Bumper sticker recently spotted on a tractor: “If I’m not working, you’re not either.” For many a farm owner, the tractor is the trusty workhorse… the safe, sturdy, dependable piece of equipment without which many tasks—or even running the farm—would be impossible. Whether you have a new tractor or ride around on an old or “previously appreciated” model, regular maintenance is the key to protecting your investment.
Stable Management spoke with some experts to get their advice on keeping your tractor in tip-top shape and rarin’ to go. (The recommendations in this article apply to diesel tractors, which comprise the bulk of tractors available today. Also, this article offers general guidelines that might not apply to your tractor. Consult your owner’s manual or tractor dealership for maintenance information that is specific for your manufacturer and year of tractor.)
Good tractor maintenance begins with your eyes. First, read and consult the owner’s manual for regular service and maintenance information specific to the model that you own. If you don’t have a maintenance manual, check online for information. People who have very old tractors (as in classic or vintage) can visit useful websites such as Yesterday’s Tractor Co. (www.ytmag.com), which is full of useful information and also offers discussion forums, a parts marketplace, and an interesting department called “stuck and troubled.”
Other Internet resources that offer information and support include www.tractorlinks.com (for antique and/or classic tractor enthusiasts), www.mytractorforum.com, and www.justanswer.com (this site does ask a fee for the answers it provides).
Next, use your eyes for an overall inspection. Replace missing or worn clamps, bolts, nuts, or screws, and tighten any loose connections. The team at Massey Ferguson warns, “Loose fasteners can damage thread parts, linkages, and bushings, can loosen tolerances on tight-fitting mechanisms, and can waste your time on repairs that could be prevented.”
Make sure the loader or other attachments are connected properly, and that all pins and bolts are in place. Tighten fuel tank mountings if necessary. Inspect hoses for leaks and loose connections, and belts for signs of wear or rot. Also, be sure to check fluid levels in the battery, transmission, radiator, and hydraulic system. Be alert to possible signs of abnormal wear, both on the tractor chassis and the tires.
Oil and Fluids
Temple Rhodes of Temple Rhodes Excavating manages 3,000 acres of farmland in rural Maryland. When asked what he considers to be the most important steps to keeping his equipment in great shape, he doesn’t hesitate. “Check the oil, transmission fluid, and water regularly,” he advises. The frequency of your checks will vary, depending on hours of use. “During the summer, when we typically run our equipment 10 to 15 hours a day, we check fluids and oil daily. If we were using the tractor for one or two hours a day, we would only need to check once a week. In the winter, we check every 20 hours,” Temple explains. Colin Campbell of Campbell’s Services in Bridgewater, Connecticut, recommends checking the oil level daily before climbing into the driver’s seat. You should also check front axle fluid every eight hours.
How often should you change your oil? “We recommend changing the engine oil after the first 50 hours that you use the tractor, and every 100 hours after that,” Colin says. Temple Rhodes likes to use 15W40 oil in his tractors, but prefers synthetic oil for vehicles like farm trucks because it lasts longer. “Whatever you do, make sure you add the new oil before you use the tractor again,” warns Colin Campbell. “Running without oil is catastrophic and expensive.”
If your oil is dirty or if you have just purchased a used tractor, have the oil analyzed to rule out the presence of impurities. Exxon offers this service directly to large commercial operations like Temple’s. Small farm owners can take the sample to their nearest tractor dealership. John Deere and Case are two dealerships that offer this service.
You’ll replace the oil filter whenever you change the oil—generally, after the first 50 hours you use your tractor, then every 100 hours. Air filters need to be changed whenever they get clogged. Colin Campbell offers this tip: “Look through your air filter from the inside, and hold up a light to the outside. If you see a good amount of light, your air filter is okay. If the light is dim or you can’t see it at all, replace the filter immediately.” In his years of experience as a dealer and mechanic, he’s seen some filters get clogged up in as little as nine hours, and others that go 250 hours before needing a change. “It all depends on usage. As a rule of thumb, plan on checking the air filter every eight hours; more often if you’re working in very dirty conditions,” he offers.
To help keep track of changes, Temple Rhodes writes the hours down directly on both the oil and air filters. “That way, the information is right in front of me, and I’m more likely to keep up with oil and filter replacements,” he says.
You’ll want to check all electrical connections to the battery to ensure that they are still wired tightly. “The biggest problem is buildup of corrosion on the battery cables, which can cause your battery to go dead,” Colin Campbell explains. “So, keep your batteries clean—especially where the battery post meets the inside of the terminal—and make sure the connection is tight. If you can twist the cable, it is too loose.” Check the fluid level in each cell. Test the battery with a voltage meter—a reading below nine volts means you need to add a new battery to your shopping list.
Wheels and Tires
Regularly inspect the wheel bearings for signs of wear and tear. Tighten wheel lugs according to your owner’s manual. The mechanics at Massey Ferguson recommend tightening the lugs after the first 10 hours of use on a new tractor, then every 50 hours after that.
The choice of tractor tire—radial or bias ply—often depends on the rim and the operating conditions of the vehicle. “Radial tires have more grip than bias ply tires, but both types wear similarly,” says Temple Rhodes. Goodyear notes that bias ply tires have traditionally been used for both on and off-road applications. Radial tires are preferred in situations where heat buildup with bias ply tires is anticipated, as in traveling on hard roads.
