Tool Talk: Equipment and tool basics for the beginning farmer

Your first tractor, Part II
Buyer Beware -- of “fresh paint” and other picky pointers to keep you from buying someone else’s problems.

By George DeVault

Missed Part I?

For more on tractor basics like the 3-point hitch and the PTO, see Your First Tractor, Part I.

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

Safety Features

Speaking of roll bars, here are a number of safety
features you might think about adding to your shopping list:

* Slow-moving vehicle emblem for back of seat.

* Reflectors and lights on rear of fenders.

* PTO shield.

* Shield on mower PTO shaft.

* Reflectors on mower.

* Shield on back of mower deck to minimize hazard from objects being
thrown by mower.

* Earmuffs to propect operator's hearing (which ain't what it used to be).

* Oh, and the new rollbar with seatbelt, of course.

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 -- or
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 next time.)

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 made of.

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 shopping:

BRAKES -- 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 many tales.

COOLING SYSTEM -- 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?

ELECTRICAL SYSTEM -- 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.

ENGINE -- 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?

SAFETY -- 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 ( 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.

STEERING -- 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.

TIRES -- 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.

PRICE -- 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.

And remember...

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 your fancy.

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 grease.”

Happy -- and safe -- tractoring!

Next: Buying at auctions