Big Advice for Your Small Farm Machines

Here's our guide with seasonal checklists that will help you keep small machines such as ATVs and UTVs running smoothly.

PHOTO: Shutterstock

It probably isn’t an exaggeration to say that small machines such as ATVs, UTVs, lawn-and-garden tractors and subcompact/compact tractors are the productivity backbone of many hobby farms. These machines haul our tools and materials to the far pastures, keep our properties looking pristine, plow our gardens, run our implements, keep our driveways clear of snow and perform literally a thousand other small-farm tasks.

Naturally, it’s imperative that these machines stay up and running like champs for the whole growing season and beyond. To that end, proper maintenance is key. Maintenance tasks vary depending on the season, so let’s look at a broad overview of some of the chores you should do throughout the year to keep your equipment running and doing its job. (Note: This article is aimed at small machines and doesn’t address concerns for diesel tractors.)

Late Fall Hibernation

If you plan to shut down some equipment for upcoming cold months, you need to do more than just open the machine-shed door and pull in. Here are some things to properly put your machine to bed for winter.

  • Prepare Fuel System: Preparing your machine’s fuel tank for overwintering is critical, as failing to do so can invite gumming, corrosion and rust in your carburetor and tank. You basically have two options when it comes to winterizing your machine’s fuel tank:1. Fill it almost to the top with good gas and then add a stabilizer to help keep the fuel fresh until next spring.
    2. Fully drain the tank, fuel lines and carburetor.Draining can be problematic because it’s challenging to get every bit of gas out of the system, and any that remains can potentially cause considerable trouble. It’s not enough to just run the engine until it stops, as this will still leave fuel in the system. A drained fuel system can also cause seals to dry up. For these reasons, many people opt to fill the tank almost full with stabilized fuel. Don’t leave the tank only partially full, as this invites condensation. (By the way, never drain the fuel from a diesel tractor or run the tank dry for storage; this creates huge headaches. Store a diesel only with the fuel tank full and fuel stabilizer added.)
  • Care for Batteries: If batteries will be unused for several months, give them a fresh charge and then consider giving them a top-off charge a couple of times throughout the winter, if possible. Even if you don’t remove the battery from the machine, disconnect the terminals if it won’t be used for a while.

    small farm machines charge battery
    Lorain Ebbett-Rideout
  • Clean the Machine: To save yourself a mess in the spring, banish all those mud bits, dust, dried grass and general debris to the trash—not the machine shed.

Winter Use Maintenance

You might intend to keep some machines in use all winter, or perhaps you have a machine such as a snow blower that sees use only during the cold months. In these cases, keep these maintenance items on the checklist:

  • Check Tire Pressure: Cold weather has an immediate effect on tires, causing the air in them to condense and the pressure to drop. It’s not uncommon to wake up on the first cold morning to tires that are sagging a bit—or a lot. Odds are the pressure in your machine’s tires is set for summer use, so if you have a winter-use machine, double check the psi and add air as needed.

    small farm machine tires
  • Swap ATV/UTV Tires: If you intend to keep an ATV or UTV in service through the winter, you might choose to switch to a tire with more aggressive winter-specific treads.
  • Install Tire Chains: Some machines—garden tractors spring to mind—struggle with slippery conditions. If you plan keep one in use all winter—perhaps with a snow-blower attachment—a set of chains and counter weights are probably essential.
  • Change Oil: Make sure that your engine’s oil is rated down to the lowest temperature you expect; in some places, the oil you used in the summer might still work for winter, but for extremely cold environments, you might need to change to a colder-weather oil.
  • Check Coolant: Make sure the coolant is rated to protect your machine to the lowest temperature you might experience—and a little more.
  • Remove Batteries: If you can’t store your machine in a heated location, you can still remove batteries when they’re not in use and store the batteries themselves in a heated location.
  • Use Block Heaters: Installing an electric engine-block heater in your tractor can help keep it ready to run after an extremely cold night; it works great for your vehicles as well.
  • Opt for Storage: Storing your winter-
    use small machine in a heated garage or building when not in use can make a huge difference in the machine’s reliability. In addition to keeping your machine’s batteries and oil warm, it also keeps snow and ice from freezing to the machine. A standalone snow blower, for instance, will become hot with use from the engine running, melting any snow that falls onto it. If the snow-blower is then left in subfreezing temperatures, the melted snow can freeze onto the machine. We know this from experience, as we had this happen and were unable to start the machine until it thawed out, costing us quite a bit of time.

Early Spring Wakeup

Machines that have sat unused for several months over the winter might need quite a bit of maintenance, depending on the machine and how well you shut it down in winter. Individual machines won’t necessarily require all of these tasks, but some springtime chores could include the following.

