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Tractors, necessary, or luxury?

 
Posts: 139
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Zachary Morris wrote:Some days I wake up and say "I AM THE TRACTOR." At which time my dog barks and we show off in the mirror.

Others I think "Hmm, maybe a small tractor would be the way to go" and proceed to shovel shit n' huff rocks in a wheel barrow up a hill.

So that's basically the debate I'm encouraging, is a tractor necessary on a permaculture homestead/farm/ranch.

Is it still necessary on 5 acres? 2? 1?

What if you have a steep slope, or dense vegetation and trees?

I'm a young guy who's worked outdoors for the past decade and generally my first choice is always to put in the sweat in exchange for the savings. However I wouldn't be anywhere without my tools, and a Tractor, like my truck, is indeed another tool. Used properly I'd be willing to consider that it is in fact a better bang for my buck, especially as I earn better wages. Maybe it could even be a source of employment.

How do you feel? What're your circumstances?



Permit me to take this in a different direction. I own 2.5 acres. For that small parcel a dedicated tractor, though nice, would be overkill. Most of the time it would sit in a shed not being used. However there are times when having one available to dig that big hole is a nice to have. But the use case does not favor it in the main.

But I would hazard to say, anyone owning acreage probably has at least one truck. Right? That means you already have a powerplant. Now in my case a small backhoe would be more than adequate for me. I have looked at cadplans.com they have several models available. A towable variant of course. Then devise a method to either add a hydraulic pump to the belt train or replace the alternator with a heavy duty model. That of course dictates how one powers the backhoe.

Using an XXX hp engine for a backhoe overkill? Surely. But if the use case is the combination is used only a small percentage of the year, so what? I have one less engine to service.

Thoughts?
 
Posts: 43
Location: NH
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I take Joel's opinion on this, if you cant put 1000 hours a year on the tractor its not worth the cost.

This has kept me from buying a tractor, when I need one I save up work and rent one for a day or two.
 
Posts: 135
Location: Washington State near lake tapps
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i use a david bradley walking tractor on our 1.5 acres and it gets used a lot to move carts and logs. fixing up the sickle bar and use the plow to make drainage channels. so far it has been great we have looked at gillos/bcs for awhile and they will come later but the david bradleys are just fantastic, and so simple to work on. we bought 6 tractors and 13 implements for 300$ they all need work but one day and a predator motor and we got 3 running ones. just wondering if every body missed the riding sulky for mowing with the walking tractors. look at the speeds for mowing too some models have faster working speeds just for mowing this is why we are not getting any more riding mowers. a bcs/grillo will do everything a rider can and then a lot more with less fuel and fuss. we are looking at the bailer for the future. i think a 4 wheel tracter is a very over the top expense and waste unless you have large acreage farm over 20-40 acres.
 
Posts: 42
Location: BC, Canada
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I'll be the machine advocate. while not much of a tractor guy I see their purpose, I prefer the versatility of an excavator.

It's very noble to want to do all your work by hand and my hats off to anyone that can stick to that program. But the question I had for myself is how much time do i have to get to get my property to where i want it before age starts slowing me down?

My family and I moved to 80 off grid acres that had a shell of a house and really nothing else. The amount of work I've done with my excavator from building roads, digging my well, digging and installing my septic system, clearing land, making gravel, levelling areas, it's a mobile crane... And on and on.

The septic I saved $12,000 doing myself, the well was around an $8000 savings, I had a quote to clean up and grade my driveway for $10,000...no thanks! I've saved more than the purchase price of the machine doing my own things, and I have it sitting here every day waiting to work for me. We've only been here for 4 months and it's already paid for itself. Plus I'm looking at some forestry projects I can put it to work at.

This is the day I found a shale deposit on my property to gravel my muddy driveway.



600' of water line 5' deep




Digging the well



Or another versatile tool is the skidsteer!

 
Posts: 618
Location: Volant, PA
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My wife got one this year, 1957 farmall cub, it's a tiny machine that has very cheap parts, runs a very small 9hp gas engine, so it is thrifty too, we mostly need a trailer puller, and maybe some other tasks, but we don't need the weight to plow barrow or dig, so a small thrifty machine with the highest priced part being $100 and most parts being $15 was right for us. I replaced the muffler repaired the transmission gears, changed all the fluids and bought a crank to start it with for about $85....oh and $900 purchase price
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pollinator
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To answer the question: it all depends. Here we call some people Kubota Farmers because they own 5 acres of land and go out and buy a 40 HP Kubota and are in High Cotton. It is way over-kill. They plan on rototilling, bushogging and other for-hire tasks as well, not realizing that others are doing this already so there is not much custom work to be had.

