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Selecting a Tractor for the Small Farm

OK, you bought the farm, and you have moved onto the property, with excitement, and anticipating new activities in your farming ventures.  There are a tremendous number of activities that need to be done on a small farm, regardless of the size.  For the new or beginning farmer, one inevitable hurdle to overcome is how you will power your farm activities? You can farm with a number of power sources, such as walk behind small scale 2 wheel type machines, or with tractors, or you can custom hire work that needs to be done.  If you decide that having a tractor fits into your operation, read on. This article will be the first in a series of how to select, acquire, operate and maintain smaller scale farm machinery. Often people ask me “What tractor should I buy?”, and “How much does a tractor cost?”  As with all things agricultural, the answer is “it depends”. One of the first things that I ask a new farmer is “What do you want and need to do with a tractor, and, how much can you afford to spend?”  Each activity mentioned in this article will require certain machines in addition to a tractor and will be addressed in later articles.

This is a an older 65 horsepower tractor that would be a good choice for a new and small farm. All photos by Rich Taber

This is a an older 65 horsepower tractor that would be a good choice for a new and small farm. All photos by Rich Taber

The following is a list of activities which might be occurring on a farm or homestead at any given time of the year and requiring specific tractors and machines:

Brushhogging meadows and pastures for grazing management and to prevent the fields from growing back into forest.  This is one of the most critical jobs on a small farm, as nature can be relentless in working to restore forests. If fields are let to grow for more than about three years, small trees and brush will begin to take over, and then can be extremely difficult and expensive to correct.

Haymaking, which might be either small square bales, or large round bales of dry hay or baleage. The process can require mowing, tedding, raking, baling, wrapping high moisture bales, and hauling and unloading hay.

Tillage activities, such as plowing, disking, harrowing, planting, and of course, picking stones.

Planting crops such as forages, row crops such as corn and cereal grains, fruits and vegetables, and possibly food plots for wildlife.

This is a three point hitch implement that is an important tool for mowing brush and pastures.

This is a three point hitch implement that is an important tool for mowing brush and pastures.

Pulling a variety of 2 and 4 wheel wagons around on the farm for diverse activities, such as hauling crops and hay, firewood, and giving hayrides to people.

Harvesting crops other than dry hay, such as chopping high moisture hay for haylage or greenchop, and vegetables.

Front end loader work for snow removal, manure handling, feeding animals, moving materials around the farm, and loading and hauling hay and other crops.

Working in the woods skidding logs, hauling firewood, and hauling maple sap to the sugar house.

I am going to make some assumptions before I begin to suggest which tractor might be a good choice for you. Assumption one: right now, you are going to try to do as many operations as possible on your farm with one tractor, while you’re getting started.  As you build equity and experience, you may someday need another tractor or two, because as you will find out, not all tractors are suited to all purposes, but for now, we will focus on getting you this first tractor to do as many things as possible.
Assumption two: you only have a given amount of money to spend, and that you might be looking for a good used tractor.  New tractors can be prohibitively expensive; if you can afford one, good for you.

Assumption three: you may be looking for a smaller to medium size tractor to get everything done; leaving the big tractors for those who truly need them.

Table 1

Table 1

So just what should we be looking for in a good used tractor? There are a myriad of features that we need to consider. To accomplish what we need to do, will our tractor have the features listed in Table 1?

Live hydraulics and pto (power take off) are important; older tractors made in the forties and fifties frequently did not have “live” features, which meant if you pushed in the tractor’s clutch, the pto or hydraulics stopped working.  This can be quite annoying when you are in thick crops and have to use the clutch, and have to start up again from a dead stop.

Now that we have all of these features to think about, I will describe my version of a tractor that if I could only have one tractor, this is the type that I would look for, for my first tractor on a smaller farm.

1.  I would want a tractor made in the latter part of the twentieth century, at least from about 1970 onward. Older tractors made after World War II still abound, but lack many of the needed operational and safety features expected today. Narrow front ends from that era were very dangerous and lacked many of the safety features that we expect nowadays. These type of tractors can be very dangerous!

2.   I would prefer having a diesel engine; not many farm tractors come with gasoline engines anymore. Older tractors from the sixties and early seventies with gasoline engines can be quite aggravating to keep running smoothly on a year round basis, especially the ones made before the era of electronic ignition.

A three point hitch is a critical "must have" for most tractors nowadays.

A three point hitch is a critical “must have” for most tractors nowadays.

3.   It is mandatory to have a three point hitch. So much farm equipment exists which requires this feature making it an absolute requirement.  Often you can purchase aftermarket three point hitch assemblies for older tractors but they tend to be expensive, awkward to use, and not very efficient.

4.   I would prefer two sets of live hydraulic outlets (this is required to run many farm machines today).  If your tractor has only one set of hydraulic hoses, a second set can be added if and when your machinery needs dictate.

5.  A front end loader (often the front end loader ties up one set of hydraulic outlets leaving you only one other set to operate equipment).

6.   Not too many hours on the hour meter, preferably under 5,000 hours.  Repairs and overhauls can be extremely expensive!

7.  If not a fully enclosed cab, at least a Roll Over Protective Structure (ROPS) should be mandatory, with a seat belt.  A canopy is a nice addition on top of the ROPS. The ROPS is for roll over protection and can save lives, and the canopy can prevent you from baking in the sun during those hot summer days, and will keep some rain off of you.

