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
||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
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
-- 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.
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 (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.
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.
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!
Buying at auctions