Now I have quite a few acres and have got by for years on just a tiny 25 HP Kubota. I had one person ask me how I could cut wood professionally with such a small tractor, but honestly it is not about horsepower, but rather technique and traction. Here is a real life example. With my tiny Kubota, on good going and a short twitch I can pull out a load of wood in two days time and burn about $10 in fuel doing it. With a skidder I can pull out a load of wood in a day but it burns about $10 of fuel in an HOUR. So ultimately I am making significantly more money per cord using my little tractor.

However it is limited. So is a skidder though. It pulls out wood really well, but that is about all it can do. Two weeks ago I went out and bought a small bulldozer and that was a smart purchase. I bought that for several reasons; it has more horse power, it is versatile, I am currently clearing forest into fields, and it has traction. The last is important because I have a vast woodlot, and while my Kubota does well in GOOD GOING, 80% of my wood lot is far from that. Now that I am transitioning into a Certified Tree Farm, it is VERY important to me to actively manage ALL of my forest and not just parts of it. I need traction and horsepower to do that, and the low inpact, low foot pounds per square inch of a dozer allows for that. And best yet...it is slow. I could cut all my woodlot off in 5 years time if I had a skidder, a bulldozer's slow pace is ideal for my farm.

BUT I say all this, not to applaud all the virtues of a dozer, but to point out that I am matching it to my farm. That is where people go wrong. For the most part I think most small to micro-farmers could really use a tractor, it is just that they buy one that is WAY to big for their needs.

Personally I think the maintenance issue is over-blown. I work the guts off my Kubota and in 16 years I can count on one hand the things that have gone wrong with it. Everything I have been able to fix myself since they were minor. I don't expect that with my dozer obviously, but its a far more complicated machine. It is also far more capable.

 
Travis Johnson
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There is one thing that I feel compelled to point out and that is the exponential problem with using draft animals as prime movers. It is a tough scenario to do so on a small farm scale or micro scale because of the hay they consume. In order to use them, they consume hay which takes more land to grow. Even if you have land, you must dedicate land for hay. To give you an example, lets say a micro-farm has 10 acres, you would have to dedicate 5 acres of that at least to grow hay to feed them. That is 50% of your land being dedicated to your prime mover. Do you really want that when a small, well matched tractor could give you 100% of you land base? Now the argument comes in, but you have to buy fuel for a tractor. That is true, but the cost of fuel consumption of a properly sized tractor in comparison to paying property taxes on land that is dedicated only to feeding your prime mover and cannot be used for anything else, becomes an issue. Then there is the potential of using that 5 acres for more important stuff that may produce an income or feed your family; and that is saying nothing about the hidden costs of hoof trimming, shoeing, medicines, vet visits, etc. Of course you could buy the hay, but then what is the difference in buying fuel?

Even in my case where I am a large farmer, I cannot justify draft animals as prime movers. What little bit I spend in fuel every year feeding my equipment diesel fuel is nothing compared to what I would be using in hay. I am better off using that land base to raise more sheep, take the money those extra lambs provide and be better off financially. Even the Amish near me realize this. They don't do their own haying, they contract it out to us to do their haying for them.

Now this is only be said fiscally because some people do not realize how much hay it takes to feed a working prime mover every day. Obviously if you love animals and wish to farm that way or morally dislike burning fossil fuel to accomplish work, then I completely understand. Its just around here we have a lot of micro-farmers that move in with the idea of using draft animals as prime movers and fail to realize the whole picture. It is tough to do financially.

 
pollinator
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@Travis J.: " For the most part I think most small to micro-farmers could really use a tractor, it is just that they buy one that is WAY to big for their needs."

I can't justifiably compare my situation to yours because you are farming for profit and mine is more for cost reductions. The income comes from a 'day job' and cost reductions come in the form of a large garden that saves on food costs. Additionally, being on a well means not having to pay a rural water bill, although it obviously comes with sporadic expenses. All of this said, I *now* can't imagine being without a small tractor, even though we spent the first 10 years on this property without one. And always fun to realize that the farms my parents grew up on operated (clearly with smaller average acreages than today) with a single Ford 8N/9N tractor (~25 hp gasoline)....and before that, much less.