This 52 horsepower tractor has a front end loader attached to it, useful for handling many kinds of materials.

This 52 horsepower tractor has a front end loader attached to it, useful for handling many kinds of materials.

8.  It would be nice to have four wheel drive; our long snowy winters and muddy rainy summer months, especially if the tractor has a front end loader, make you able to get into a lot of places you normally would not, and you can easily get stuck.  There are two basic types of tractor operators, those who have been stuck, and those who are going to get stuck.  Getting stuck and having to have the neighbors come pull you out frequently can strain neighborly relations.

9.  Live power take off.  Some older obsolete tractors have “non-live” pto which makes controlling the actions of your equipment awkward and difficult.

10.  How much horse power? There are different ways to describe h.p. but for right now we can simply say that a tractor with between about 45 to 75 horsepower should fit our needs.

11.  How much will this tractor cost? Depending on the age, condition, and features present, you can expect to pay at least $5,000 up to $20,000 for a good used tractor such as I have described in this article. In general, the more features, the more costly the machine will be.

A medium sized tractor with four wheel drive can get through snow and mud quite readily.

A medium sized tractor with four wheel drive can get through snow and mud quite readily.

In future articles, I will discuss where we can find good used tractors as well as looking at some of the numerous machines we need on a farm.

Two very useful websites for those looking for tractors and farm machinery are tractor house and fast line. These two sites list machines for sale all over the country; looking through them will give the reader a good idea on what typical prices for machine will be.

Rich Taber

Rich Taber, M.S., M.S.F., is Grazing, Forestry, and Ag Economic Development Specialist with CCE Chenango.  He lives with his chainsaws on a farm that has a 100 acre woodlot in Madison County. He can be reached at phone: 607-334-5841 ext. 21 or email: rbt44@cornell.edu.


  1. Mike on July 20, 2015 at 10:27 am

    Thank you for the article.
    I am in the same situation you outline in your work.
    I would like to find my first, good, used small tractor.
    Is your “future article is available soon?

    • Mike on January 26, 2020 at 7:05 pm

      Me Too.Thanks

  2. Carli Fraccarolli on July 20, 2015 at 10:54 am

    Rich has written a few more articles on this subject! His “future” articles can be found here and here.

  3. Nawmi Khan on September 16, 2015 at 7:46 am

    thanks for such article.
    could you please tell more if I want to buy an old tractor?

  4. enahoro on December 13, 2015 at 6:53 pm

    I just acquired a 10 hectare land for cassava cultivation. I’m wondering how much it would cost to get a new tractor.

  5. David on May 11, 2016 at 5:04 am

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  6. JOHN Y. SACKIE on August 19, 2016 at 6:28 am

    I want to know the prices for the different kinds of tractors for small form.

  7. Cindy Tesler on December 9, 2016 at 3:33 pm

    Thanks for mentioning that if you need to bail some hay or mow a field, you probably need a tractor to help you. You also said that a tiller could help you to plow, harrow, or plant your field. I think it’s a good idea to choose farm equipment from word of mouth referrals from other farmers in your area.

  8. John on December 5, 2017 at 4:01 pm

    Fine article. Maybe in the future also discuss (1) use efficiency, such as buying more HP to take a bigger bush hog, (2) standard vs utility grade, and (3) the observation that older tractors are often so simple they rarely break down.

  9. Ridley Fitzgerald on February 9, 2018 at 6:33 pm

    My wife and I want to buy a small farm to move to. When that happens, we’ll definitely need a tractor. I like how you said to try and find one that was made in the last few decades. We’ll keep an eye out for those. http://pacountryequipment.com/products.html

  10. Mark nyambira on December 13, 2018 at 1:27 am

    Thanks very much I am I dire need of a tractor and I think this is my starting point

  11. Mark nyambira on December 13, 2018 at 1:31 am

    Thanks very much I am in need of a tractor and this is a step to go

  12. Jesse Ford on March 19, 2020 at 5:22 pm

    Thanks for mentioning that there are a lot of activities that need to be accomplished on a small farm regardless of the size. My brother is considering looking at farm equipment for sale because he’s considering buying some land to raise livestock on it and then selling the cattle when they’re grown. It might be a good idea to consider buying equipment from a reputable retailer that has high-quality machinery in order to handle all the farming duties that are required.

  13. Vance Baugh on October 22, 2020 at 2:55 pm

    We live on 40 acres. Used a Kubot BX 2200 subcompact for 1980 hrs. Four ft brush hog, 54 in mmm, FEL, single 14 in plow, 1.3 meter tiller, 2 row corn planter, 3 pt sprayer. Spent only $106 on repairs,I don’t count oil, filters, fluids as repairs. Felt I was over working the little mut so I traded it for a B2710 with 1048 hrs. Used it for another 960+ hrs. Spent $800 to rebuild the injector pump. The previous owners weren’t careful with their fuel. Changed the brush hog to a 5 ft, kept the other implements, forgot to mention the post hole auger. Traded the B2710 for a B3350, only because my lungs demanded a cab and filtered air to breath. The B3350 demands that you know how to live with a DPF equipped tier 4 compliant beast. I have found the Kubota to be reliable hard working machines. They are not cheap machines to maintain as far as fluids, filters and other periodic requirements.

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