Riding the Range

The sun’s hanging low in the sky, and its bright red blaze is like a big ticking clock. Time is running short. There are only so many hours in a day (at least that’s what you keep telling the wife) and there are only so many projects that you can finish in a week’s worth of free time.

Some would say that’s half the fun of owning large
property — working the land, beautifying your estate and stretching out in your own private corner of the world. That’s why so many people are retreating to the rural
outskirts of cities. Urbanites with a little extra income are looking for more breathing room in their lives; baby boomers are buying up large plots of land (10 acres plus) and relaxing their free time away by living the country life. After a long day of work in the office, it’s nice to come home to a house with big green space, so you can go outside and unwind.

Of course, the catch is that every big piece of land and every slice of rural Americana comes with more than a few chores. Cutting grass, building fence lines, feeding and cleaning horses, grading gravel driveways, plowing snow, digging for drainage — every large piece of land means a large weekly to-do list. We know you had big plans for relaxing this weekend (something about riding your ATVs and building bonfires with your buddies), but it looks like your Saturday and Sunday will be too busy with keeping your estate in order.

Doesn’t sound like much fun, does it?

We here at CE figure there’s no point in owning land that owns you. That means you will need some help to address your large property workload. Since manual labor is way too expensive (unless you can con your offspring), we suggest you consider a compact tractor. In fact, the biggest growth market for small tractors (units classified under 40 PTO hp) are large estate owners — private users with large plots of land who need a machine to help maintain it.

“We’ve called these folks all kinds of things over the years — all good stuff,” laughs Tom Prall, marketing
director for John Deere’s large property owner customer segment. “Hobby farmers, sundowners, estate owners — some people call them ex-urbanites. They’re basically
people who are living on larger than average properties for many different reasons. The most popular reason we’re told is that they just want the extra breathing space and elbow room. What they do on their land is quite varied. Some people maintain their property like a state park
system. Others simply like a lot of natural area to watch wildlife and enjoy nature. Some have large vegetable
gardens and many have horses or other animals.”

Travel to the outskirts of any major metropolitan center (out past the ‘burbs) and you’ll find these bigger than
average acreage owners — and you’ll notice most are using a compact tractor to help keep up their property.

“Our estimate is, and this is really just an estimate, but we think there are in the neighborhood of 8 to 10 million of what we consider to be larger property owners or large estate owners that have requirements for property maintenance equipment. And, probably 60 to 70 percent of the industry’s compact utility tractor sales are going into this market,” Prall says.

Building Your Ideal Unit

Compact tractors are big business in North America.
The manufacturers that CE talked to for this article
estimated that sales for compact tractors in North America were in the realm of 135,000 in 2005. Compact tractors are defined by The American Society of Agricultural Engineers (ASAE) as small agricultural tractors equipped with a 540-rpm PTO and a three-point hitch designed for Category 1 implements only. Compact tractors generally have a mass less than 4,000 lbs and have less than 40 PTO hp.

There are plenty of players in this small tractor segment. John Deere, Kubota and New Holland are the three most popular manufacturers — all with decades of compact tractor experience. But, there also plenty of other players primed to eat up market share. Case IH, Cub Cadet, KIOTI, McCormick, AGCO, Massey Ferguson, Farm Pro and Mahindra are all gunning for your
business when it comes to tractors under 40 PTO hp
There are hundreds of model choices on the market and unique features galore. Before you start worrying about brand, you will first need to figure out what you want this chore tractor to do. Once you zero in on your weekly applications, then you can start to determine the right size tractor and the number of attachments.

“Estate owners should evaluate how they will be using the tractor and what requirements they will need in their applications,” suggests Jennifer Weinzapfel, product
marketing specialist for AGCO compact and utility
tractors.“If an operator intends to do loader work, he or she should purchase a tractor loader package that offers enough lift capacity to complete the job. If mowing will be the primary task, an operator should consider how much mowing is to be done and how quickly they would like to cover the ground. From here, the operator will choose the appropriate size mower deck and match that to the tractor that is compatible with the mower. Estate owners should also consider what models offer their preferred transmission option and the horsepower requirements they may have for various tasks.”

According to manufacturers surveyed, the most popular tractor size for large property owners is between 25 to 30 PTO horsepower; tractors are often categorized by PTO horsepower, not engine horsepower. But everyone has their own unique needs. Size will depend on the volume and speed of your jobs, your jobsite constraints and your storage space.

First off: What will be your major jobs around the property? Mowing grass? Cleaning horse stalls? Transporting mulch? Will you lift into high places? Will you be carrying heavy materials often? Will you plow snow? How quickly do you need all of this finished each week?

