Even though I run my tractor year-round, cold weather reduces routine maintenance to topping off the fuel and checking the oil. All other maintenance is deferred until things warm up a bit. In this article, I’ll provide a tractor checkup checklist of maintenance procedures to keep your tractor running at its peak during spring and summer chores.
Before you get started, see if you can find the manual for your tractor. If not, your dealer might be able to supply you with a copy, or you can probably find one online. Try TheMotorBookstore.com. It has a pretty complete set of manuals for older tractors at a reasonable price.
If your tractor has been idle for the entire winter, the gasoline in the tank might have gone flat, unless you added a stabilizer. This occurs as the volatile compounds evaporate over time, which is not a problem with diesel fuel.
Step on in your tractor checkup? Deal with flat gas by draining it and replacing it with fresh gas. Not being one to throw anything away, if I have flat gas, I pour in about a half-gallon every time I fill the tank, and the tractor runs fine. Diesel fuel is pretty much maintenance-free, as long as it contains no contaminants and the filter is clean.
Several contaminants can work their way into your fuel system over the winter. Moisture can condense on the inside of the fuel tank, which contaminates the fuel and can cause rust on the inside of the tank, which will eventually flake off and block the fuel flow. If your tractor has a carburetor, it probably has a sediment bowl (also called a settling bowl). Remove the bowl, and check it for water and contaminants. While the sediment bowl is off, remove the drain bolt on the bottom of the carburetor and drain that gas into a glass jar to clear it of water and contaminants.
Removing the drain plug on the bottom of the carburetor allows all of the gas in the fuel line and carburetor to drain out, along with any water and sediment that got past the sediment bowl. Catching the gas in a glass jar lets you inspect the fuel for water and sediment and keeps the fuel from spilling on the ground. If it’s clear, just pour it back into the fuel tank.
Use a siphon (I use 3⁄8-inch-diameter clear vinyl tubing) to check for contaminants on the bottom of the fuel tank. Make sure the siphon hose goes all the way to the bottom of the tank so it gets everything—including water, dirt and rust—that has settled to the bottom of the tank. I siphon about a quart or so into a glass jar so I can inspect it.
If flakes of rust are present, move the siphon hose around the bottom of the tank to get as much out as possible. Otherwise, it will find a way to clog the tank outlet. Let the glass jar sit for several hours, then observe for contaminants; water appears as a clear bubble on the bottom of the jar. Because water and sediment settle on the bottom of the jar, you can carefully pour the clean fuel back into the tank. If rust inside the tank is a serious problem, consider getting a polymer tank liner, such as from a gas tank sealer kit.
Cold weather takes a serious toll on batteries, especially if they are allowed to discharge. If the tractor has been sitting idle all winter, it might not have enough juice to start. If that happens, it’s easiest on the battery to put it on a charger for a few hours—assuming you can scrounge up enough extension cords.
A jump-start should be a last resort; it’s harder on the battery. Depending on battery condition, it might not hold a charge and you will need to replace it. Also, check the battery cable connectors on both ends to make sure the connections are secure. Check the hot (positive) cable anywhere it touches the frame to make sure the insulation is good at that point; otherwise, it can short out. If the insulation is worn, wrap it liberally with electrical tape until you can replace the cable.
Follow the manufacturer’s recommendations on fluids when performing your tractor checkup. At the very minimum, check all the fluid levels—engine oil, hydraulic oil, radiator and gear oil. There might be some hidden gear oil fill points for steering and the front hubs on a four-wheel-drive tractor. Change fluids, as recommended by the manufacturer.
Diesel injectors develop pressure up to 2,500 psi to force fuel through openings .005 inches in diameter (only slightly larger than a human hair). Any bigger particles can clog the openings and reduce engine performance.
Gasoline engines, whether carbureted or injected, also have small orifices that are easily clogged. The fuel filter is your first line of defense against poor performance and expensive repairs. Other filters that need attention are the air filter, oil filter and hydraulic filter.
A good rule of thumb is to change filters during a tractor checkup at least once per year when you change engine oil, depending on how much you use your tractor. Again, follow the manufacturer’s recommendations. Make sure all clamps and fittings are tight and secure to keep the fluids in and the dust out.