  • Change Engine Oil: Spring is great time to change the engine oil and install a new filter. This might be enough to get you through the whole year on a machine that doesn’t get used very hard—such as a lawnmower—but other machines such as your tractor or perhaps your ATV might put on enough hours to warrant a midseason oil change. Follow the manufacturer’s recommendations and always watch those hours.
  • Change Hydraulic/Transmission Fluid: These two are often one and the same, though on older tractors you might see two different reservoirs. Either way, spring is a great time to give it change, especially if you haven’t for a while. (On some ATVs, the engine oil and transmission oil are the same thing.)
  • Replace Fuel Filters: Dirt and debris always has a chance of sneaking into your fuel system during refueling, so a proper fuel filter is essential to keep these contaminants out of the engine. Replace the fuel filters as needed, but spring is nice time to start out new.
  • Check Tires: Unlike vehicle tires that have to put on many fast miles over hard surfaces, the tires on most farm machinery last much longer; they just don’t see as much use, and the softer off-road surfaces are gentler on tires than the highway is. Over time, however, the treads can become rounded and less effective at providing traction. Dry rot can also be a problem, so give your machine’s rubber a close look in the spring, and check for cracks or weakening that might indicate a replacement is needed. If everything looks good, check the psi—it’s probably low after all winter—and inflate it to the manual’s recommendation.
  • Check Electrical Items: Even if you charged your machine’s battery upon storage—or even throughout the winter—odds are that the time spent sitting unused has left it weakened, so give it a charge. You can also check the voltage and replace the battery if needed. While you’re at it, clean your battery terminals and contacts, and then give your machine’s entire electrical system (a fairly simple affair on most small machines) a once over for loose, dirty or cracked wiring. On a lawn tractor, this might be as simple as tracing a handful of wires, but on a UTV or subcompact/compact tractor, it might be more complex, so check your manual for details.
  • Grease Everything: The squeaky wheel might get the grease, but in the case of your equipment, it’s best to avoid that squeaky wheel in the first place. Locate each grease fitting on your machine (some can be tricky to find—or even reach) and clean them before you lubricate them. This is a big job but an important one.

    small farm machines grease
    Gregory Johnston
  • Check Spark Plugs: How long a spark plug lasts depends on lot on the machine and how it’s used. Check yours at the beginning of the season and periodically throughout the year; change when needed.

    small farm machines sparkplugs
    Lorain Ebbett-Rideout
  • Check Coolant: Make sure it’s at the proper level and change as needed. (Changing the coolant is not necessarily an annual task, but checking it is.)
  • Change ATV Hub Oil: Change and replace the oil in your ATV’s hubs with the recommended fluid.
  • Sharpen Blades: For lawn tractors, start off the mowing season with sharp blades to give your property a clean cut. It’s easier on the machine, too.
  • Check Brakes: ATV and UTV users should be sure to check brake pads for wear and replace if they’re wearing thin. Check your brake fluid, too.
  • Check UTV Drive Belt: Many UTVs are belt-driven, and this belt should be examined and replaced as needed.

Working Season

Don’t get so involved in your summertime work that you forget to check on your machines from time to time. Some things to address during the heavy work season include the following.

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  • Lubricate ATV Drive Chains or Differentials: Some ATV users have a special chore: keeping the drive chain properly lubricated. Again, check your manual for advice on frequency, but if you use your ATV hard in challenging conditions, you might need to clean and relubricate the chain several times throughout the year. Use a designated drive chain lube for this job. Replace the chain when it starts to show wear or sagging. Some ATVs are shaft-driven (no chain) and require differential oil to be checked and changed as needed.
  • Clean Air Filters: Starting the year with a new air filter is smart, and in some situations this will be enough to last you the whole season, but don’t assume your air filter can go all year without a cleaning or replacement. The requirements vary between machines, so check your machine’s manual to find out the hours of use recommended between cleanings, but keep in mind these guidelines are probably for ideal situations. Farm machinery is often asked to perform in dusty environments that can take a toll on any air filter and will require more frequent cleanings. ATV and UTV users riding in dusty conditions should be extra cautious, checking the air filter perhaps daily.
  • Check Oil: Each time you fill up with gas, check the oil as well. If you use your machine a lot, you could check the oil each day.

    small farm machines oil
    Lorain Ebbett-Rideout
  • Check Coolant: For some small machines, it seems the coolant level never moves. Others seem to go through coolant a little more quickly over time. So give it a quick check before a hot day of long hours. Heed any warnings that say “Do not open when hot” or you could be badly burned.
  • Keep Greasing: Follow the manufacturer’s recommendations.

Some items that should be on your maintenance checklist are machine- or even model–specific. This could include maintenance on accessory items such as buckets, winches and snowplows. For all aspects of small machine care, always follow the manufacturer’s recommendations for scheduling, and read that manual. Take care and enjoy your machines.

This story originally appeared in the November/December 2017 issue of Hobby Farms.

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