Secondly: How big is your jobsite? Are there many tight areas? Lots of hills? Big, open pastures? Will you need to go through gates? Will you need four-wheel drive?

And lastly: How big is your storage area? Is it a barn
or garage? How wide is the entrance? How high are the
ceilings? Where will you store it in the winter?

This should help you to begin to determine the
dimensions of your ideal machine. Your applications will also help you determine your attachment selection.

Most compact tractors today are sold with a loader on the front (typically in a package deal). Almost every operation needs a tractor with a loader (to haul gravel, dirt, mulch, whatever), and most large estate owners also will need a mower attachment to maintain their pastures and finely manicured lawns. There are typically two popular types of mower attachments for sundowners and hobby farmers — rotary and finish mowers (for more details on both, see our mower sidebar on page 24). Most every other attachment will run off the compact tractor’s rear PTO — or power take off system.

“A PTO system works by taking the engine horsepower and transferring it through a driveline to a series of gears
in the transmission housing,” explains Doran Herritt,
New Holland marketing manager for compact tractors. “This drives a PTO shaft that can be attached to an
implement. What is important is how efficiently the machine accomplishes this task. Always compare tractors with like PTO horsepower.”

There are three major types of PTO systems on the market:

1) Independent PTO, which allows you to engage and disengage the PTO regardless of the transmission or clutch operation. It’s the most popular and easiest to use.

2) Live Two-Stage PTO, which uses a dual stage clutch pedal, so depressing the clutch pedal completely disengages the transmission and PTO and releasing the clutch half way engages the PTO. Fully releasing the clutch pedal engages the transmission; this allows the PTO-driven implement to get up to speed before forward/reverse travel starts (so a mower starts cutting grass before moving and doesn’t leave skips).

3) Transmission Driven PTO, which uses the clutch pedal (when it’s depressed) to disengage both the PTO and the transmission. It’s the most economically priced, but not as functional as the other options.

Picking your PTO system will depend on your available options and your pocketbook. You will also need to decide the PTO horsepower of your tractor. PTO horsepower is the useable power that the tractor has to operate attachments. The PTO drives most implements, so it’s a good gauge of the tractor’s true capabilities. The PTO connects the tractor’s engine to the implement through a rotating shaft at the rear. Just be careful when comparing tractor’s with similar PTO horsepower — some manufacturers rate their tractors at maximum PTO speed instead of the standard 540 rpm.

Once you choose your right tractor size, PTO system and PTO horsepower, you’re going to want to figure out which attachments you will need — because it’s always wiser (i.e. cheaper) to buy extra attachments with your initial purchase and get a package deal. post hole digger? Trencher? Backhoe? Snow blower? Box blade? Landscape rake? Whatever implements you decide on, just make sure to match those work tools to your tractor.

“An operator must match the speed of the implement to the speed of the tractor’s PTO system,” explains Weinzapfel. “For example, our compacts have PTO speeds of 540 rpm and 2,000 rpm. Any implements used with these tractors must be compatible with one of these speeds. Operators also need to ensure that the horsepower requirements for the implement are met by the tractor they are using.”

Shifting into High Gear

After you’ve outfitted your chore tractor with the right set of attachments, your next big decision will be the transmission. Transmission choices for tractors are much the same as your truck or car. There will be gear-driven or a “manual” transmission, which will be a mechanical system, and there are hydrostatic or “automatic” transmissions, which use a hydraulic system to run your tractor. Overall, especially when it comes to novice users like large estate owners, hydrostatic transmission are extremely popular (it adds about $1,000 to your purchase), but gear-driven systems still have their place with certain customer segments.

“The popularity of transmission types varies a lot with regions,” says Jeffrey Ratliff, product marketing specialist with Massey Ferguson compacts, implements and
commercial equipment. “In the Midwest and Northeast, the most popular is probably the hydrostatic with the power shuttle being a close second. In the South and Southeast regions, the standard gear and synchroshuttle transmissions tend to be more popular.”

Gear transmissions can be more efficient and economical if you know how to run them properly. In the gear transmission realm there are three distinct options:

1. Non-synchronized transmissions are the most
economical and reliable choice, but also the most hassle. You must depress the clutch, stop the tractor and shift gears, which can be tedious in applications that have a lot of speed and direction changes (think loader work).

2. Partially synchronized transmissions are smoother and easier than non-synchronized. This system allows for clutching and shifting between gears without stopping the tractor. Speed and direction changes are made easier.

3. Fully synchronized systems are shift-on-the-go transmissions. You shift gears without depressing the clutch or stopping the tractor. Tractors typically have a combination of ranges (A, B and C) to give operators multiple choices of speeds.