While it would be nice to own a skidder, for the amount I've *really* needed one, it's enough to simply rent one. With the purchase of a 10,000 lb GVW trailer some years ago, that trailer is able to transport dead cars and tractors to the shop and rented equipment to the property, as well as loaned out which generates "social capital", so that's been a good investment I feel.

To be sure, for an operation that is mostly playing around, my 18 hp diesel John Deere hydrostatic with loader would alone be sufficient, but added a 32 hp Kubota diesel hydro with loader partially because my wife 'preferred' (not 'needed') the stability of that larger wheelbase and hp when blading and mowing/brush cutting. A decades-old Yanmar 19 hp grey-market is still around but probably to be sold soon....a great tractor, no loader, but a 3 speed PTO which is great for running a generator without winding out the engine rpms. Three great things about small tractors in the US right now are lots of 0% financing, respectable re-sale value if needed, and most of the "American" names in tractors are actually, in the lower horsepower range, made in Japan......Deere's in this size typically have Yanmar diesels which are fantastic, reliable little engines with fuel efficiency to match. All in all I consider things like small diesel tractors, snow blowers, chainsaws, and even occasionally tillers, to be "appropriate technologies" for what the fuel is being used for. But if the fuel is all gone, guess we are back to axes and shovels...not the end of the world, and possibly even granting the planet a stay of execution.

"....problem with using draft animals as prime movers. It is a tough scenario to do so on a small farm scale or micro scale because of the hay they consume."

In many cases it will come down to availability and different kinds of "cost" as you alluded to. A tractor/fuel situation can cost a lot less to one's immediate finances, but may have a different type of cost measured on an ecological scale. But yes, draft animals would be a different can of worms, especially if one is accustomed to a fueled vehicle for general power and transportation: Coming from this background, going to a tractor would be a much easier learning curve than the care, maintenance, and operation of draft animals. Hence your comment that "....micro-farmers that move in with the idea of using draft animals as prime movers and fail to realize the whole picture." There are several around here who succeed with draft animals, but they have a family history of using draft animals that goes back a few generations.

Not such a permies topic, but as you mentioned skidsteers (and permies has a lot of home-spun inventiveness), you can appreciate the following history from Bobcat's website, one of the local business success stories in our region built on farm entrepreneurship:
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Travis Johnson
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The Bobcat story is an interesting one though my Grandfather cured the same problem via a different route. Instead of inventing something new, he simply used his Garden tractor with a snowplow blade to push the chicken manure of his broilers into scuttles that dropped down through the floor into the basement (his was a 5 floor barn) and onto his manure spreader. One issue he had was fetching up on nails so he used sawdust as a substitute for gravel so as to reduce weight and yet have the same ability to smoothly scrape the sawdust concrete with the snowplow. He moved from floor to floor via going up cleated ramps. To me it is that inventiveness that is needed today whether talking about my Grandfather or talking about the Bobcat Companies start.

There is a difference between a lawn tractor you buy at Home Depot and a true Garden Tractor, and it really makes me smile when I see people with only a few acres purchase a Garden Tractor, small Kubota or even Walk behind Tractor for their needs. They are really getting the most bang for their buck that way.

One clarification though: I am only a hobby farmer myself. I do sell my lambs onto the national food chain, but I am not big enough to obtain my income at the moment from farm sales alone. I work at a shipyard as a welder. I label myself as a large farmer simply because my family has several potato and dairy farms that for this area, are large in size, and because my own land base is fairly substantial. My ultimate goal is to be a full-time farmer, but until I get to be of sufficient size, I am using the income from the shipyard to get me there. We are more alike then most people probably realize.

BTW: He used sawdust in his concrete thinking gravel would be too heavy for his old timber framed barn, but I do not believe that was the case. I have concrete counter tops in my home and a 2 inch slab is only 12 pounds pr square foot. It is deceiving, but graveled cement spread out over a large surface does not weigh much per square foot.
 
pollinator
Posts: 312
Location: Greybull WY north central WY zone 4 bordering on 3
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I am an independent farm equipment mechanic by trade and grew up farming large scale. So I have seen lots of people doing different things. It is not necessary. Nearly every task can be done by brains and manual labor if needed. So in that sense it is a luxury. But the economics means that in most cases they are highly worth it if people buy smart to match their needs and budget. If you can store the tractor where it is dry and out of the sun you can reduce long term costs.

