Compact Tractor Comparison: How to Find the Right Tractor

How to Be an Expert Tractor Finder

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By Ken Johnson – In the past 40 years or so, I have owned a few old tractors and liked most of them, which I will review in this compact tractor comparison guide. When I was a teenager, I helped local farmers with fieldwork, including harvest and sometimes, to my delight, I got to drive their tractors. One of my uncles was an Allis Chalmers fan, WD series. My dad was an Oliver fan during the late 1940s and early 1950s. Both brands, Allis and Oliver, were row crop versions with rear wheels that could be adjusted for wider or narrower rows of corn or other row crops. The front tires were smaller and positioned close together under the front. Such a tractor could straddle two rows of corn with wheels between the rows and with a cultivator attachment it could dig out the weeds around the corn. During those days, corn rows were still 36 to 42 inches apart, because that was about the width a horse needed to walk between them. During the “old days,” Iowa corn was planted in “hills,” so corn rows could be cultivated both north and south, as well as east and west.

No herbicide needed. The early tractor tire sizes were only eight to 10 inches wide, so corn rows didn’t have to be so far apart, and more corn could be planted for higher yields per acre. Sometime during the 1950s planting corn in hills (a process called “checking,”) was abandoned for just drilling corn into rows. Cultivating corn or other row crops like potatoes, was a major occupation for old tractors. The cultivator was mounted on one or both sides of the tractor so the operator could keep a close eye on the corn so as not to dig out the wrong plants. For a man to get on the tractor he had to mount it from the rear by stepping up on the draw bar, up again onto the rear axle, then settle into the seat. Some of the old mechanically operated cultivators could also be attached to the back end of the tractor, so for the operator to climb into the seat it could be a little treacherous.

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The point of all this is: There are quite a few of these old tractors still out there if you are interested, and they were so well built, many of them still work. Most of them have gasoline engines manufactured in the day when gasoline had lead in it, and if you want to stay original, a lead or lead substitute additive should be added to non–leaded gas if you don’t want to risk ruining the engine. One additional note is tire sizes.

Compact Tractor Comparison: Row Crop Tractors

Tractor tires designed for row crop tractors were not very wide, but they were tall because corn grows tall, and during the pre–herbicide days, helping row crops get a jump on weeds was a very important job of cultivators. The smaller, compact Ford and Ferguson tractors had full complements of soil-altering attachments, including cultivators, but with their smaller 28–inch wheels and low profile, cultivating corn over a foot tall could be injurious to the crop. These smaller size tractors were and are handy for a lot of other chores, but they are also limited by their weight of some 2,400 pounds. By putting some weights on the rear wheels and/or injecting tractor tire fluid, these little tractors become little bear-cats. If you weigh down the back, you should also weigh down the front, or you may risk upending while pulling something heavy or even going up a steep grade. Weigh down the front, and steering can become a problem. These utility-style tractors also have adjustable wheels and wide front wheels adjustable to track with the rear wheels, so they are quite stable, even on hilly terrain.

Fords and Fergusons were the first farm tractors to offer hydraulic three-point hitch. This innovation quickly attracted the attention of tractor manufacturers all over the world. Especially during the 1950s, manufacturers followed farmer demands for bigger, heavier tractors and an easier way to turn the front wheels. Power steering made tractors much more agile for the tight turns at the fencerow, and especially when an end loader was in operation. End loaders are not just for scooping up manure or dirt; they are also very handy for moving other heavy objects and pushing snow around. It is hard for me to imagine a farmer of any size not wanting a loader.

If you want to raise a row crop and don’t want to use herbicides, you may want to consider one of these old row crop tractors with a cultivator attachment. Row crop tractors come both tricycle-style and wide front. There are the squatty, utility types, regular row crop with taller tires, and the more rare high crop models. I prefer a wide front because my land is hilly. I do not raise row crops because they require a special array of tilling, planting and harvesting equipment that I can’t justify on 29 acres. I like simple, although farming is never “simple” even on a small scale. Hobby farmers do it for the lifestyle, not for money. A farmer with 20 acres of apple trees, strawberries, asparagus or grapes could conceivably make a pile of money, but oh the work, and it’s no longer a hobby!

Compact Tractor Comparison: The Right Tractor for the Job

Depending on what kind of farming you want to do helps determine what kind of tractor you need. If you want livestock on your farm, you will probably need something to haul manure in, a two–wheeled trailer or a manure spreader. A farm of fewer than 100 acres and a “simple” operation only requires a farm tractor with about 30 horsepower. I mean a real farm tractor, and not a sub-compact garden tractor. The later Ford model N (1950s) tractors may suffice. They and their Ferguson counterparts are very popular among today’s hobby farmers and that is reflected in their comparative prices. I see them listed here and there for $2,500, give or take. If restored, they may be another $1,000 or more. As long as we have a workable economy, these tractors should actually increase in value as time goes on. Old common farm equipment is often pretty fully depreciated, and if you keep it in good shape, you shouldn’t lose much or anything if you decide to sell it. Trading old equipment is a different story. Often your competition, especially at auctions, is the scrap iron dealer. They don’t like to be bid against, but to me, old farm machinery is pieces of engineering art, especially when cleaned up, fixed up, and painted. Putting an old piece of equipment back to work has its own rewards.

