In August 2011, fresh off buying a house and needing something to look after the yard I went tractor shopping. What I ended up buying was a sound choice given the information available to me at the time, and I'm grateful to my salesman for wanting to make sure that he wasn't selling me stuff that I didn't need, but I've had multiple iterations of adding stuff to my base model tractor that I would have added to Kubota's "five years same as cash" deal if I'd only known about it when I was first buying the tractor. In short, I'm a lot more sensitive to features and utility than I am to an extra $75 or $100 in my monthly tractor payment.
When I went tractor shopping with Jeff a couple of years ago I gave him a bunch of my thoughts about lessons learned, but didn't write them down. Now Bill is shopping for a bigger tractor and I figure I ought to both write down my impressions and add in a bit of Jeff's and JT's thoughts.
The one thing I got as an option because it was inexpensive and I thought it would be useful was "cruise control", which is Kubota-ese for "sticky hand control for the HST pedal". If I had it to do over again I wouldn't bother. It is not particularly useful for mowing, particularly on hilly ground, and it only works in forward so if you had any ideas of it making slow backing with a snow blower or drag blade on easier, forget it.
Capabilities and Attributes
It's easy to say "bigger is better" particularly if one is not particularly price sensitive, but can you get the tractor indoors to park it with an implement hooked on (i.e. too tall for the garage door)? How about length? It's not uncommon to be 20 feet or more once one puts on a decent sized bushhog. Will that fit in the garage?
How about weight? Do you plan to take the tractor anywhere on a trailer like a friend or relative's house or a remote property where you're building? A lot of dual axle flatbed trailers max out at 7200 pounds, which can be a little tight when you add together the weight of the trailer, the tractor, and any implements you're hauling around. Bigger trailers are available, which may exceed the capacity of your tow vehicle. Unless you have an F350 and a gooseneck trailer sitting around idle, this is likely a consideration if you plan to haul your tractor around.
JT points out that turning radius (of the tractor, not the truck and trailer) is a very big deal. You can waste a LOT of time (more than you might think) mowing already-mowed-grass if your turning radius is bad. Try it out in the lot. 4wd and agricultural tires (“ag tires”) make this worse, so it’s a tradeoff.
Speaking of four wheel drive, you probably want it. You can turn it off when you don't need it.
I have a loader. Jeff has a loader. Bill is looking for a loader. What are the things you care about with a loader?
The amount of weight that a loader can lift is generally specified one of two ways: at the pivot pin, and 500mm forward of the lift pin. The first gives you a higher number. The second gives you a more realistic idea of what it can lift. Neither includes the weight of whatever implement you're using (forks, bucket, etc). All specifications assume a properly ballasted tractor; this might include an accessory or rock box on the 3-point, fluid in the tires, etc. A heavier lift capacity implies a heavier (bigger) tractor and everything that goes along with it, however an undersized loader can be a safety issue or a serious constraint on what work you can get done.
How high the loader will go is critical if you plan to use it with forks to put stuff in the upstairs of your barn. One of my friends found himself with a larger tractor than he might have otherwise gotten on account of deciding he was through with carrying hay bales for the alpacas upstairs by hand.
If you're an owner-operator, have common sense, and take good care of your stuff, you absolutely want an SAE J2513 quick-attach system, a/k/a Bobcat Quick-Attach. It's the method used to attach all sorts of implements to skid steer loaders. If you have hired people who hate you or are not so swift you might not want this - it is absolutely possible to get youself into trouble or damage the tractor by putting an implement intended for an 8000 pound skid steer on a 4000 pound compact tractor.
Having one of these makes it super easy to swap back and forth between grapples, different size buckets, forks, and all sorts of other implements you might have around.
Third Function Valve
If you think you might get a four-in-one bucket, a grapple, or something similar that's hydraulically actuated to go on the front of your tractor (such as a pivot for a snow plow blade) you should go ahead and get the third function valve installed. It's called "third" because the first two functions, up/down and curl, are already built into your loader.
Ease of loader removal
Most loaders these days can be set up on a stand and detached from the tractor with some level of difficulty. The whole thing. Not just the attachment on the business end. I never take my loader off but then again I use it pretty frequently and so the juice isn't worth the squeeze. Besides, then I'd have to invest in suitcase weights for when I"m using the mower without the loader. JT says he takes his off regularly and that it helps a lot with maneuverability. Try this out at the dealer even if you think you'll never take your loader off.
Fender/Wheel Clearance and Chains
Plowing snow on any kind of an incline, no matter how shallow, can be a bit of a challenge especially here in the Mid-Atlantic where we tend to get a lot of ice or heavy wet snow. Good snow chains (only on the drive wheels; four wheel drive tractors are not designed for chains on all four wheels!) will help immensely with not sliding around.
But you need clearance for them under the fenders. Most tractors have plenty around the circumference of the wheel but if you're short on the proximal side, you may have to add wheel spacers to get the wheels out far enough that you're able to get the chains on and off easily, avoid scraping, or both.