The real advantage of the 2N/8N/9N tractors is that all together there were over 2 million of them made. That means you can get parts and that most parts are affordable. They are fairly simple to work on and have very few problems. The disadvantage are no live hydraulics, no power steering, flimsy front end, gear to fast for some things and no live PTO. If pulling stuff and 3 point are your goal it is a great little tractor. Some tips here for common problems. The 3 point won't stay up. The aftermarket sells a replacement piston with a good oring seal that mostly eliminates problems here. Most newer machinery to fit the PTO and 3 point are category 2. If you don't need category 1 you can replace the PTO shaft with a category 2 for under $100 and you can replace the lift arms with category 2. Lack of power steering, no live hydralics and light weight front end mean this poor tractor for a loader.

From there there are hundreds of older smaller tractors around. Each with its own pros and cons. I will say to look in your area for ones that are common. If you are going to go with an older tractor the ideals is to get 2 of them that are the same so you have 1 to rob for parts when needed. Also look at parts availability. One other comment on older stuff. You can often buy a bigger tractor for less. Depending on your job the smart move might be to buy it and use it for your bigger jobs and then sell it again to be ready to buy a smaller tractor later.

As for somewhat newer tractors parts are also an issue. I have a tractor in the shop right now that is a chinese import from the 70's that we can't find a parts supplier for. Really nice little tractor if you ignore the fact that you have to fudge or make every single thing you fix on it. Also watch out for grey market tractors and construction machines. There is nothing like having the part number and they won't sell it to you because that machine doesn't belong in your country. Latest one of those to get me was little trackhoe that was supposedly only sold in Cambodia and that area. We couldn't buy a single part for it even though we could go online and look up part numbers for it. The one before that was a John Deere tractor supposedly only sold in the UK and Europe. We had to have one of the customer's friends in a country where they would sell the part buy the parts and ship them to us. So don't just look if you can look up the parts. Be sure you can buy parts for that model where you live.

There are lots of little nice tractors in the newer stuff. 4WD, live everything and a loader. Problem here is cost. Most of these will cost 2X to 10X as much for the HP. If they add things you need great. But if not then probably you are better off with an older tractor.

Having been around various operations I will say there are 5 machines that at times really benefit an operation. Smaller tractor with loader, mule type 4 wheeler, backhoe loader, track hoe with push blade, bobcat. I will say that nearly every operation should have at least one of these. The big thing is which one benefits your operation the most?
 
Rob Bouchard
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I only seem to buy grey market Komatsu excavators... The parts are readily available from the Komatsu dealers, they don't care a sale is a sale.
 
John Weiland
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@C. Letellier: "I will say there are 5 machines that at times really benefit an operation. Smaller tractor with loader, mule type 4 wheeler, backhoe loader, track hoe with push blade, bobcat. .....The big thing is which one benefits your operation the most?"

Agreed, and will just add that very likely things that benefit one's operation will change over the life on the property. Had no problem digging deep holes by shovel in my 20s and 30s, but the joint aches and declining strength into the 50s start taking their toll. Rather than add a 3-pt backhoe which I would not want to have the pleasure of hitching up and removing frequently, I got one of those ball-hitch, tow-behind backhoes with a self-contained hydraulic pump and 5 hp engine to drive the pump. ( http://www.bleu-kwmfg.com/dirt_master.htm ) It's not as "beefy" as many backhoes, but in our clay loam it does the job well, down to 7 ft. It's paid for itself in septic work, basement wall restoration, and increasingly used for moving shrubs and small trees around on the property. Also fortunately and just using a tractor, due to the heavy clay content in the local soil we've been able to slowly add some shallow diking without the need for a tracked pushblade, either in skidsteer format or otherwise. The weight of the tractor alone along with both the rear-mount blade and front loader provide sufficient tools to achieve the task.....clearly not as efficiently as a heavy, tracked dozer-type unit, but over time, gets the job done.

We recently sold a Ford 8N for the reasons you just mentioned.