Typically, for large property owners who have a little extra money to spend, hydrostatic is the transmission of choice. It’s more user friendly and has unlimited speed changes and instant direction changes. Some manufacturers will even have unique transmission options as well. AGCO offers its exclusive Quadrashift transmission in the ST47A and ST52A cab models. This transmission features a four-speed powershift, forward/reverse powershuttle and three non-synchronized ranges for 12 forward and 12 reverse speeds. This transmission is ideal when frequent changes of direction or speed are needed.

On John Deere’s 3000 and 4000 TWENTY Series tractors, the company has its E-Hydro system (an electronically
controlled hydrostatic transmission), which allows the tractor to be programmed like a computer and perform unique functions such as Load Match (an anti-stall hydraulic management system).

“For a novice operator, they’re not stalling out the machine again and again. They’re being more productive,” says Dan Paschke, John Deere associate product manger of compact utility tractors. “From a longevity standpoint, you’re not firing that key switch over and over again, wearing your starter out, wearing your battery out and wearing the components of your engine down. It allows operators to learn the limits of the machine without damaging it over the long haul.”

Taking a Test Drive

Comfort and ease of operation — these are two qualities that private users and large estate owners hold in high regard when it comes to equipment. The comfort of the operator’s station, the ease of maintenance and the simplicity of the tractor will be of utmost importance to these first-time, greenhorn-type buyers.

“Creature comforts popular with the large estate owners are much like the ones you would find in your car — a nice comfortable seat, large automotive style dashes, user-friendly color-coded controls and easy entrance and exit from the operator station,” says John Temple, marketing specialist for Case IH compact tractors.

Of course, to experience the comfort and ease of operation of a unit, you must give it a demo ride (and if possible, use it in applications that you will be using on your estate). Start off with the seat — is it comfy and adjustable? Now sit back on the tractor and get a feel for the controls. Key questions to ask yourself: Do I have enough leg room? Are controls such as loader joysticks, transmission levers and PTO engagement levers within comfortable reach? Is this a flat platform or will my legs be straddling something for long periods of time? Can I clearly see the implements (front and rear)?

“Essentially, operators need to carefully consider how they will be using the tractor and if it will be comfortable to them for the amount of time they plan to spend on the tractor,” explains Weinzapfel.

Also, make sure to check the ease of routine maintenance. The customer should be looking for a unit that allows for easy, simple and full access to any service points. A one-piece flip up hood is always a plus. Access to the oil dipstick, oil fill, air cleaner and battery are essential.

Since the operator’s manual doesn’t always stay with the tractor, a maintenance sticker under the hood and well-marked service points are useful. Last, but not least, concern should be given to unprotected tie rods or grease zerks. Now it’s time to take this puppy for a test drive.

“First compare tangible features, specifications and
pricing to discern value, recognizing the difference of intangible benefits each brand may offer. The tangible items are easy to find by looking at a brochure or Web site, but the intangible benefits are a bit more elusive to discover,” Herritt says. “For example, visibility is important for safety, efficiency and productivity. A large tractor with a boxy hood and boxy loader has less visibility than one with a sleek curved hood and curved loader, but there is no specification to show one brand has an advantage over the other.”

We suggest you test drive a number of different sizes and brands before purchase and pay attention to how intuitive the machine handles, how easy the tractor is to drive and the added safety features. Consider how smooth the shift patterns are, evaluate the visibility of front and rear implements, see how wide the turning radius is and consider the versatility and ease of the transmission. Make sure the front and rear of the tractor are
balanced (extra weight might be needed on the rear if you’re lifting heavy materials). Ensure the roll over protection system (ROPS) is convenient and sturdy. Turn on the headlights to make sure your machine is visible when driving in low-light situations. Make sure the PTO shaft is enclosed in a non-rotating collar (PTO shield). And consider standard and optional features like an operator safety switch, which stops the tractor and PTO when the driver leaves the seat.

Finally consider how helpful the dealer has been in
discovering all of this information. The relationship with the dealer will become very important during and
after the purchasing process. A good dealer will help the customer decide what tractor best fits the needs of that individual, not just sell them whatever is on the lot.

A good dealer will take the time to show the customer how to operate his new equipment and what each of the features and controls are used for. After the sale, the dealer relationship will become even more important in case you have something that fails on your equipment and need it repaired.

“Since they are first time machine buyers, the customer should be looking for a dealer who is going to help them choose the correct tractor and take the time to properly show them how to safely operate the tractor and maintain and care for the unit,” Temple says. “Service is also
important. You want to choose a dealer that you know is going to stand behind the product should something
happen. A good dealer is one who is willing to understand the customer’s needs and then provide solutions.”

Keith Gribbins is managing editor of Compact Equipment.

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