By the way, ladder-style tractor tire chains come in two common variants: two-link and four-link. Two-link means that there is a cross-chain ("ladder rung") every two links on the stringer. Four-link means every four. I bought two-link chains on the basis that more traction and less slip is better, without stopping to think "hey, these things weigh almost twice as much as four-link chains because they have twice the crossmembers". I'm sure that as I get older, one Christmas I will decide that I want Santa to bring me a chain repair tool and use it to convert my 2-link chains to 4-link.
There are three kinds of tires that are regularly found on tractors: R1, R3, and R4. Aside from the R4 industrial tires nobody calls them by their tread pattern name though - R1 tires are "ag tires", the classic aggressive tread tractor tire, and R3 tires are what's known as "turf tires". Much less hard on whatever you're driving over and less likely to tear up your grass. The R4 industrial tires (same tread pattern as found on a skid steer loader) are billed as a compromise design, but the place where I was hoping that the compromise would get me (acceptable performance in the snow) turned out to be for naught - if I had it to do over again I would get turf tires and chains from day one.
JT's commentary: If you’re not doing land clearing or muddy work, you may consider getting “turf tires” instead of ag tires. This sounds counterintuitive, but in some cases the turf tires will give better traction, and will destroy your property less. In the wet season, you’ll be hesitant to take the tractor out because it will leave giant dents on anything it drives over (including driveways, where it will de-compress your nice gravel) so it is worth serious thought. I almost never drive the tractor on the “nice grass” or even the gravel drive because it just chews things up completely after just one pass. When I had turf tires, it was not a concern in the least and I got more utility out of the tractor because of the wider range. In the winter, chains make the turf tires mostly as useful as the ag lugs. I’ve had both; I prefer the turf tires for 90% of the work that I do, and the 10% of “heavy gruntwork” where they are non-optimal could probably be solved with chains. I can’t think of a time in the last year that I would have needed ag lugs to do the work that I do with the tractor. I am not plowing fields with it; I’m managing a homestead.
Before we leave the subject of tires, there are three kinds of fluid usually used for tractor tire ballast:
Calcium Chloride. Cheap. Heavy. Corrosive. You'll be paying for new rims eventually.
Methanol and water mix (aka windshield wiper fluid - tractor companies buy it by the IBC tote full). Not as heavy as calcium chloride. Toxic to some degree but I don't think a spill on the order of a few dozen gallons is reportable (all bets are off if you live in a state like California or a locality that apes their environmental regulations). More expensive than calcium chloride, but still not outrageous. And not corrosive.
Sugar beet juice. This is some heavy dense stuff. It's not toxic. Indeed it's a component in what some localities use to pre-treat the roadways when a storm is coming. It's more expensive than methanol.
I have methanol in my tires. If I had it to do over again I'd probably spec sugar beet juice, but I'm not sure the improvement is enough to warrant wasting the sunk expenditure of the stuff I already have in there and the labor to swap it out.
HST (and live PTO) not manual gearbox
You want a hydrostatic transmission and an independent PTO, not a manual gearbox. This makes it easy to sneak up in tight spaces while still running your mower at optimal PTO speed. Anything other than "independent PTO" is old-school and not preferred. The tractordata.com site has a brief page that contrasts the various types of PTOs
Three Point Hitch Specifics
Turnbuckle check chains suck
A 3-point hitch is by design sloppy and loose and needs something to hold it steady in use such that the implement doesn't sway into the wheels of the tractor. Old Fords used chains for this purpose, and the name "check chain" has stuck.
In its budget/entry trim tractors, Kubota likes to use turnbuckle style check chains with a jam nut to keep them from vibrating loose, which doesn't generally go to plan unless the tractor application is one where the implement goes on the 3-point and then doesn't come back off for literally years.
With wheel spacers on my L3700SU (which I needed anyway for the snow chains), I was able to swap out my turnbuckle style check chains for pin and telescoping sleeve style such as one finds on the L Grand. Discuss your options with your dealer.
Rear Hydraulic Remotes
You may want one, two, or three hydraulic remotes on the back of your tractor next to the three-point hitch. This depends on application. Jeff does grading and has a hydraulically actuated drag blade. I don't have any remotes on the back and wish I did; when I use my tractor-powered hydraulic log splitter I am forced to hook it up to the loader's connections and bungee cord the control stick over.
There is a variant of a rear remote called a "backhoe loop" which is higher flow than a normal remote and is basically a splittable hose on the power-beyond port with no valve to control it. This would be a spiffy way to run either a log splitter or a removable backhoe that goes on a rear frame mount on the tractor.
JT points out that some folks call these “rear take-offs” - these are mandatory in his book.
Three Point Quick Attach Unnecessary?
There are people who have quick attach systems for the 3-point hitch who swear by them, and JT is one of 'em. He says the ones he has are fantastic and save him hours of time a year and leaping on-off the tractor a million times. He's used both the “old” method and the quick attach method. Night and day hassle reduction. The system he has is from Agrisupply
My experience is that the sizes of implements that go on the 3-point vary widely enough that you're going to be on the hook for some adjustment anyway. I've played with 'em at the dealership and it never seems as easy as it looks in the sales videos on YouTube.
