Tool Talk: Equipment and tool basics for the beginning farmer

Your first tractor, Part I
It should be everything you need it to be -- and then some.

By George DeVault

For more

The annual Hotline Farm Equipment Guide contains prices, serial numbers and specifications tractors and a wide variety of farm equipment. Cost is $35.95 on the web at:

Hotline also publishes other helpful books, including an Antique Tractor Guide for tractors built by 50 different manufacturers up to 1967. Cost is $17.95.

Shop manuals for most tractors are available from:
Intertec Publishing
P.O. Box 12901
Overland Park, KS
or on the web at:

Farm Collector

Yesterday’s Tractors Magazine

Antique Tractors


Okay, time to make that list of implements you might want to use with your tractor. Here's a good starter list of possible essentials:

1. Scraper blade -- Gotta have it for plowing snow, smoothing and leveling ground.

2. Plow.

3. Disk or disk/harrow.

4. Seeder -- PTO-powered broadcast or spin seeder for sowing cover crops (grass, legumes, small grains).

5. Mower, rough-cut rotary or flail for a more finished cut.

6. Rotary tiller, PTO-powered, again.

7. Planter.

The list goes on and is practically endless -- harrows, rotary hoe, Perfecta, cultivators, post hole digger, grinder/mixer, you name it.

When starting out, the main thing is to pick implements that are most important to your cropping system and buy those first. Borrow, barter or rent others, as needed.

April 21, 2005: When it finally came time for us to buy our first tractor, the decision on what to buy was a no-brainer: It simply had to be gray, just like my father’s old Ferguson T0-30 that I learned to drive on at age 10, and just like my grandfather’s old Ford, which I was never allowed to touch.

Other farmers have similar fetishes for tractors that are painted red, orange, blue, white, green and white, green and gold, yellow -- or even hot pink.

Fortunately, despite our nostalgic fixation on gray, the old Ford 2N we bought was flexible enough that it did most of what we asked of it around our 20-acre farmstead for 15 years.

Flexibility. That’s the key, Joel Salatin advises in his book You Can Farm, the Bible of common sense farm start-ups. “When buying machinery, think of its multiplicity of function rather than just price. The difference in cost between a two-wheel drive tractor and a four-wheel drive is relatively small compared to the overall price. If you add a front-end loader to the four-wheel drive, you have an extremely versatile machine,” he advises. Joel has two tractors, both with four-wheel drive, and both with front-end loaders.

Ah, to be so blessed! We now have one tractor with four-wheel drive and a front-end loader. It’s a 33-hp John Deere 1050 with a gutsy three-cylinder diesel engine. The two-speed, manual transmission has “High” and “Low” ranges, which provide a total of eight forward speeds.

We bought the Deere used in 1997 for $13,800. The tractor only had 1,673 hours on the clock. We put about $1,500 worth of repairs into it, mostly for a complete set of new tires. It was money well-spent. Never again would I be without such a machine, since our time and the physical well-being of our aging backs are two of the most precious resources around our farm. What a tractor like this saves in time and physical -- and emotional -- wear and tear on the farmers makes it priceless, as the commercial says.

But as nice as four-wheel drive and loaders may be, they’re not absolutely essential, especially when you’re getting started in farming. For flexibility, there is just no comparison to the antique, three-speed Ford we started out with. Besides a reliable engine, there are really only two things your first farm tractor absolutely must have:

1. A 3-point hitch.

2. Power take-off or PTO, for short.

What the heck are those? Only the essential mechanical features that make a tractor the all-around workhorse you expect -- and need -- it to be. The hitch holds, lifts and lowers myriad farm implements. The PTO supplies power to implements that cut, dig, rake, bale, throw snow, till and much more.

1. When Henry Met Harry

A modern 3-point hitch is the hydraulic assembly on the rear of the tractor that lets you wield a staggering array of farm implements. Simply by moving a little lever while sitting in the driver’s seat, you can easily raise or lower farm implements that weigh hundreds of pounds.

It’s called a 3-point hitch because implements attach to the tractor in three places by means of two sidearms and one toplink. All three links are adjustable. The sidearms control the sideways motion of the implement. They are easily adjusted with turn buckles or chains, so that the implement trails squarely behind the tractor or off to one side. Changing the length of the toplink, usually with a simple screw mechanism, controls the level or horizontal pitch of an implement.

Three-point hitches come in two types: Category I and Category II (or Cat I and Cat II, for short). Cat I hitches are for smaller tractors. You will need to know which hitch you have when you start buying implements.

