As the days get warmer, jobs in the fields become more and more a part of our daily lives again. Tractors big and small can be found rumbling up and down the dirt roads as they go about their various tasks. From the subcompacts that works around the farmyard to the massive four-wheel-drive behemoths steadily working up the ground in the field, our machines make life easier every day.
As farms and homesteads alike continue to grow year after year, so do the size of the jobs that need done. As thus our reliance on our tractors, big and small, grows as well.
While today’s tractors can certainly be more efficient than our great-grandfather’s team of work horses, they still can’t be ignored all year in the shed, then pulled out just in time to use again. Keeping your tractor in tiptop shape through regular maintenance and timely repairs can help avoid major expensive failures in the future, keep your work schedule running smoothly and even increase your resale or trade-in value later down the road.
Tractor Maintenance in Mind
If you’re planning to purchase your first tractor or upgrade to a newer one, take a little extra time and study the machine you intend to buy thoroughly. Do some research on your specific model through online ag forums and groups.
Will tractor maintenance or repairs be something that you’re capable of completing, or will you need to find a dealer or qualified mechanic nearby to take it to? Is there such a place within a reasonable distance?
If you’re considering an older machine, are parts still available for purchase when it comes time to make a repair? Make sure to ask some questions, and research before you make a large purchase such as this.
You might have heard the old saying “the fleas come with the dog,” and it applies to the world of tractors and machinery. Along with the helpful, time-saving tools that our tractors can be, their breakdowns and repairs can also be quite expensive and drawn-out, especially with the challenges many face in getting parts today.
Unless you know the specific history of your tractor and what might wear out on it in the future, it’s difficult to know ahead of time what parts will fail and when. The best course of action is simply to stay on top of regular tractor maintenance and check every area for any signs of wear or disrepair.
For information specific to your individual tractor, consult the owner’s manual. In this article, I’ll address some things that most any tractor will need tended to, as well as a few problem areas to keep an eye on.
Engines require a steady supply of the proper lubrication to function and run smoothly. Regular oil changes are an essential tractor maintenance task to avoid oil breaking down and eventually causing damage.
An old rule of thumb that we go by on our farm is to change the oil every 100 hours. However, owner’s manuals should be consulted for more specific instructions.
An engine trying to breathe through a dirty air cleaner is like a person trying to work and breathe through an extremely dirty mask. It suffocates the engine and can affect its performance. For this reason, it’s a good practice to occasionally use an air wand to gently blow out your machine’s air cleaner.
Avoid creating any holes, as this can lead to dirt and debris being sucked into the machine and eventually causing engine damage. You can even use a light held on the inside of the air cleaner to shine through and look for any holes. If working in particularly dirty conditions, blow your air cleaner out at the same time as every oil change.
As fuel is used in the machine, fuel filters are put in place to screen out any debris or trash that might have been sucked in through the system. Eventually, these filters become full enough that they can no longer function properly, and the machine will begin to lose power.
In severe cases, the tractor might even completely die. During cold weather, plugged fuel filters are more likely to gel. For these reasons, replace fuel filters regularly and before they reach the point of becoming dirty. The actual timing of this tractor maintenance task might vary from machine to machine and depend on the amount of usage it gets. But an owner’s manual should be able to guide you accordingly.
Hydraulic and transmission filters also need changed but generally much less frequently. Aim for about once a year or as recommended for your machine.
While water filters are found on some tractors, this varies based on the age of the machine, as most newer tractors don’t have them. If your model doesn’t have one, more frequent changes of the engine coolant will be needed as the coolant will eventually get dirty.
If you happen to notice a misfire from the engine, it can, at times, be a bad or plugged injector. Special fuel treatments can be purchased and used in the system to clear it up.
If used and the problem persists, it might be a more serious problem that requires replacement of the injectors or fuel pump.
Regularly inspect all hydraulic hoses on your tractor for any signs of wear. Whether it’s missing a chunk of hose or rubber or has cracks or bulges or you can see steel inside the hose, it likely needs replaced. A leaking hose should have the pressure released, the hose removed and the lines plugged. If repair isn’t a good option, used hoses can be taken to local part stores or repair shops to have a matching replacement hose made with the correct ends needed.
If at any point your tractor is running and you can see a leaking hose or one with a bad spot on it, don’t touch it as it can potentially inject your hand with oil. Be careful to maintain good hoses, as a blown hose can lead to a loader crashing down without warning.
Just like the oil provides the lubrication needed for the engine, plenty of grease helps to keep pivots from seizing and wearing unnecessarily. Especially for a loader tractor that is regularly used for strenuous jobs, daily greasing can be helpful.
Digging or loading dirt, manure or rocks are all heavy jobs that can put a strain on your machinery. Without proper greasing, pivot pins can become galled or seize up in their sockets, which can require using a sledgehammer or torch to remove.
To avoid issues such as these, grease regularly!
Check for Leaks
Whether it’s just a bit of condensation dripping from your AC unit or something more serious like an antifreeze or oil leak, never discount a puddle under your tractor. Watch for signs of leaks and work to identify where they are originating from and get them repaired as soon as possible.
