Buying a Used Tractor

Even a used tractor is a major farming investment, so it is important to find good reliable used tractors that will not require major repairs in the near future.

In my opinion, there are five sources of used tractors: local farm machinery dealers, used farm machinery dealers, friends or neighbors, farm auctions or dispersal sales, and commercial farm equipment auctions. Some of these sources may offer a better opportunity to obtain a reliable tractor than others, but none of the sources should be overlooked in the search.

Local dealers
 There are advantages to buying from a local dealer. That dealer may know some useful history – who the tractor’s previous owner was, how the tractor was used and when it was serviced. It is possibly the dealer may even have or can get the tractor’s past service records. Based on the condition of the used tractor, local dealers may provide a guarantee of some sort, and it is likely they will be around to support the tractor in the future. Dealers will sometimes also have lease return tractors offered at significantly reduced prices. These are usually newer models that have from a few hundred to a few thousand hours of use.

Used machinery dealers In some cases used machinery dealers may be able to offer some of the same advantages as local dealers. Regardless, it is good to find out as much as possible about the tractor. The machinery dealer may have just bought the tractor at an auction and have no idea of the history or condition of the tractor. 

Friends or neighbors If you are considering buying a used tractor from a friend or neighbor, you probably already have some idea how that seller treats his equipment. You may be able to obtain the tractor’s history which can help you evaluate its condition.

Farm auctions Farm auctions can sometimes provide good buys on tractors. However, prices at farm auctions have been known to go higher than normal market prices. Tractor sales at auctions are final, so if you discover problems with a tractor bought at auction after the sale, you usually have no recourse on the seller. If you are considering bidding on a tractor at an auction, inspect it thoroughly. Also, insist on starting the tractor and check it when it is running.

Commercial auctions The same no-recourse problems occur when purchasing tractors at commercial farm machinery auctions. The action at these auctions is even faster, and there is less opportunity to inspect the tractor. These auction sales are designed for farm equipment dealers.

Avoid Grey Market Tractors

Buyers need to beware of “grey market” tractors – used compact diesel models imported from another country, most often Japan, with brands such as Yanmar, Mitsubishi, Iseki and others. The main attraction of these tractors is that they cost less than domestically used machines.

Because they were built for the foreign market, grey market tractors often do not meet U.S. safety standards. In some cases, the power takeoff runs in the opposition direction or at different speeds than on tractors manufactured for sale in the American market. Even US dealers who carry the same brands as grey market tractors will not have replacement parts for the gray market tractors, and there will have been no dealer training or support provided by the manufacturers.

Evaluate the Tractor Externally

When evaluating a used tractor, there are a number of external factors to consider.

• Examine all shafts, bearings, seals, and gaskets for grease and oil leaks. Dust and dirt accumulations over old grease spots are generally not indicative of a major leak. However, oil and grease spots on the ground underneath the tractor and large fresh grease spots on the tractor’s surface can indicate potential major problems.

• The coolant in the radiator should be clear and clean. If it looks dirty and muddy, the cooling system may require major service and/or repairs. Leaks in the cooling system are also indicative of potential problems. Check radiator hoses for cracks lost of flexibility – neither is desirable.

• The tractor frame, transmission housing and final drives should be closely examined for evidence of cracks and welds. Welds on the tractor frame or major castings indicate the tractor has undergone hard use and such tractors should be avoided.

• A new paint job may make the tractor look good but can also be used to cover up a variety of problems. Ask why the tractor was repainted. The same can be said if a new seat, seat cushions, steering wheel or other obvious replacements are covering up other wear problems.

Checking Internal Operations

Generally speaking, it is not a good idea to buy a tractor with internal problems, so it is important that you start the tractor and drive it. You may also want to have someone else drive while you observe the tractor and listen to the engine in operation.

• Blue or black exhaust smoke when the tractor is started or accelerated can indicate major engine problems. Blue smoke indicates that the engine is burning oil and probably needs major internal work. Black smoke can indicate overfueling for gasoline engines and faulty combustion for a diesel engine.

• Listen for engine and transmission noises. Knocking or other unusual noises from the engine when it is idling can indicate major engine problems. When the tractor is being driven, whining or grinding noises from the transmission and final drive are not normal. The clutch should engage smoothly and gear shifting should be smooth and easy.

• A compression test is the best way to check the condition of the tractor engine. The test, done by a good mechanic who can also interpret the results, can detect such problems such as burned or damaged valves, worn cylinder walls and piston rings, and blown head gaskets.

Make Your Used Tractor Safe

Safety is often an issue with used tractors. This is because safety shields for the power take off (PTO) shaft are often missing and decals that include operating instructions and safety warning are often faded or missing.

In an ideal world, the seller should provide these items, but that is sometimes not the case. It may be necessary for you to obtain them from a dealer after you purchase the tractor.

Having an operator’s manual is important because it is your first-line resource to the use and care of the tractor. It provides how-to operating instructions, routine servicing and maintenance instructions, contacts of the manufacturer and/or dealer and safety information.

Preferably the operator’s manual for your tractor will be available from the seller, but these booklets do have a way of getting misplaced or too worn to use. A simple internet search for tractor manuals will lead to sources of manuals for hundreds of tractor models.

Types of Tractors

Tractors can be divided into types based on the jobs the tractor manufacturer designed them to do. When looking for a used tractor, it helps to know what type you need.

• Utility tractors were designed for multiple tasks, including soil tillage, and they can be equipped with a variety of attachments – loaders, rotary tillers, planters, blades, mowers and other specialty equipment.

• Cultivating tractors were designed primarily for cultivating row crops such as vegetables.

• Orchard tractors are low to the ground and narrow in width to fit between trees.

Older Tractors

An older tractor can be a good value. Parts and repairs are still available for certain makes and models.

Utility tractors as such as the Ford 8N, Jubilee, 600 and 800, Ferguson TO 35, Massey Ferguson 50 and 65 are affordable, and parts can be easily found. Some of these tractors were also manufactured in orchard configurations. Larger Farmall models such as the Farmall H and M are still widely available.

Older tractors such as the Allis Chalmers G and the Farmall Cub, A, B and C are classic cultivating tractors and have proven particularly useful to small specialty crop growers. They are still available as used tractors and parts can be obtained for them even today.

There are numerous other older used tractors available today at affordable prices.

The major issue in buying an older tractor is usually parts availability, which can be easily be checked out on the internet.

Reprinted with permission from Farmers Market Today, January-February 2010

John Inman, a retired agricultural engineer from University of California-Davis, is a farm machinery consultant and freelance writer.