One of our farming mentors, the late Ward Sinclair, started farming with a cherry-looking Farmall Super A. Actually, he started with a second-hand Troy-Bilt Horse tiller with wornout tines. But the A was his first tractor. Ward was unpleasantly surprised to find once he got it home that the Super A didn’t have a 3-point hitch and wasn’t geared to handle a PTO-powered tiller, plastic mulch layer or other modern vegetable production equipment. Ward kept the Super A because it was a fantastic cultivating tractor, but he soon bought a new, four-wheel drive 17-hp Ford -- with a front-end loader. No more filling the manure spreader by hand for Ward!

While our 1946 Ford 2N was older than either me or my wife, Melanie, it did have a 3-point hitch. In fact, Ford was the first -- and, for a long time, the only -- tractor with a 3-point hitch. That’s because automaker Henry Ford revolutionized the whole world of farm tractors around 1938 when he combined his nimble Ford 9N with a hydraulic lift system developed by an Irish motor racing enthusiast named Harry Ferguson, who was also known as “the mad mechanic of Belfast.” (More than 800,000 of the N series Fords were sold over the next 20 years as other tractor-makers ate Ford’s dust. Ferguson sold nearly an equal number of strikingly similar tractors under his own name after Ford and his heirs backed out of Henry’s handshake deal with Ferguson.)

“As advanced as jet propulsion,” is how Ford described the breakthrough design in its advertising. The resulting 23-hp “Ford With The Ferguson System” cost $585 new. In 1984, we paid $1,795 for our 2N, or about two and-a-half times what the four-cylinder, gasoline-powered tractor cost new. After 15 years of hard use and annual oil changes, whether it needed it or not, a local machinery dealer offered us $1,800 for the 2N. He probably could have resold it for up to $2,500. Call me sentimental, but I just couldn’t part with the old Ford. One of these days I’ll start restoring it, as time and money allow, but that’s another story.

Like Ward’s Super A and most classic tractors, the 2N was great at pulling things -- a 2-bottom plow, disk-harrow, wagon, manure spreader, 5-foot rotary mower, 7-foot scraper blade for plowing snow, landscape rake, cars and trucks stuck in the mud, huge stones that I got tired of hitting with the mower. It was so small and nimble that I could ease logs out of the woods almost as easily as with a team of horses. Just remember, chains hains on the rear tires are essential in snow and ice.

Once upon a time, our 2N had been fitted with a front-end loader. The mounting bracket is still there, but the loader is long gone, probably because a two-wheel drive tractor with a loader is next to useless. When the bucket is full, the rear wheels lose traction.

2. The Power To Farm

The PTO is a drive shaft that provides power to everything from a rotary mower to a post-hole digger or a manure spreader. It’s probably also the most dangerous feature on any tractor. The PTO shaft on most tractors spins at 540 rpm. At that speed, hair, loose clothing or anything else that gets tangled can wrap around the shaft nine times in just one second.

A PTO commands the same healthy respect due any chainsaw, motorcycle or firearm. PTO entanglements kill about 10 people every year, according to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health. Alas, no statistics are kept on those who lose fingers or limbs to PTOs.

The PTOs on older tractors are especially hazardous, since they often lack shields, starter lockouts and other safety features commonly found on newer machines. The PTO on our old Ford, for example, has to be engaged and running for the 3-point hitch to operate. Our Deere has “live hydraulics,” which means that splined stub on the back of the tractor does not have to be spinning for the hitch and front-end loader to have power.

Despite all of that, buying a farm tractor is not as mysterious at it may sound. It’s actually a lot like buying a car or a truck. You start with two basic choices: New or used. Next comes the where and how to buy decision: From a dealer, an individual or at an auction. From there, the possibilities can become a bit bewildering. That is why it is vital you do your homework ahead of time. For starters, think of WHY you want a tractor in the first place. Make a list of everything you KNOW you will do with the tractor. Then make a list of everything else you MIGHT want to ask of a tractor. How much land will you be working? Do you just want to mow or plow? Or will you need a post-driver to pound fence posts deep into the soil? How about a backhoe? Make another list of all of the implements and attachments you might possibly want to add to your tractor.

Any tractor within your price range that will handle the most important of those jobs and the required implements is worthy of your consideration. Never mind the color -- even if it is hot pink, like the old Ford we saw in Texas a few years ago. You can always repaint it. After all, paint is cheap. But, as the old-timers warn, paint also hides a multitude of sins, which is right where we’ll pick up the next time.

Next: Mechanical checklist