level of power for hours on end. In contrast, a lawn tractor can deliver that level of power for as long as you keep it supplied with gas.

In terms of modern standards, one horsepower is equal to about 746 watts of power, though there are also variations, such as the metric horsepower, which is about 10 watts less. It’s also worth noting that the horsepower rating of a given tractor usually refers to the “engine horsepower,” which is separate from the horsepower offered by the power take-off, a number that is smaller than the rating for the engine. If you need to know the PTO horsepower rating of a given tractor, you’ll have to dig into the specifications from the manufacturer, though for general comparisons of tractor strength, engine horsepower is a suitable measurement.

15 to 20 Horsepower

Horsepower in the 15 to 20 range (sometimes slightly more) is the amount offered by a basic lawn or garden tractor. This is more than sufficient for typical lawn tasks such as mowing your yard, pulling carts or small trailers full of debris or supplies, and even plowing light snow (with appropriate tires, tire chains and weights, of course). However, field cultivation tasks are out of reach.

25 to 35 Horsepower

Stepping up from lawn and garden tractors, 25 to 35 horsepower enters the range of subcompact tractors and low-end compact utility tractors. Their extra power provides options for using a front-end loader and a backhoe attachment. And—with the right implements—small-scale field cultivation is within reach. Unlike lawn and garden tractors, compact utility tractors typically have a power take-off, or PTO, for powering implements. This spinning drive shaft allows implements, such as a mower, loader or backhoe to pull energy from the engine to run. Most tractors come with a standard rear-mounted PTO, but midpoint PTOs are also available on some models.

40 to 50 Horsepower

The range of 40 to 50 horsepower begins to blur the line between compact utility tractors and regular utility tractors, significantly expanding the number of farming projects you can tackle.

Tasks such as plowing fields and baling small square hay bales are achievable with this level of horsepower, although you might find that challenging conditions, such as working in clay soil or pulling a wagon behind your hay baler, will push tractors of this strength to their limit. However, if you do these tasks in small amounts and are willing to work at a slow pace, tractors in this range can be an excellent choice for a hobby farmer; some even include removable mower decks, making them remarkably versatile.

60 to 90 Horsepower

A utility tractor in this horsepower range (especially the high end) will probably handle everything a hobby farmer can realistically ask it to do. The added strength makes the tractor more stable on challenging jobs such as baling hay—even round bales are feasible—and let you use larger and wider implements at a faster pace.

100 to 150 Horsepower

Talk about serious power! Tractors offering 100 to 150 horsepower can handle all but the most extreme farming tasks without hesitation and are suitable for farming at a commercial level, although this power and ability comes with a big price tag. The only question is whether you can put a tractor of this level to good use. The typical hobby farmer probably won’t have enough large-scale farming tasks to warrant the cost of a tractor in this range.

So for hobby farmers, where is the sweet spot of power versus price? For mowing your yard and doing some work with a front-end loader, a tractor with 25 to 35 horsepower might be all you need. If you envision doing a little of everything and want a versatile “jack of all trades” tractor, something in the 40- to 50-horsepower range will probably be sufficient while remaining maneuverable and relatively affordable. But if you need more power for serious field cultivation tasks, a large tractor with 75 horsepower or more could be worth the added expense.

In essence, you don’t necessarily need the biggest tractor in the lineup. Depending on your needs, you might be happier with something smaller.

This story originally appeared in the May/June 2018 issue of Hobby Farms.

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