June 2, 2005: When it comes to tractors, beauty
really is only skin deep. “Check for fresh paint. That
can hide a multitude of sins,” advises Ferguson tractor
collector Jim Storment of Mt. Vernon, IL.
While perfect paint without a scratch, a scrape or a ding
may dazzle the eye, it does absolutely nothing to make a tractor
-- or any other vehicle, for that matter -- run any stronger
or longer. In fact, as Storment cautions, fresh paint can
actually hide many important things a would-be tractor buyer
needs to see.
A little touch-up paint here and there is perfectly understandable,
even on late model used tractors. But a whole new paint job
less than a year or two old should at least raise a yellow
caution flag when you’re shopping for a tractor. Ask
the seller when the tractor was painted and why. And look
a little closer for signs of major repairs with the welder,
rust, and oil or coolant leaks.
Paint can tell you a lot about how a tractor has been used
abused. Sun-bleached or flat paint means the tractor has been
left outside most of its life. Discolored paint on sheet metal
around the radiator cap is a sure sign the radiator has boiled
over at least a time or three. Has coolant been dribbling
down the side of the engine block?
“If it starts and runs fairly decent that’s a
good starting point,” Storment says of evaluating used
tractors. “If it smokes pretty bad you know you have
some engine work to do.”
||One of the most important things you
can do is take a tractor for a test drive. Put it through
its paces. Make sure everything works -- the way it is
supposed to work.
That’s why one of the most important things you can
do is take a tractor that interests you out for a test drive.
Put it through its paces. Make sure everything works -- the
way it is supposed to work. If the seller is another farmer
or a machinery dealer, they should be more than happy to let
you take it for a spin. (Buying at auction usually doesn’t
allow much time for testing. We’ll cover that and more
When buying from a dealer, it’s always a good idea
to learn a little bit about the previous owner. Find out why
the tractor was traded. Check service records, if available,
or ask what work was done on the tractor. All these questions
can help you figure out what is likely to go wrong next and
see if it is really worth the asking price.
Next best thing is a dynamometer test, which puts the tractor
under varying degrees of load while the tractor is standing
still. Many reputable machinery dealers run used tractors
through dynamometer tests to learn the engine’s true
mechanical condition. Ask to see the test results and compare
them with the manufacturer’s specifications or the Nebraska
tractor tests from the University of Nebraska. For
a nominal fee, many dealers will run a dynamometer test in
your presence so you can check for oil leaks, overheating
and other problems. There is nothing like keeping a tractor
under full load for an hour to see what it’s really
While you’re test driving a tractor, don’t forget
your own comfort and safety. After all, you may spend hundreds
of hours on the tractor each year for the next 10 or 20 years.
Make sure you like the feel of the seat, the wheel and controls.
Here is a checklist of major items to consider when tractor
With the tractor moving forward, apply both brakes. Do they
hold evenly? Turn right, then left, holding down the brake
pedal on each side to see if it locks the wheel and pivots
the tractor like it is supposed to. Do the brakes make squealing
or grinding noises? Is there a parking brake? If you suspect
problems and know what to look for, ask to have the brake
covers removed and check out the working parts.
CLUTCH AND TRANSMISSION
-- Once the clutch is depressed, gears should move freely
and smoothly, without any clashing. Engage and disengage
range selectors, four-wheel drive and PTO levers.
||Like old paint, a radiator tells
-- Like old paint, a radiator tells many tales. Are the
cooling fins full of grass and weed seeds? Are the fins
bent? Look for repairs, corrosion and leaks. Remove the
radiator cap and check the coolant. Is it low and dirty
or topped off and clean and new?
-- Start with lights, gauges and idiot lights. They should
all work, from headlights to work and tail lights. Check
insulation on wiring. Does the ignition switch turn freely?
Check the fuse panel for a cover, missing or blown fuses.
Lots of electrical tape and splices are red flags.
The engine should fire right up and run smoothly without
excessive smoking. Check the oil. Pull the dipstick out.
Low oil -- no oil -- or dirty oil says a lot about how the
tractor has been maintained. Are the filters clean and new
or rusted and dirty?