Regardless of the type of tire your tractor sports, proper maintenance prolongs the life of your tires and also helps you use fuel more efficiently. Inspect the tires every 25 to 50 hours, checking for nails, thorns, and signs of dry rot and cracking. Maintain the tire pressure at proper levels; generally, around 12 lbs. for radial and 18 lbs. for bias ply tires. However, recommended inflation will vary according to the type of work being done, the work surface, and the load of any attachments. The Tire and Rim Association of America (TRA), the standardizing body for the tire, rim, valve, and allied parts industry in the United States, publishes recommendations for setting air inflation based on the load. This information is available in the TRA Year Book or online at www.us-tra.org. Tire manufacturers and tractor dealerships also have this information.
If your tractor is equipped with hydraulics, check the pressure regularly. Colin Campbell explains, “The biggest thing is to keep moisture out. Also, the oil loses its ability to perform over several hours of use.” He recommends changing the hydraulic fluid and oil after the first 50 hours of use. Once past that milestone, change the filter every 200 hours, and the oil every 400 hours. Changing the hydraulic fluid can involve dealing with 15 gallons of fluid, so you might consider having the nearest tractor dealership perform the maintenance.
Belts and Seals
Regularly examine belts for signs of cracking, rot, and damage. Inspect the seals as well, checking for fluid leaks that indicate wearing or damage. “I advise customers to replace belts and seals as needed only,” says Colin Campbell.
You probably can see the grease zerks on your tractor, but Massey Ferguson also recommends consulting your owner’s manual to avoid missing hidden zerks. Grease zerks contain a spring-loaded ball that compresses when pressure is applied with a grease gun, allowing grease to flow through the fitting into the application. After pressure from the gun is released, the spring-loaded ball returns to the head of the zerk, preventing grease from escaping and dirt from entering.
Periodically apply lubricating oil to the nuts, bolts, and joints of your tractor. This helps prevent rusting and seizing up.
Storing Your Tractor
If you winter in Florida and plan to leave the tractor behind in the cold, it’s wise to prepare the tractor for its hibernation. Colin Campbell recommends disconnecting the battery, removing it from the tractor, and keeping it in a warm place. If your tractor has a clutch, release it to keep the disc from rusting to the flywheel.
Before starting the tractor in spring, drain the oil and the old fuel to prevent accumulated dirt and water from damaging the engine. You might also consider changing the filters and fluids.
Keep It Clean
A clean tractor is a healthy tractor. Dirt, grass clippings, and debris can all damage your tractor and contribute to rust, as well as wear and tear.
Mild soap and water, applied to the body and underside, can clear away mud, grime, acids, and chemicals. Clear the radiator screens of accumulated dirt and grass. To remove greasy buildup on the engine and body, use your favorite brand of automotive degreaser. However, don’t overdo it. “Washing is a double-edged sword. It helps protect the condition of the chassis and keeps dirt out of the pivots, but it can cause the electrical system to corrode and short out.” Campbell encourages owners to keep a good balance of occasional cleaning, with plenty of time between washings to let the tractor dry out.
A Note About Climate
Tractor stressors and maintenance needs can vary with extremes of climate. In areas with salt air and humidity, such as Florida, for instance:
- Battery terminals require regular cleaning, and the tops of the batteries need to be washed with a baking soda solution to neutralize accumulated salt.
- Motor oil is changed more frequently than usual.
- An additive is added to fuel tanks to prevent the growth of algae.
- Air filters need to be changed often.
- The radiator needs to be pressure-washed every three months because the salt air creates electrolysis between the copper tubes and aluminum fins. If this is not done, the radiator will spring leaks.
In very cold climates, such as the Midwest:
- Heavy duty batteries—900CCA (cold cranking amps) or more—are recommended.
- Synthetic oil is preferred, because the tractor will usually start more easily.
- Block heaters (especially percolator types) are recommended.
- A fuel additive is essential.
Your dealership can provide maintenance tips specific to your area.
The biggest mistake you can make with respect to tractor maintenance is not doing it. Always consult your tractor dealer and/or the owner’s manual for suggested maintenance schedules, and be sure to operate the tractor within its recommended capacity. With proper care, maintenance, and usage, your tractor should provide you with years of dependable service.
Safety is the name of the game when it comes to working around your tractor. Several tractor manufacturers offer safety courses, as do many local extension services and 4H clubs. For teenagers, safety is not optional: the Fair Labor Standards Act requires that teens take a tractor safety course before being hired to work on a farm that is not owned by their parents. Iowa State University offers a detailed list of safety guidelines (www.ehs.iastate.edu/cms/default.asp), some of which can be followed when working on, as well as operating, the tractor:
- Walk around and inspect your tractor before running or working on it.
- Read and follow safety precautions listed in the owner’s manual.
- Go through your checklist before working on or operating the tractor.
- Protect your body with ear plugs, safety glasses, gloves, and steel-toed boots when working on your tractor.
- Keep your tools in good condition and use them as intended.
- Keep children away from the tractor.
- Always mount and dismount from the tractor on the left side to avoid hitting the controls.
- Keep all guards in place, including the power take-off (PTO).
- Maintain a current maintenance schedule.
- When working on the tractor, always make sure it is turned off.
- Follow safe maintenance and jacking procedures.
- When parking or working on the tractor, always lower the three-point linkage and towed implement.
- Regularly check safety pins on towed lift-wing implements to make sure they are not worn.
- When working on hydraulics, be aware of hot fluids, and never place a bare hand on hydraulic lines.
- When working on the battery, always disconnect the grounded (usually negative) terminal first.
- Avoid contact between finger rings and battery terminals.
- When working on the cooling system, allow the tractor to cool before removing the radiator cap.
- Use a tire gauge when checking or filling tires, and know the correct tire pressure; don’t guess.
- When filling tires, never stand directly in front of the wheel.
- When refueling, make sure the tractor is cool.
- Avoid smoking during refueling.
- Clean up any fuel spills that might occur when refueling or working on your tractor.