Tractor Buying Facts

By John Ewald

When purchasing a tractor, there are many variables to consider as well as many different manufacturers from which to choose.  Each manufacturer offers several sizes of tractor rated by many methods such as Horsepower, Weight, Size and Lift Capacities.  The key to buying the right size tractor is to know what you want to accomplish with your machine.  Will it be used primarily for mowing or shredding?  Or will you be moving material with a front end loader?  How do you know what size is right for you?  First, let’s talk about how “big” a tractor you need.


Horsepower is a common method by which to gauge a tractor’s size.  In the old days, tractor horsepower was spoken of in terms of drawbar horsepower, meaning how much power the tractor transferred to the ground.  As time went by, marketing departments of the manufacturers decided that PTO horsepower should be used simply because it’s a higher number.  Therefore, if a salesperson was describing his tractor with drawbar horsepower, the competing dealer would use PTO horsepower, a higher number, for the same size tractor.

This is happening again in the tractor industry, but instead of using PTO horsepower, marketing departments quote engine horsepower.  Be careful about which horsepower you are talking.

These days you will find many new tractors offered with engines of 25 or 26 horsepower.  The reason for this is a 1998 EPA regulation which created “tiers” for engine emissions.   Over time, the tiers of emission compliance became more restrictive and by 2015 all new engines manufactured above 19 kilowatts (25.5 horsepower) were required to have sufficient emission-limiting devices so as to meet EPA Tier IV requirements, usually in the form of Diesel Particulate Filters (DPF).  This adds significant cost and complexity to the tractor in which you may be interested.

Fortunately, 25 engine horsepower is right on the edge of what you need to run many popular implements like five-foot rotary mowers (shredders), post-hole diggers or box blades.  In some cases, to help increase torque, manufacturers take larger displacement engines and reduce the operating RPM to keep the rated horsepower below the 25.5 hp threshold.  This is a great solution for keeping the cost of the tractor down yet having enough PTO horsepower to operate your equipment.  However, it causes confusion due to the similar horsepower numbers across different sizes of tractors.

How much horsepower do I need?

Unfortunately in our industry we see too many people over-sold on horsepower.  It seems that many buyers believe a particular horsepower is the right size they are looking for, whether they have five acres, or five-hundred.  Remember, you need to match the tractor to the job you want to do.  If you want to operate a five-foot cutter (shredder), a good rule of thumb is 20 PTO horsepower (not engine horsepower).  A six-foot cutter requires roughly 30 PTO horsepower.

A tractor used mostly for plowing and disking has many variables by which to judge, such as soil type, implements pulled and time allotted for the job.  Talking to an experienced salesperson is the best option for help in sizing this type of equipment.

If the tractor will be used primarily for loader work, then determine if you need lift capacity, such as to lift a round bale of hay, or bucket capacity, to move a specific size load of dirt.  There are many factors when deciding on a loader tractor which we’ll discuss further down the page.


When discussing the weight of a tractor, some manufacturers and dealers place heavy emphasis on this subject (no pun intended).  The fact is, weight has little bearing on the quality of a tractor, and furthermore, no matter what brand, tractors do not break in half.

We have found when a manufacturer uses weight as their largest selling point it’s usually because their tractors have few other redeeming features.  For instance, does a “heavier” tractor have a true independent (not just live) PTO with hydraulic engagement?  Does it have a synchronized transmission with a shuttle?  How does the size of the hydraulic pump compare?  Does the front loader allow simultaneous operations of the loader and bucket?  And most importantly, is the tractor viewed as a quality tractor in the marketplace?

Weight is the cheapest item a manufacturer can add to a tractor. If you want a heavy tractor, there are many options and ways to add weight to an existing tractor if that is important to you.


The size of a tractor can be very deceiving when gauged simply by horsepower.  These days, many manufacturers have experimented with high horsepower engines in small packages, as well as the inverse.  Again, be careful when looking at just horsepower.

Some of the major manufacturers are now grouping their tractors into “Series” or “Classes” of tractors. Simply put, they use the same transmission and rear-end for three or more different sizes of tractors and place different size engines in them.  What they get is a high-horsepower tractor in a small size.  This enables the manufacturer to have an inexpensive tractor for a given horsepower.  Be careful judging these tractors just by horsepower, often you will not be comparing apples to apples.

Lift Capacities and Front Loaders

Lift capacity is probably the most deceptive gauge by which to compare tractors used in the industry. Whether it is lift capacity of the loader or three-point lift, often times the number quoted is not the weight the tractor can actually lift.

First, lift capacity can be measured by several different means.  There is lift capacity to full height, static lift capacity, pivot pin capacity, bucket center capacity, lift arm capacity and 24 inches aft of lift arm capacity.  Furthermore, we have seen several tests where the actual lift capacity of a tractor, whether front loader or three-point, will not come close to the number claimed by a manufacturer.