Compact Tractor Comparison: Finding Parts for Older Models

There are lots of older, serviceable tractors available and parts to keep them going. If you need a part, chances are you can find it, but you may want to haggle over the price if the part is used. Many new or refurbished parts are also available for American or British made tractors at various dealers in every state. Farm and Fleet, Fleet Farm, and Tractor Supply stores stock an array of American tractor parts. Ordering parts online is very easy, even for most European made farm tractors like Fiat, Zetor, or Long. I use: www.davistractor.com for my tractor parts. Some later model U.S. tractors (1980s on) are rebadged foreign tractors. Still others have foreign engines. You will find Fiat three and four-cylinder diesel engines in 1970s model Allis Chalmers, Oliver, Minneapolis Moline, White and Hesston tractors. From what I’ve read, these are very good tractors. I currently own one tractor, a 1966 Massey Ferguson 150. It has a 40 horsepower, three–cylinder diesel engine. It is a wide front row crop (the wheels are adjustable), but it is also the lower profile model with 28–inch rear wheels. It has a three–point and power steering, and weighs over 5,000 lbs. It is plenty big for my needs, but the three–cylinder diesel is very efficient. If you can find a diesel in your size and price range that would be my recommendation. If you settle on a gas engine, which is fine, find out if it’s a lead–free model or not so you know which fuel to use in it.

Farm tractor manufacturers took another innovative idea for Ford and Ferguson tractors and that was side entry to the driver’s seat. During the 1950s mounting the tractor from the rear was pretty much passed out in favor of mounting from one or both sides, which is much more convenient. To make it happen, the steering wheel had to be pushed forward a foot or two and the seat also had a step or two in front of the rear wheels, completed the transition. How the operator (you) climb onto the driver’s seat may help determine your choice of tractor. I kind of liked my uncle’s Allis Chalmers WD45, a rear mount tractor that had a foot clutch used to shift gears and a shift–on–the–go hand clutch with a high, neutral and low position. The hand clutch did not affect the PTO or hydraulics in effect making the PTO independent. Many tractor manufacturers have some version of this handy feature. The WD45 also has hand brakes, one for each side, and when working properly you could to a 360-degree turn (spin) on the same wheel lugs! Pre 1960 John Deere two-cylinder tractors, some Case and older Minneapolis Molines have had clutches. It is not hard getting used to a hand clutch.

The old mount from the rear tractors are now considered to be classic antiques. Any tractor over 30 years old may be considered antique. There are collectors all over the country who harbor a special passion for old farm equipment, especially old tractors. Like them, you may find yourself favoring one tractor paint color over another. Some prefer red, some yellow, some green, and some orange. In my opinion, I think collecting and fixing up old machinery is a great hobby as long as it is also treated as an investment that can be recovered if needed. Occasionally there have been sales or auctions of collections. I like old machinery, especially tractors, but my interest is mainly for practical purposes. I want to actually use them on my hobby farm. So my personal interest is somewhat limited to tractors that cost $5,000 or less, tractors with 25 to 45 horsepower. I prefer a side mount and row crop. It looks as though new tractor manufacturers have concluded that hobby farms want utility style tractors. Look at advertisements in hobby farm–type magazines. I have personally owned a number of old tractors and have operated a dozen or more doing various tasks for neighbors. Following is a list of suitable old tractors for farms with up to 100 acres.If you use old machinery you will probably appreciate a building in which to work on it. Tools may include: hand wrenches, floor jacks or other lifts, air compressor, pressure washer, an electric welder, possibly a cutting torch. Repair manuals are available for most old tractors, and if you need the services of a tractor mechanic, you can probably find one in your local phone book. If you really get the bug, you may invest in a pickup or van and a 16–foot trailer capable of hauling your machinery. Trailer rentals are available and your local farm machinery dealer can haul your equipment, too. Depending on how much buying, selling and moving machinery you do, a tandem axle flat bed trailer may be in your future. It’s all part of the fun!

Compact Tractor Comparison: Recommended Models

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Minneapolis Moline U

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Farmall H

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Oliver 770

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Allis Chalmers CA

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John Deere B

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JL Case

  • Allis Chalmers: WD, WD45, B, C
  • JI Case: VAC, SC
  • Farmall: B, C, H, 200 and 300 series
  • John Deere: A, B, 40, 50, 60, 420, 520, 620
  • Massey Ferguson: 130 and 140 series, 150, 235
  • Minneapolis Moline: 335, 445, 2 Star, 4 Star, Jet Star (series), *G350, *G450
  • Oliver: *1255, *1265, *1355, *1365
  • White: 2–50, *1270

* (Have Fiat diesel engines) Following are some popular foreign manufactured tractors you might consider:

  • Fordson: Dextra, Major Diesel
  • David Brown: 885
  • Deutz: 3006, 4006, 5506, 4506

When it comes to old compact tractors, comparison is made easy by consulting craigslist, TractorHouse.com, and newspapers. Some photos of old rear mount tractors mentioned above are pictured at left. All of them have wide front versions, but not as many are available. These were found at Lakeside Implement, Harrisville, Wisconsin, and most of them are priced at less than $2,000. For more information about farm tractors, try www.tractordata.com.

I hope this compact tractor comparison guide helps you find an old tractor that’s right for your homestead.

Originally published in Countryside March / April 2013 and regularly vetted for accuracy. 

 

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