Since 1985, most new tractors in the United States have
come with what engineers call “rollover protective
structures” or ROPs, for short. Simply put, it’s
a roll bar. Why on earth would you want a roll bar on a
tractor? Because tractor rollovers kill at least 130 people
every year, according to the National Institute of Occupational
Safety and Health (NIOSH). When used with seat belts, ROPs
are 99 percent effective in preventing serious injury or
death, NIOSH reported last year.
Personally, I had never given roll bars much thought in
the 40-plus years I’ve been driving tractors. In fact,
I’d never even driven a tractor with a roll bar. But
researching an article on tractor safety last year for The
Mother Earth News opened my eyes (see Tractor
Safety Is No Accident, April/May, 2005). Then a tractor
safety video from Kubota (www.kubota.com)
scared the bejesus out of me. Half way through writing the
article, I bolted a roll bar onto my John Deere 1050. The
roll bar and seat belt cost $463. Installing it took two
days of crawling around under the tractor and busting my
knuckles fighting rusty bolts. But it was worth the expense
and effort. In the grand scheme of things, it’s cheap
insurance, especially when the woodchucks keep digging new
holes in the hillsides of our east field.
-- Should be straight and true. A shimmy or bad wobble could
just mean a minor linkage adjustment is necessary. It could
also indicate a failing power steering unit or bad universal
joints. Don’t be bashful about running the tractor
through a lot of tight turns to see where the problem lies.
Check tread, sidewalls for cracks or cuts. Make sure the
proper tires are on the tractor. On front tires, especially,
you may find everything from old auto tires to implement
tires that were slapped on in a pinch. The condition of
front tires is especially important if the tractor has four-wheel
drive, a front-end loader or will carry other heavy loads
up front. If the tractor you’re eyeing needs some
new rubber, check the price of new tires before agreeing
to buy. It could mean the difference of a few hundred or
a few thousand dollars.
All of that and more needs to be weighed against the asking
price of any tractor. Don’t be afraid to negotiate.
The worst a seller can do is say, “No.”
When you’re starting out, avoid specialty tractors
that are made specifically for cultivating, spraying and other
limited-use applications. They have their place, true, which
is why I'm fixing up a 1952 Allis Chalmers G, the ultimate
cultivating tractor. You want an everyday tractor that will
do everything you ask of it, and more, each and every day.
Keep your eyes open
-- Scope out the buildings, fields and all of the other equipment
on the place when you visit a farm to look at a tractor. Chances
are, the tractor you’re interested in was treated exactly
the same way, for good or ill.
Keep an open mind
-- Don’t get tunnel vision and have eyes only for the
tractor you came to look at. There are millions of farm tractors
out there. You do not have to buy the first one that strikes
Consider parts availability.
||Farm tractors are not like cars or
trucks. You can’t just tool on down to the corner
gas station and ask them to check out a problem. With
tractors, either the mechanic has to come out to your
farm, or you have to load the tractor on a truck or trailer
and haul it to the shop.
Think about ease of maintenance
and repairs. How many things can you really
service or fix, yourself? As a matter of economic survival,
you have to learn to do a lot of things yourself. Farm tractors
are not like cars or trucks. You can’t just tool on
down to the corner gas station and ask them to check out a
problem. With tractors, either the mechanic has to come out
to your farm, or you have to load the tractor on a truck or
trailer and haul it to the shop. Our John Deere dealer charges
$70 for hauling, round trip. That’s not too bad. The
bad part is being without the tractor for even a few days,
because that’s when some urgent tractor work always
needs doing around the farm.
Check on service availability,
because there are just some jobs that most of us simply cannot
-- or should not -- attempt on our own.
Last, but not least, don’t
get hung up on the color of the tractor you want.
“Your equipment line should have in it every color in
the rainbow, including a sprinkling of rust brown,”
Wisconsin dairyman Vincent Hundt wrote in The New Farm magazine.
That was back in 1983, in an excerpt from his booklet, “How
To Survive The Coming Dairy Collapse.” His advice is
still true today: “If you want to stay in business,
stay away from new equipment. Go slow -- and use plenty of
Happy -- and safe -- tractoring!
Buying at auctions