Tractor Or Skid Steer: What’s Right For Your Farm?

Choosing between a tractor and skid steer is one of the more common decisions you’ll need to make. Here are some key differences to help you choose.

by Hope Ellis-Ashburn
PHOTO: courtesy of Bobcat

Whether you’re seeking to replace older, worn-out equipment or purchase equipment that is at least new to you, choosing between tractors and skid steers is one of the more common decisions you’ll need to make. And when standing on the lot of your local equipment dealership looking to make that purchase, it can be difficult to decide which piece best fits your needs. 

Even if you’re looking at used equipment on your laptop computer from the comfort of your living room recliner, making a side-by-side comparison can be challenging. This is especially true if both pieces of equipment can perform similar tasks. No doubt, before making the final decision, you’ll want to put in a great deal of forethought. 

Walter Mullins, general manager of Kubota of McMinnville, Tennessee, weighs in to help you make this choice. The dealership is owned by Sequatchie Valley resident Chris Ridge and has been servicing the equipment needs of farmers in the valley for decades.

Skid Steer Synonyms

If you’re new to farming equipment or you’ve only been exposed to more traditional farming equipment types, you may be unfamiliar with skid steers. “It’s a piece of equipment with tracks on it, not tires, similar to a bulldozer,” Mullins says. “It is more for moving dirt, tree stumps and rocks. It’s more of a construction-oriented piece of equipment that lifts heavier loads than a tractor.”

Note: While some brands of skid steers can come with tires, tracks are the more popular choice.

tractor skid steer
courtesy of Kubota

Mullins added that all skid steer’s implements operate from the front end of the vehicle. If you’re thinking about the two pieces of equipment in terms of your specific needs, Mullins says that tractors, on the other hand, are more for hobby farming or farming in general.

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“They are more for moving downed trees, tilling gardens and landscape work,” he says. 

Maneuverability, Horsepower & Maintenance

While both pieces of equipment can perform similar tasks when deciding as to which piece of equipment to purchase, you’ll need to take several factors into account. The first is maneuverability. Mullins says in this instance it’s a close comparison.

The skid steer will probably be a little more agile as far as getting in and out of places,” he says. “They do turn tighter than a tractor would, but they’re pretty close.”

Knowing your horsepower needs can also help you to make an informed decision. “Skid steers are anywhere from 70 to 97 horse while tractors range from 25 to 200 horsepower,” Mullins says. Maintenance intervals are another area of comparison. “While skid steers have longer maintenance intervals than tractors, they are generally more expensive when they are being serviced,” he says.

Purchase Price

Maintenance costs aside, the overall purchase price of the equipment is yet another consideration. The amount of horsepower you seek for your equipment factors heavily into the cost.

“Skid steers run anywhere from $65,000 to $95,000,” Mullins says. “A 25-horsepower tractor will start at $26,000, while a 150-horsepower tractor will cost about $150,000.”

Seasonal Needs

Depending upon where you live, other aspects may not directly affect you. Snow removal may or may not be a concern. This is another area where these two pieces of equipment are, in general, very similar. 

“They’re going to be close,” Mullins says. “You could move snow with both of them with the front-end loader or the bucket, as we call it,” he says. Mullins explains that if bucket size and horsepower are comparable, there isn’t much difference between the two.

In terms of meeting general farming needs, several factors need to be kept in mind, some of which you may not have previously considered. Ease of moving equipment is one of these dynamics you may not have thought of. 

“Skid steers are a lot heavier, and you’d have to have a larger trailer [to move it on] and the vehicle to pull it,” Mullins says. Weight aside, the tracks on a skid steer make them unsuitable for driving on roads. While tractors, at least for shorter distances, can potentially be driven rather than hauled from one location to the next.

Ease of operation also falls into this category. Skid steers, for example, have better operator visibility from the front while tractors have the advantage from behind.

For general farming needs, note that while both pieces of equipment are capable of running multiple attachments, some key differences exist. “The big difference as far as the tractor goes is that you can run implements on the front and rear of the tractor,” Mullins says. 

Tractors also come equipped with PTOs, making them capable of operating attachments requiring them, whereas skid steers don’t. Here your overall focus may help you to decide between the two. Skid steers are geared more toward rough terrain and heavy loads while tractors favor a smother surface.

Attachment Choices

Your implement or attachment needs may also affect your decision. For skid steers, Mullins says that rotary cutters, grapples and Harley rakes (a type of soil leveling implement) are the most commonly sold attachments at the dealership where he works. For tractors, the most common are rotary cutters, tillers, grapples, and hay spears or forks.

tractor skid steer
courtesy of Kubota

All things considered, Mullins says that bout 90 percent of his customers who purchase a skid steer do so because they make a living with it, while the remaining 10 percent use it for improving their land. He sees tractors as being the more commonly made purchase when customers are looking at a piece of equipment for general farm use. 

When all is says and done, your ultimate decision as to which piece of equipment you should purchase should be based on a combination of your budget and your needs rather than thinking in terms of whether one piece of equipment is better than another and researching those needs for your farm is half the fun.  

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2023 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.

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