Power Equipment Purchasing Options

Tractor, ATV or two-wheel walk-behind—the right workhorse for your farm is out there.

by Dani Yokhna

Walk-behind tractor can be used for smaller farming areas
Courtesy Earth Tools, Inc.
A two-wheel walk-behind tractor may be the best choice for tilling 1 or 2 acres of garden.

For small-acreage farmers, there are more choices today than ever before when it comes to powering attachments and implements—all-terrain and multi-use vehicles, two-wheel walk-behinds, and a range of four-wheel tractors ranging from subcompacts to utility or larger. Each offers its own unique features and benefits that will fit one farm better than the next. There can also be a surprising degree of overlap from one type to another.

Hobby Farms MagazineNo longer is a traditional tractor the only motorized alternative to a horse. My pull-behind rough-cut mower works as well behind my ATV as it does behind a compact tractor. A two-wheel walk-behind may be a better choice for tilling 1 or 2 acres of garden or even harvesting a few acres of hay than a four-wheel tractor. Recognizing the power source is a personal choice and depends on your particular needs.

“It comes down to what your primary and secondary uses will be,” says Kevin Lyons of Bell Creek Equipment LLC in Preston, Md. “If your primary needs are recreational but you want a blade to push some snow, then an ATV may be the right choice. If you need to primarily mow grass and do other small jobs, a compact tractor or even a zero-turn mower may be the answer.”

Lyons sells ATVs, tractors, implements and zero-turn mowers. With that range of power sources to select from, he’s confident he can meet a customer’s needs, including budgetary, once they have been identified.

“I want to know exactly what my customer plans to use the purchase for now and what their plans are for the future,” says Lyons. “It helps to know the number of acres and how often and how hard the equipment will be used. You don’t want an ATV if you need a front-end loader, and you don’t want an entry-level engine that will last 600 hours if you plan to put that many hours on the tractor in a year or two.”

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Part of a dealer’s job, suggests Lyons, is to help customers fine-tune their purchases. “Most people come into our store knowing what type of equipment they want,” he says. “Then we try to help them narrow their choice down between similar options. Sometimes they think they need a 60-horsepower tractor when they only need 25 horsepower. We need to get them to the right product.”

Walk-behind haying equipment is useful for low-acreage jobs
Courtesy Earth Tools, Inc.
Lightweight walk-behind haying equipment is a good option for low-acreage jobs and hard-to-navigate areas.

Walk-behind Equipment
Sometimes the right product is smaller than 25 horsepower. Joel Dufour, owner of Earth Tools, Inc., in Owenton, Ky., grew up using two-wheel tractors on the family acreage and helping his dad sell them to other small farmers. He has been selling, servicing and using walk-behind tractors for more than 30 years.  He says scale of the operation is key to determining if you need a two-wheel (walk-behind), a four-wheel tractor or, perhaps, a combination of both.

“Working up to 3 acres of crops or mowing 10 acres of hay with our mid- to upper-size two-wheel tractors is quite doable without wearing the equipment out,” says Dufour. “However, if you want to mow 30 acres of hay or plant 8 acres of vegetables, this should not be your primary machine.”

That said, Dufour has a customer in northern Vermont who harvests 20 acres of hay with his two-wheel BCS tractor-powered 5-foot sickle-bar mower, rake and baler. The light walk-behind equipment lets him work steep slopes and marshy areas he couldn’t harvest with a four-wheel tractor. The small baler produces net-wrapped, 40- to 60-pound, 23-inch-diameter and 21-inch-long round bales at a rate of one per minute. While the customer could hire a neighbor to bale some of the acres, hay quality would then depend on when that farmer had time.

Buying new or even used four-wheel equipment to do a small acreage can be cost prohibitive.

“A set of new walk-behind hay equipment, including a two-wheel tractor, might cost $16,000, and half of that is the cost of the baler,” says Dufour. “Even a small compact four-wheel tractor with a mower, rake and small baler will cost $40,000 or more.”

If putting up hay with a two-wheel tractor isn’t in your plans, it still may be a good option for market gardening, maintaining woodland and prairie trails, or keeping brush from encroaching on meadows. Dufour points to the versatility, maneuverability and economy of walk-behind equipment, even for larger acreages.

“I have customers who buy a four-wheel tractor for primary tillage, loader work and haying and use a walk-behind for everything else,” says Dufour. “It doesn’t have to be one or the other. The fact is, a walk-behind can do things and go places a larger tractor can’t, but on many farms, there is application for both. If you want a front-end loader or a post-hole auger, a walk-behind won’t do.”

Four-Wheel Equipment

Compact tractors can be for mowing and other tasks
Courtesy New Holland
If your primary needs include mowing and other small tasks, a compact tractor could be the right fit.

If the size or type of the jobs to be done points to four-wheel tractors, there are some basic factors to examine. Specialized attachments, like loaders, augers, or rear- or front-mount implements, require minimal levels of hydraulic power and horsepower. If loads are to be pulled in the field or on the road, braking ability and load handling come into play.

Too light of a tractor can result in jackknifing, rollovers and other hazards when going down a slope or trying to stop, even on the level. Not enough power, combined with not enough mass and braking power when heading up a slope, can result in the tractor stalling out and being pulled back down the slope. Having been in that position with a utility-size tractor, I can vouch that it doesn’t build confidence.

While the size of the acreage to be worked is an important consideration in picking a power source, it’s only one of several factors to keep in mind, suggests Gary Roberson, PhD, PE, an associate professor and extension specialist in biological and agricultural engineering at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, N.C. In his machinery management course, he reminds students that factors such as soil type, conditions and slope can all influence power needs for the same tillage implement.

When considering the size of the tractor needed, identify the implement to be used with the highest implement power (total of required drawbar, PTO, hydraulic and electrical power) needs. As a general rule of thumb, implement power requirements should not exceed 80 percent of rated tractor power.

Desired operating speed also comes into play when sizing your tractor and implements. A tractor able to handle a larger implement may be needed if acres completed per hour are a concern. However, it may be more economical in fuel use and initial investment to go with a smaller implement and tractor if time is not as big a factor.

Hydraulic or fluid power is reflected in both gallons-per-minute flow rate and pounds-per-inch pressure and deserves special attention. If either flow rate or pressure are insufficient or at the low end of recommended levels, work slows or may not get done. One of my few frustrations with the hydraulic loader on my ATV is the slow response when raising or lowering it. A larger hydraulic pump and fluid storage would resolve the problem.

Other important factors to consider include drive, transmission and tire options. Conventional two-wheel drive, front-wheel assist or full-time four-wheel drive impact fuel use, maintenance needs and tractor capabilities in the field. Of course, they affect the list price and eventual resale value, too.

Standard transmissions in older tractors and some lower-priced new tractors are sturdy and should last for years, if not decades, without a problem; however, they don’t offer the ease of use or responsiveness of newer power shift and hydrostatic drive transmissions. Mechanical transmissions also tend to be a little more fuel efficient than hydrostatics. Shuttle options that let you quickly move between reverse and forward without clutching are worth their weight in gold if you’re using a front-end loader all day. Test drive a tractor with the type of transmission you’re considering to be sure you are comfortable with it and what it offers.

Tire options are easy to overlook. Agricultural tires come in a variety of treads and sizes, in standard bias-ply design or radial. They can be ballasted for additional traction or left as is for decreased soil compaction. Duals can be added if more traction without more soil compaction is desired. Discuss current and eventual needs and options with your dealer before making your final order.

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