The good news is that if you choose wrong on this, they're super easy to add or delete in the field (well, not literally in the field, probably in your garage).
Buy a San Angelo Bar
For levering stuff back and forth into position when you've got it half on and half off the 3-point, it's hard to beat a San Angelo bar (variously called a digging bar in some quarters). Tractor Supply has 'em. It takes some practice, but installing and removing medium size implements like various size mowers, snow blowers, and blades is an easy one person job when you've got a 5 foot long steel rod in your hand.
Buy a drawbar
When towing around fallen trees or the like, it can be tempting to connect the tow chain to the 3-point hitch. Don't do it! All modern tractors have a place to put a proper drawbar. Keep a drawbar and a shackle to connect to it on hand (it may even be possible to leave it installed all the time).
Hooking to the 3-point will likely end up having the tow point higher than the centerline of the rear axle. Which is fine right up until the towed load snags on something. The forces then combine to make the tractor flip over backwards. Back in the days before ROPS was mandatory, several people a year used to die this way. Nowadays, it's rare to hear of someone who was wearing a seat belt getting killed by flipping a tractor but it's still plenty unpleasant and will be a nasty insurance claim.
Heavy Duty is Heavy Weight
One thing to keep in mind across all accessories is that heavy duty means heavy weight. We've discussed owner-operator vs. hired crew before, but it is worth underlining here - if you fall into the "gentleman farmer" or "hobbyist" genre, and are operating your own stuff carefully, you can probably do more with the lighter duty equipment than you can with the heavy duty equipment.
You want forks - trust me on this
Few things are as life-changing as forks. Planting trees? No problem, hang the pallet of bags of topsoil over each hole, stab with a spade, shake - no lifting! Going camping? Those three 94-quart Igloo coolers are a one person job to move from the deck down to the pickup truck when you can slide them onto a pallet first and drive slowly down the hill with them. Need to stash some spare landscaping brick and then your friend texts you to borrow the trailer that you stored it in front of to run an errand? Not a problem if it's on a pallet - you can stash it elsewhere in about 20 seconds.
Kim didn't understand why I was so stoked to have a giant claw for the front end of my tractor. Then we had a tree blow down and I had her drive the tractor to stash pieces of log elsewhere while I sectioned it up with a chain saw. She was quickly super-impressed by it. Jeff says he uses the grapple more than the forks, but he's clearing land at his place these days.
Reinforced grill guard
I'm told that if you're driving into brush a lot in the interests of clearing stuff out or checking out the limits of what your bushhog can handle, you might want to consider getting a reinforced grill guard before you have to pay for a new hood or something. I have no strong opinions on this matter except to point out that there are people with a forestry mulcher on a skid steer only 15 miles down the road and they made short work of my thicket when I had them over a couple of years ago. So you might say "I have people for that".
Belly mowers, particularly the drive on/over type, suck. Pain to get to the blades for sharpening, and they take out a lot of your ground clearance. They also require a mid-PTO, which can unnecessarily constrain your choices in tractors. There's something to be said for a zero turn mower when you're keeping a lot of grass mowed, especially if it's been graded sufficiently that one can do it at speed (our property is not that flat). But they're expensive; a good one will set you back several thousand dollars and it's yet another small engine to maintain. If you're going to be mowing with a tractor, something that goes on the 3-point hitch, be it a brush hog, a flail mower, or a finish mower (depending on the application) is the right thing. Maybe even a tow-behind multi-gang reel mower if you happen to have a golf course or athletic field at your house.
I have a finish mower and a bushhog. One of the nice things about a finish mower is that blade swapping for sharpening is super easy - just pick the mower up with the 3-point, put jack stands underneath (important! don't trust hydraulics to hold even on a new tractor; that's how people die), crawl under with a breaker bar, and get your blades.
The manual for your finish mower will give you dry torque values for the blade bolts and not say anything about anti-seize. You should look up wet torque values (typically 80% of dry) and make liberal use of anti-seize. Voice of experience here.
JT has had several bushhogs because they were inexpensive. Finally went to a flail mower, and won’t look back. Less clogging, better decomposition, no bunching/lawn dead spots, shorter turn radius, better ability to cut through tall stuff. Spend the extra on the flail if you think you’ll ever miss a few mowings and have to deal with heavy growth. Note that this is a rough cut / shredding mower, same application as a brush hog.
JT points out that many ROPS systems have a built-in “roof” that is really just a sun blocker and is not structurally sound. This is waaaay nicer than it sounds. Spending 8 hours on a tractor in the sun sucks. A shade system of some sort makes life much nicer in the summer, and also keeps light rain off your head during summer squalls. Worth a few hundred dollars, easily, given cancer risks and sweat churn that it forestalls.
I deleted mine due to difficulty getting the tractor into the barn if it was attached. I think in retrospect I'd probably keep it. Might have even saved my iphone that one time I got stuck out in a downpour with it in my pocket.
If you get one, you'll have to limb up your trees further since they're a bit more delicate than the ROPS.