I agree that it's good to do one's homework when looking grey-market for a tractor, but must admit that on a budget, the Yanmar's are a pretty good deal....and there are parts suppliers in the US, but one must match the tractor model with parts availability. Nevertheless, my favorite config. for small "hobby farm" work is a small diesel tractor with loader and "hands free" hydrostatic transmission....it's no frills and uncomplicated which allows my wife to operate it just fine cleaning out stalls and moving objects around too heavy to manually lift. But as you noted, unless you find a good deal on a used one, they are not cheap, typically between $15K and $25K depending on brand, attachments, etc. The "legit" Yanmars/(and other makes) in the US all have these features ..... and price tag to match. But the grey market units typically are standard or powershift transmission ...... which if that is all you need can be great, reliable little units.

@Rob B: "I only seem to buy grey market Komatsu excavators... The parts are readily available from the Komatsu dealers..."

Rob, your noted location is BC, Canada. It may be that Canada plays by different rules in this regard. It's my understanding that "Yanmar-USA" is distancing itself from much of the Yanmar grey market in the US. Details here:
https://www.yanmar.com/us/legal/gray-market-notice/
 
Travis Johnson
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R G LeTourneau once said, "A man is only worth what he produces". He learned that the hard way after designing a scraper that did away with a second person controlling the scraper because they guy would not eat dust past 10 hours even for another $1 an hour...and this was 100 years ago. He realized this when the ranch owner refused to pay him for two people's wages despite his great invention. It still holds true today.

We had the equivalent of a 9N. It was actually a 1958 Ford 900 with wide front end, and when I was looking for a new tractor was really taken back by the small size of the Kubota 2500 I ended up buying. The salesman drew me in with this comment, "Try it for 90 days, if you don't like it, I will let you trade it in for a bigger model with no questions asked." 90 days later I was getting the first oil change and he asked me if I wanted to trade it in...no way, the Kubota might be smaller physically, but it could run circles around that Ford 900. Four wheel drive, posi-traction, lighter, narrow, nimble; its a workhorse in the woods doing low impact forestry.

Now I upgraded again. Its primarily for low impact forestry, but I went with tracks this time. I only doubled my horsepower from 25 hp of the Kubota tractor to 50 HP with a bulldozer, but I got 500% gain in traction. Before I had 2000 lbs of drawbar pull and now I got 10,000 lbs; that is significant. With its six way blade, high tractive effort and additional power, I put 1/2 a mile of swales in in an afternoon. That was not possible a few weeks ago. Between tires and tracks I can use the advantages of each to do the most good on my farm. But that is the thing, really analyzing what a tractor is going to be used for and how. I really think that is where people make their biggest mistake.
 
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To add in my two cents. I bought 26 acres in November. Recently I've been out clearing fence lines with a hoe, a push mower and a shit ton of sweat equity. I'm sure the neighbors are cracking up at me out there with my push mower. That being said, a neighbor is mowing and baling my hay in exchange for part of it. I don't even have a truck yet because I sold it to beef up my down payment. I'm currently just bootstrapping it with a hand me down mini van and my urban implements. I've been dragging old barbed wire out by hand. Rolling old field finds like pallets to a central burn pile. Basically, without machinery its a huge pain in the ass. With machinery it will be a huge pain in the ass but go more quickly. For me its about not having the cash, if you have the cash I'd do it. For now though, I'm sleeping very soundly
 
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Location: Massawippi, Quebec, Canada.
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Short intuitive answer:

The fact that this is being asked likely implies that tractors are in fact not entirely necessary. Should they be, however, we really ought to figure out a way to make them (and every other archaic engine)... SILENT.

I mean, we could use horses right?
 
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Location: Fairbanks, Alaska
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Travis Johnson wrote:R G LeTourneau once said, "A man is only worth what he produces".



He also said "There are no big jobs, only small machines."
 
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For myself a tractor is an absolute necessity. I am disabled and without it I wouldn't be able to get much if anything done and what I did get done would take me a week that someone else can do in a few hours. There's no way I can dig post holes and yet my MF204/TO35 that was stuck together does one in a couple minutes. It's literally a life saver for me.

Would I prefer to do things more green? Absolutely. I try to limit run time and make sure things are properly maintained so I'm limiting the pollution I cause.
 