While some newer tractors are equipped with a CVT (continuously variable transmission), a large number still have a clutch. Especially on older machines, it’s important to keep the right amount of clearance on your clutch bearing to avoid clutch failure.
Regardless of whether you’re doing a light job in a garden patch or hauling a heavy load down a road, tires continuously wear down. Checking the tire pressure regularly can help you catch a low tire before it causes any extra wear.
Running a tire that is low on pressure can cause cracks in a sidewall and unnecessary filing of your tread, resulting in premature tire failure. If a repair needs to be made or a tire needs to be replaced, most smaller tractor tires (front tires) can be done yourself. However, the larger rear tires will generally require a call to the tire repair shop, as they can bring a truck out and have the equipment and ability needed to replace or repair them properly.
Keeping your machine clean and well-maintained will benefit you as you enjoy using it and can increase its resale or trade-in value in the future. Should you decide to ever upgrade and sell this one off, the money saved on your next purchase can be put toward another area of your homestead. Smart management pays off in many ways.
While it might seem unnecessary to some, a thorough washing every once in a while and even an occasional waxing can do wonders for the exterior of your tractor. A wash helps remove any buildup of salt (from winter roads) and mud, and a nice layer of wax can protect the paint and help reduce fading.
Inside the Cab
A clean, fresh-smelling cab can help make any job seem just a little more enjoyable. When the controls are dusted, the floor is swept and the windows are clean, you’ll be more inclined to spend a little extra time working in the tractor.
Make it a habit to regularly tidy the cab. Each time you leave, take any loose pieces of trash and brush out the dirt or crumbs on the floor. Keeping your cab free of food and trash will help deter rodents and prevent vermin that are looking for another reason to snack among your wiring.
Seasonal Tractor Maintenance
As the seasons change, so can the variety of tasks that need done on your machine. Although regular tractor maintenance will still need to be performed, you can add small extra tasks to your to-do list.
Before the cold months hit, check the strength of your antifreeze. It should be stout enough to handle the climate that you’re in. Keep plenty of winterized diesel fuel on hand or else enough antigel fuel treatment to supplement the fuel you intend to use.
Winter fronts—whether made from canvas or even a piece of cardboard—that wrap around the front of your tractor to help keep in warmth from the engine and prevent it from sucking in so much cold air can also be put on your machine. You’ll appreciate the help these offer as they’ll allow the tractor to blow more warm heat into the cab!
For the warmer summer months, other odd jobs can be done such as making sure that your tractor’s air-conditioning system is functioning as it should. If it appears to have an issue, find a trained professional to check and, if needed, recharge it with refrigerant. Keeping it set on recirculate will also avoid your air conditioner continually sucking in hot outside air and trying to cool it down.
Occasionally checking on the evaporator on your tractor can help to identify any issues you might be having with your air-conditioning system. On a lot of tractors, it can be found up under the cab roof or lid. Check the seal that goes around the edge to keep dirt out of the evaporator and carefully blow it out with an air wand.
Engine pulleys and belt are another good area to check as you do your spring inspection. Check your water pump for leaks and lots of play or movement, which can indicate that it needs to be replaced. It’s important to keep your water pump functioning smoothly so that it will cool and avoid letting your tractor overheat.
Supplies to Keep on Hand
While it’s challenging to know what all supplies and parts to keep on hand, have at least a few basic items in your workshop. For repairs and larger projects, we generally just buy the parts as we need them, as it’s difficult to anticipate what will break and when!
Check your owner’s manual to make a list of exact items needed. In general, have a complete set of filers on hand for easier and more-timely servicing. Here are a few things it can be helpful to nearby.
- Filters: fuel filters, air filters, engine & hydraulic oil filters, water filter (if applicable)
- Fluids: good quality, heavy duty diesel engine oil; universal tractor transmission/hydraulic oil; antifreeze coolant; diesel fuel winterizer/antigel treatment
- Other Supplies: spare engine belts, spare fuses, glass cleaner, wax
The longer you have machinery on your homestead, the more opportunities for learning and growth you will have! While they might not always be the most enjoyable of experiences, you’ll know how to tackle a problem the next time it arises.
Small Changes to Save an Engine
Sometimes, small changes can help to avoid big messes. Here are three simple tractor maintenance tasks that just might save your engine!
Tighten Those Drain Plugs
After you finish draining the oil, make sure to give your drain plug a good double-check. Be sure that there is a washer on it and that it has been tightened well to avoid it rattling loose and falling out while driving. If the oil runs out of your engine, it could seize the block up and require major repair, if not complete replacement.
Check the Air Filters
Air filters are the dust masks of the engine. While you don’t need to do it once a month, regularly check on the condition of your air filter after cleaning it by shining a light through it, from the inside out. Check for any holes that could allow for dirt and debris to come through into the engine.
Cover Your Exhausts
If your machine gets stored outside at all, keep water out of the exhaust. Especially if it has a straight pipe out the top, make sure that it has a cap that flips down when the machine is not running. If water manages to run down your exhaust, it can get into the engine causing, at the very least, rust on the cylinder walls and other damage.
In a worst-case scenario, it can cause the engine to lock up and be ruined. If your exhaust pipe doesn’t have a cap over the end, something as simple as using an old can to cover it when not in use will do the trick!
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2023 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.