Check hydraulic oil level, usually with a dip stick. Most tractors require all hydraulics fully extended when you check the oil, but follow the instructions in the manual. Change the filter, if the manual advises it.
If you changed to a lighter hydraulic oil for the winter, replace it with a summer oil. Check hydraulic hoses for cracking and leaks. Cycle the hydraulics to make sure they move smoothly and that the cylinders will stay in the extended position without drifting down. Inspecting your hydraulics is a big part of your tractor checkup.
Give the wiring a visual inspection. Sometimes mice or squirrels get inside and chew on the insulation. A nest or cache of acorns under the hood is a good indication that your tractor has served as a rodent residence over the winter.
Check all lights, and make sure the alternator gauge shows a normal charge when the engine is at operating speed.
Check the alternator and fan belts for cracks, and feel them for tension. Tighten, if necessary, and replace if the belt is questionable.
Your manual indicates all lubrication points and the recommended grease. If you can’t force grease through a zerk (grease fitting), replace it. I always keep a few spares in my toolbox so I’m not tempted to skip a fitting that is clogged or broken off.
Check tire pressure, and add air, if needed. Look the tires over for worn tread, splits or other signs of problems.
Yes, it’s a pain in the neck to take a tire in for repair and expensive to replace it, but you might as well do it during a tractor checkup so you don’t wind up walking home from the back 40 and doing a field repair.
If your tractor is two-wheel-drive, jack up each front wheel, safety it with a block or jack stand, and check the bearings. Remove the wheel and the bearing nut. This is most likely a castle nut with a cotter pin (in my case, a piece of bailing wire) to keep it in place.
Check the bearing to make sure it’s intact. If it’s in good condition, apply a liberal dose of bearing grease and re-assemble the wheel, tightening the bearing nut just enough to eliminate any wobble, while letting it turn freely; then pin the castle nut to hold it in place.
If the bearing is hard to turn or falls apart, replace it. To do this, drive the outer race (bearing frame) out of the wheel and take it to an autoparts store. The number stamped on it will make it easy to find a replacement.
The tractor is the leading cause of death on a farm. The most frequent causes of tractor-related deaths are side and rear overturns—96 deaths per year, according to the National Tractor Safety Coalition. It points out that rollover protection systems are 99 percent effective in preventing injury or death in the event of an overturn when used with a seatbelt, and 70 percent effective when used without a seatbelt.
Make sure all nuts and bolts on the roll cage are tight. Scan the welds for cracks. Does the seat belt work properly and fit snugly? If not, fix it or replace it. Don’t make it easy to skip using your seatbelt.
Check your hand brake for stopping and holding power; be sure to disengage it when you are finished. If your tractor is equipped with separate left and right brakes, test them individually to make sure they both work and have about the same braking effect.
Repair faulty brakes before putting your tractor to work. A tractor with a working brake on only one side is at risk for rollover, especially on hills and while making turns at road speeds.
13. Attachments and Implements
The brush hog, posthole auger and disk have all been sitting idle all winter, mostly under a blanket of snow. Before waking them up and putting them back to work, it would be a good idea to do a little maintenance.
If the implement has a gearbox such as a mower, tiller or auger, check the oil level and top it off with the recommended gear lube (usually SAE 90). There may be two holes: one for adding oil and one for indicating level. There are gear oil dispensers that make it easier to get the oil in the fill hole without making a mess. (While you’re at it, how long has it been since you have checked the oil in your truck’s differential?)
Mower blades take a real beating. This is a good time to remove them and sharpen them. If you remove/install the blades while the mower is on the tractor, block the mower up in case the hydraulics fail for any reason. If you tip the mower up with the front-end loader, be sure to have a secondary support. It’s also a good idea to have a safety person with you who knows how to operate the tractor.
As important as the tractor is for just about every aspect of farming, following the steps listed in this article for a proper tractor checkup will help ensure that the tractor will be ready for any task at hand with a simple turn of the key. One last safely precaution that I can’t stress enough: Use common sense for safety, and have backup support any time you are working under something that could come down and injure you.
This story originally appeared in the May/June 2018 issue of Hobby Farms.