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Everything has its place in this world, horses and tractors included. I am a tractor person, partly because of my father who grew up with horses only and went back to farming for the first year with a horse. He claimed that he could do more in an evening after work with a tractor than he could do all day with a horse. Being a back yard mechanic is not a must, having at least a friend or trading partner who knows about them is. Old tractors are not complicated and generally don't cost much in maintenance per year, unless you make a bad deal to begin with, they don't have to be overly noisy and are worth their weight in gold for many, many, many jobs. If you can afford to wait up to a year and travel a half a day one way you should be able to come up with a very affordable 50 year old or older tractor that will outwork and outlast many substitute machines such as a four wheeler. If I had a budget of 1500 dollars in my area I could buy a gas two wheel drive, three point hitch tractor with good tires and probably two implements. Will perform as good as the operator using it, learning curve not included.
 
pollinator
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Tractors don't have to be wildly expensive. When I bought 117 acres, I found a T035 Massey Ferguson with implements for $2500. Simple machine with little to break. Easy to maintain. In the years I owned it all it ever needed were points, plugs, oil, and filters. It could have used brakes, but I never had them rebuilt. Great little tractor that I used primarily for mowing, feeding grain and drilling post holes.

I also bought a propane powered row tractor (narrow front end = little demand = cheap) for only $750 including the bush hog. That thing would shred trees. (Not hitting them on purpose - i just had weeds taller than the little trees growing in the edges of the pastures.) It had a weird transmission issue, but once I learned the quirk (take it out of that gear and put it back in again to pick up the fork) it did the job.

If you are planting in raised beds and already have all the earth moving done you need, you could get by without one. You can rent one or hire work done, but if you need one regularly, look for a old, dependable tractor unless you can justify spending what it takes to get a newer one.
 
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It depends

- How much is your time worth?
- A tractor could save you time(money) which could be spent doing other, potentially more productive, things.
- How much will this tractor cost you per hour (depreciation, fuel, repairs etc.)?
- How many hours will you use it?
- Would it be cheaper to hire out the work to someone else?
- Will a tractor make you happy (e.g. less stressed, tired)?
- Do you like tractors?
 
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David Miller wrote:To add in my two cents. I bought 26 acres in November. Recently I've been out clearing fence lines with a hoe, a push mower and a shit ton of sweat equity. I'm sure the neighbors are cracking up at me out there with my push mower. That being said, a neighbor is mowing and baling my hay in exchange for part of it. I don't even have a truck yet because I sold it to beef up my down payment. I'm currently just bootstrapping it with a hand me down mini van and my urban implements. I've been dragging old barbed wire out by hand. Rolling old field finds like pallets to a central burn pile. Basically, without machinery its a huge pain in the ass. With machinery it will be a huge pain in the ass but go more quickly. For me its about not having the cash, if you have the cash I'd do it. For now though, I'm sleeping very soundly




David - I spent 5 years, digging, pulling, and hauling by hand.

I had an eBay search on for a Grillo/BCS 2 wheel tractor. One finally appeared in my email box. 1000$ later, I am hauling, mowing so much more mass than my hand cart.


with one of these:

Mine has smaller wheels and is not PTO. - but is is still great.

i can haul chainsaw & tools, all around the property, plus a big pile of mulch, logs, or topsoil for my hugelculture beds.





 
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We share a tractor with our neighbors. I think our neighborhood actually needs only one tractor but I think there are at least three. They mostly sit idle. I'm trying to do most work by hand, just to show that a tractor may not be necessary. I don't have anything against tractors, but I'm not naturally drawn to them and I don't want to bug my husband too much about doing tasks that require a tractor. I want to show that if someone doesn't have access to a tractor, can't afford one, for instance, they can still achieve a good permaculture system. I haven't proven it yet - I expect it will take me 5 - 10 years to achieve what might have been done in only a year or two with a tractor.

