buying a tractorBuying a tractor, whether it's new or used, is a big investment - in terms of what you'll pay to buy it or what you'll spend on maintaining it. Or both, in some cases.

There are a huge range of options when you're contemplating a tractor for a lifestyle block, options that will be influenced by individual circumstances. If you have little experience with tractors, it's easy to get confused. The most important thing is to think the purchase through before rushing in and buying.

Tractor options run to:

New or Used:

  • Buying new offers peace of mind.  Expect a manufacturer to offer a 24-month basic warranty, some even go as far as a 36-month power-train warranty (engine, transmission, differentials and axle assemblies) on new tractors. The number of hours on the warranty will be irrelevant for most LSB owners - you're unlikely to clock up more than a few hundred hours before the first 2 years is up.
  • The variety of used tractors is huge - ranging from low hours/nearly new through to vintage or classic models. Get someone with experience to check out any used tractor before you buy it.

Third Option:

  • is not buying one at all - either getting a contractor in or hiring when the machinery is needed.

Not all tractors are suitable for every property. Safety has to be the number one consideration. Choosing the right machine to start with is the key, but it keeping well maintained also plays a huge part in staying safe.

Things to consider:

  • Budget
  • Terrain on your property - flat, hilly, rolling? How much of your property are you going to be using the tractor on?
  • Two wheel drive or four wheel drive? Do you have wet or dry paddocks. On any sort of slope you'll need four wheel drive when the grass is wet, even if the ground is hard.
  • What will you be using it for? Loader work, mowing, grading, cultivation, running a log splitter/firewood saw.
  • Think about comfort & ease of use - both for yourself & and your partner - how easy is it to get on and off the tractor?
  • Don't buy the first tractor you look at. Shop around - Test Drive, experience the product.
  • If you can, buy from a reputable dealer. Are they local? - what support do they provide - weekends etc when you want to use it?
  • If you already have some equipment, ensure the tractor is compatible with it.
  • Cheapest isn't always the best.

Regardless of your budget, check the price of a new tractor - it'll put the price of used machines into perspective and you may be surprised by the affordability taking the benefits of owning new into account.

Horsepower

Tractor power is expressed in horsepower - it's good to have a horsepower figure for a tractor, but that doesn't tell you what it's capable of doing. Higher horsepower doesn't always mean more useable power.

Tyres

Tyres are one of the very important parts to look at when buying a tractor. They can be expensive to replace - so take tyre condition into account when you're looking at buying a used tractor. It's also an expensive exercise to change the tyres on a tractor from say - ag tread to turf tyres - you're better off getting a tractor with the tyres you want already on it.

There are three types of tyres suitable for utility tractors: R1 (ag or bar tread) tyres give you the best traction, but can cause the most ground damage; R3 (turf tread) tyres are ideal for jobs like mowing and have the least traction; R4 (industrial-tread) tyres have excellent traction, and are a good compromise if you're going to be using your tractor on the lawn as well as in the paddock.

Transmission

You could build an entire website to explain all the transmission options for tractors, but we'll try to simplify things here and just cover the basics.

Early tractors started with 3 forward and 1 reverse gear. That soon developed to 4 and 5 speed transmissions, and then range shift was added - giving you high and low and doubling up the number of speeds available. The advantage of having more gears is that you have a wider choice of speeds to run at - tractors differ from cars in that speed is governed more by the gear you're in than the throttle or accelerator (except for hydrostatic transmissions).

To keep things simple, there are 4 basic types of tractor transmission:

  1. Manual or Straight Shift.  Sometimes called crash shift, which is a fairly appropriate name because you'll "graunch" gears if you try to shift on the go. You pick a gear to work in and stop the tractor completely if you need to change to another gear. Manual shift transmissions might not be as user-friendly as some of the other types, but they do tend to be bullet-proof in terms of durability.
  2. Synchro-Shift.  Allows for crash-less shifting on the go.  Synchro transmissions range from simple, where gears within a range are synchronized, up to full synchronization of all gears and ranges, including forward and reverse. Shuttle-Shift (synchronization between forward and reverse) is really useful for front loader work because of the frequent changes in direction. Shuttle-shift will typically give you as many reverse gears as forward (usually expressed as xxF/xxR meaning xx forward speeds/xx reverse speeds). Synchro is still a reliable transmission, but with rough treatment can have the potential for problems because of the extra complexity in the transmission.
  3. Power Shift.  Similar to synchro-shift. Some, or all, of the speeds in a transmission may be power shift. Often, Power shift transmissions will have a power shuttle or power reverser which allows you to select between forward and reverse without clutching. A common option is to have ranges selectable with clutching, and clutchless power shifts within each range. Power shift enables speed changes while on the go without having to use the clutch pedal. It's a big safety plus being able to downshift going up or down hills without touching the clutch.
  4. Hydrostatic Drive.  Hydrostatic transmissions have been around for a long time. Commonly compared to automatic transmissions in cars but so different.  Hydrostatic basically uses a hydraulic pump driving a hydraulic motor to drive the tractor. By design the system is largely self-protected from operator abuse. It's a lack of maintenance or poor maintenance practices that will kill hydrostatic transmissions.