When considering a front end loader for your tractor, there are many cheaper “after-market” loaders in the tractor industry from which to choose.  Be careful when inspecting the claims made by these other manufacturers.  Usually there is a reason the loaders are less expensive.  Often one loader model fits a dozen or more different tractors, but none exactly right.  Every tractor has different hydraulic oil pressures and flows, as well as stress points on the frame.  Many times the tractor warranty is void if a failure is found due to an aftermarket front loader.  Often these aftermarket loaders will not have a “regenerative valve” allowing simultaneous operations of the loader boom and bucket tilt.  We recommend buying a loader produced by the same manufacturer as the tractor that is performance matched to a particular model tractor.

One more note on front end loaders: A trade-off exists between actual lift capacity and speed.  If a front loader will lift what seems like a lot of weight, chances are it will have a very slow cycle time.  Understand that when using a loader, cycle time is just as important as weight, as an operator doesn’t want to wait too long for the bucket to go up and down.

Four-wheel Drive

We recommend that most tractors with less than 50 engine horsepower have four-wheel drive when operated with a front loader.  The reason for this is due to the extra weight placed over the front of the tractor which will bury the front wheels in any soft or wet ground conditions causing a noticable loss of traction.  Even if the tractor is a well-balanced two-wheel drive tractor, a sinking front end will cause an unsafe condition.  It is also possible that one front wheel can sink further than the other creating an imbalanced load, which might lead to a tractor rollover.  Furthermore, the tires on four-wheel drive tractors are wider, creating a larger footprint, which is less susceptible to traction loss and has less resistance when turning.

A two-wheel drive tractor with a front loader will also have excess strain placed on the power-steering system, which in most small tractors is not strong enough to turn the wheels effectively in soft ground conditions at low engine RPM.  And finally, the added weight of a front loader will place a heavy load on the front axle kingpin and pivot points, causing early wear.  With a four-wheel drive tractor, the front end will pull itself and the likelihood of losing traction is decreased.

We have found that dealers and manufacturers who shy away from selling four-wheel drive tractors are usually not competitive from a price standpoint with other four-wheel drive tractors.

Types of Transmissions

There are several types of transmissions available on tractors which can vary the price of the tractor by a great deal.  The three most popular are Standard, Hydrostatic and Hydraulic Shuttle.  Each of these transmissions is suited for a particular task, and each has their place for a particular customer.

The standard transmission is basically what it’s called: standard.  Much like a standard-shift car, you step on the clutch and shift gears.  One common misconception with new tractor buyers is if you want to operate in 4th gear, you have to shift 1st through 3rd first, just like a car.  This is not the case.  You can begin from a stop in any gear you would like to operate.

  • Standard Transmissions are always the least expensive to purchase, and in some applications, the most reliable. If most of your work is operating a rotary mower or pulling a plow, this is probably a good choice of transmissions.  However, if you plan on using a front loader often, there are other options at which you should look.

  • Hydrostatic Transmissions have become more and more popular and have come down in price as well. The price difference between a hydrostatic (hydrostat or hydro for short) and a standard transmission can be as little as $1,000. These transmissions are much more durable than they used to be, and hold up well over the life of the tractor.  Contrary to what most believe, hydrostatic transmissions are a very simple design, and do not require much maintenance.

    In applications like loader work, where you are starting and stopping often, this is the transmission of choice.  One major advantage over a standard transmission is speed.  Having to stop, clutch and shift on a standard is a considerably slower operation than simply moving your foot to go forward or reverse.

    Hydrostatic transmissions are generally offered in compact tractors up to around 50 engine horsepower.

  • Hydraulic Shuttle Transmissions are offered mostly on larger tractors where a hydrostatic transmission is not practical.  You can usually find this transmission option on tractors from 50 engine horsepower all the way up to very large farm tractors, but it can be an option on some compact models as well.

    Basically, this transmission is just like a standard transmission but with a lever under the steering wheel allowing you to shift from forward to reverse without stepping on the clutch pedal.  This helps you use the tractor more efficiently since there is no clutching to shuttle between forward and reverse. However, you still need to step on the clutch to shift gears. Be careful not to confuse this with a synchronized shuttle, which still requires clutching.

Resale Value

Remember that at some point, everything you buy will have to be sold.  Buying a “name brand” tractor will ensure that in the future you will have no trouble finding a new home for your machine.  If the current nationwide market-share of a particular manufacturer is high compared to other tractors, then that tractor will be more popular in the used market.

“The bitterness of poor quality lasts long after the sweetness of a cheap price.”