Improving Traction Maximizes Small Tractor Performance

An important step in maximizing the performance of your small tractor is making sure it has enough traction to put the available power to use.

by J. Keeler Johnson
PHOTO: J. Keeler Johnson

It’s impressive how much power and versatility can be packed into relatively small tractors. Subcompact utility tractors and garden tractors often boast engine horsepower in the 20-25 range. They can be used with a wide range of attachments and implements to expand their capabilities. But there’s an important (and occasionally overlooked) step in maximizing the performance of small tractors. You have to make sure your tractor has enough traction to put that power to use.

Power Needs Traction

Let me give you a couple of examples. On a recent day of baling hay, my small team encountered a setback when one of our haywagons suffered a break in the steering mechanism. Running short of time with evening rain in the forecast, I fired up my garden tractor and used my trusty red wagon to start fetching bales off the field.

The red wagon isn’t huge (with a bed measuring 4 feet by 8 feet), but I was able to pack 19 bales at a time into sturdy loads. Throw in the weight of the wagon, and I was probably asking the garden tractor to tow somewhere around 750 pounds.

That’s a big load for a little tractor. But my garden tractor rose to the challenge practically without straining.

The red wagon has a single axle (it’s really a cart even though I call it a wagon), so all the weight in front of the axle was transferring to the rear hitch of the garden tractor. This pushed down on the drive wheels and increased their traction.

Throw in the handy differential lock (which allows me to force both drive wheels to operate in unison when climbing one short slope), and the garden tractor was able to get the grip it needed to tow the load without issue.

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Read more: A differential lock can really get you out of trouble.

A Lack of Traction

This stands in stark contrast to past experiences with my smaller lawn tractor. It’s primarily designed for mowing grass. While I regularly use it to haul about 300 pounds of water around my orchard, it’s really too small and lightweight for heavy-duty tasks.

For example, when towing an essentially empty red wagon, my lawn tractor is unable to climb one steep slope behind my house. Why? Well, there isn’t enough weight pressing down on the drive wheels to gain suitable traction. Also, the lawn tractor lacks a differential lock, so it winds up with one wheel digging in and the other spinning helplessly.

It’s worth reiterating that the lawn tractor’s inability to pull the empty wagon up a slope has nothing to do with strength. It’s all about lack of traction. This can be further exacerbated by challenging ground conditions such as ice or snow.

Increasing traction is critical if you want to use your small tractor to plow snow or power a snow blower attachment.

Read more: Maximize your tires for winter on the farm.

Improving Traction

So how can you improve the traction (and thus performance) of a small tractor? You have a few options.

Towing a single-axle cart like my red wagon? Putting weight in front of the axle (so weight is transferred to the drive wheels of your tractor) can work great. You could also install wheel weights on the drive wheels of your tractor.

And in winter, tire chains can work wonders.

Depending on how you primarily use your small tractor, you might also consider changing the tires. Lawn and garden tractors often come with R3 turf tires that are kind on lawns, but less aggressive in generating traction. R1 agricultural tires or R4 industrial tires can often a performance boost, so long as you’re not too concerned about damaging your lawn.

One final thought. Stay realistic about the tasks you tackle with your small tractor. I wouldn’t ask my garden tractor to pull a hay wagon loaded with 100 bales even under perfect traction conditions. I don’t want to push the engine and transmission beyond their means.

But so long as you keep your expectations realistic and address the question of traction, you might be surprised how easily small tractors can handle the jobs you throw at them.

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