The downside to hydrostatic drive is that it isn't suited to jobs needing a fixed speed and very little shifting - such as cultivation. Hydrostatic drive also eats up about 20% of a tractor's useable horsepower.

Hydrostatic is easily the best option for turf mowing applications or for any jobs needing frequent speed and direction changes within a small area. It's also a really good option for the novice tractor owner that wants an uncomplicated, easy to operate machine.

Choosing the right transmission for the jobs you do (or plan to do in the future) is just as important as getting the right size tractor. If you'll be using your tractor for cultivation work - make sure the one you buy has a ground speed slow enough to actually do the work. If you'll be driving between points on the property any distance apart, get one with some reasonable speed.

PTO

PTO (Power Take Off) is the shaft at the back of the tractor that is used to drive mowers, rotary hoes, firewood saws etc. It is also another horsepower number that you'll see for a tractor - it's the power the tractor actually puts out the shaft at the back. PTO horsepower is often quite a bit lower than the HP figure used to describe the tractor - e.g. a Massey Ferguson 135 = 45.5hp engine and 38hp PTO.

Rear Linkage

At the back of the tractor is a three-point hitch or linkage, which has three mounting points for implements - 2 draft arms and a top link. The draft/lift arms do the work of lifting the implement, the top link controls its angle relative to the ground. Most tractors that would be used on a lifestyle block would have a CAT1 or CAT2 hitch - this refers to the diameter of the holes on the draft/lift arms. You can fit a CAT1 implement onto CAT2 arms (using sleeves over the implement pins) but not vice-versa.

Rear Hydraulics

If you're planning on using hydraulic implements with your tractor, you'll need rear SCVs (Selective Control Valves). Make sure the tractor you're buying has got them, or can have them added - find out what the cost is to add them first - it isn't that cheap.

Rear SCVs are used to run hydraulic top links, post rammers, forklifts, log splitters, anything else that is operated hydraulically.

Front End Loaders

A front end loader (FEL) is probably one of the most useful attachments to have on a tractor. The most functional type is a crowd action loader (CA FEL) - hydraulic rams operate the tilting (crowding) of the bucket, as opposed to a trip loader which has a lever and cable to release a free swinging bucket to dump its contents.

Things to consider when looking at a loader tractor:

  • It's far cheaper to buy a tractor with a loader than buying the tractor and adding a loader to it
  • A single joystick control (rather than separate levers for lift & crowd) makes it easier to drive the tractor and operate the loader at the same time - especially if you're going to be doing a lot of shuttling back and forth out of material stockpiles
  • How easy is it to change the implement on the loader if you need to? Swapping bucket for forks etc.
  • How easy is it to take the loader off the tractor, and put it back on again? If the seller tells you it's a quick attach loader get them to demonstrate it.
  • Are the lift rams on the loader arms double-acting - i.e. do they have hydraulic down pressure as well as lift? The easiest way to tell is - 2 hoses into opposite ends of each ram = double-acting. Double acting rams will speed up any loader work you do considerably, and enable you to dig the bucket in if you need to.
  • A loader isn't an excavator. If you're planning on doing a lot of digging work - hire a digger.
  • Make sure the tractor is suitably ballasted for loader work.
  • If your property is sloping or hilly, a word of caution - the easiest way to tip over/roll a tractor is to load up the bucket, put it up in the air and drive across a slope. It doesn't have to be much of a slope and the bucket doesn't have to be very far off the ground before one of the rear wheels will get airborne.

Other things to consider

Don't forget that the cost of owning a tractor is more than just the purchase price. Running costs include fuel, oils, repairs and scheduled maintenance. Remember to factor in depreciation and insurance, and finance costs (or the loss of opportunity having cash tied up in machinery rather than being used elsewhere).

Once you've bought it - look after it. Taking care of your tractor extends its working life and will ensure a higher resale value if you ever decide to part with it.

Tractor Safety:

Balance the front and rear of the tractor. Fill the tyres with water or add weight to the back of the tractor if you're lifting something heavy in front - it will keep the rear tyres on the ground. The same goes for the front.

Stay within the ROPS (rollover protection structure) zone. This U-shaped bar over the seat protects the driver in a rollover. Don't buy a tractor unless it has a ROPS fitted.

If it has a ROPS, your tractor should also have a seat belt. Wear it. ROPS do not work unless you stay inside the protection zone if the tractor rolls over. Hanging on doesn't work.

Turn off the engine and wait for everything to stop before getting off the tractor - especially mowers and cultivation equipment. Remember to put the park brake on before getting off the tractor.

Never carry passengers on the tractor (unless it's a cab tractor with a passenger seat) - it's dangerous, one slip and they're under a wheel.

Farm machinery is the leading cause of injuries and deaths in rural New Zealand each year. ACC have produced a brochure with sound advice on tractor safety:

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