 
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Single female, sole able-bodied rancher on 550 acre cattle ranch, don’t use a tractor (or excavator). (Dad, who is mostly paralyzed, occasionally manages to crawl on his old one and put out a round bale from his rotting stash, but it’s totally unnecessary—that’s what square bales and arms are for). I occasionally hire someone (or their equipment), but that’s like...once every 2-5 years? Mostly I can jerry rig something. You can dig basically anything with a shovel, it just takes eternity. If you learn not to leave things in a state that requires a tractor, it helps (like your crummy rusting equipment abandoned until it can no longer be driven or even hauled and has to be pried out of the thicket that has grown around it...for instance). If they could clear the American frontier without tractors, I can by God maintain one already operational ranch. It’s not pretty, but the cows are inside the fences and it makes enough money for me to support myself and my Dad. If you have done the carbon calculations and are intentional about it, maybe a tractor is okay for initial earthworks installation or whatever, but you don’t need to buy one. I also hate chainsaws and refuse to use them. Luckily I don’t have to have a day job so I can spend several hours sawing through a tree if I have to. Alas, I have to use my truck to haul it off the fence/road—maybe one day I’ll go all-in and get a team of oxen or hitch all my cousins up to the yoke or something.
 
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Zachary Morris wrote:Some days I wake up and say "I AM THE TRACTOR." At which time my dog barks and we show off in the mirror.

Others I think "Hmm, maybe a small tractor would be the way to go" and proceed to shovel shit n' huff rocks in a wheel barrow up a hill.

So that's basically the debate I'm encouraging, is a tractor necessary on a permaculture homestead/farm/ranch.

Is it still necessary on 5 acres? 2? 1?

What if you have a steep slope, or dense vegetation and trees?

I'm a young guy who's worked outdoors for the past decade and generally my first choice is always to put in the sweat in exchange for the savings. However I wouldn't be anywhere without my tools, and a Tractor, like my truck, is indeed another tool. Used properly I'd be willing to consider that it is in fact a better bang for my buck, especially as I earn better wages. Maybe it could even be a source of employment.

How do you feel? What're your circumstances?  



I've asked my question the same things and i'll share my logic for what it's worth.

#1 it's not about the tractor but what the attachments are.  Do you need those attachments?  There are mowers that fit a tractor and mowers you can push or ride, snowblowers that fit a tractor and ones you can push and i've even seen ones for ATV's, if you want a front end loader that might hook to a skid steer or a tractor clearly, if you want to tow something around the yard you might do that with an ATV or a pickup or a skid steer or a tractor.  So first i'd make a list of those attachments which seem like they would be real potential timesavers, including how a riding mower is going to be faster than a walkbehind clearly.

Whats your time worth?  When youre young you sometimes seem to have all the time in the world (unless you spend it all working) likewise when you're retired.

How is your health?  What you can do now might become alot harder as you age.  I'm disabled and have to plan special accomodations to do anything at all - I never planned to be and nobody ever does.  For that matter will critical work even get done if you break an ankle or something?  Or try shoveling snow with sciatica sometime when the snow blower is broken because the city is going to fine you for not clearing in front of your mailbox and they don't care if youre disabled and cant afford to hire someone and you'll learn to appreciate anything that can be mechanized alot where you mostly have to ride along and work some controls.

Compare up the total costs - not just money but hours spent and hours saved on your most common tasks, as well as hours to learn something.  For instance an old tractor might be cheap but need repairs and learning that might take time too.  A new tractor shouldn't need repairs but costs alot of money.


My own plan is either to go with or start with something called the LifeTrac - https://wiki.opensourceecology.org/wiki/LifeTrac - I actually helped brainstorm and work on some of the thinking parts before the guy(s) in charge went their own way and started ignoring other input.  That said the nature of open source is you can take what you want and change what doesn't fit your needs to create a branching project, which i'd love to do at some point.  It's basically a DIY tractor/skid steer combination, including DIY implements, with at least the tractor itself costing something like 1/10th to 1/20th what a normal tractor will despite doing most anything a normal tractor will do and without the wildcard of some 70 year old Ford tractor.  It's designed for extremely low servicing costs (max $250 for any one part other than the engine) via a hydraulic drive mechanism eliminating expensive pieces like transmissions and axles.

There are things I love about it and things i'd like to change about it for I think the better, but you can apparently build your own right now from the plans and discussions that have been had already.  When the cost of the tractor is absolutely reduced to the floor, it's hard to argue against the labor saving potential of it.



 
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I am personally a strong advocate for the merits of a tractor, but justifying one is highly dependent upon one’s individual circumstances, and especially related to the amount of land one owns.

Let me start by saying that on very small plots of land (under 1 acre) a 2-wheel or hand tractor can be extremely useful.  These are commonly configured as a heavy duty tiller, but they can be outfitted with all sorts of implements.  They are not necessarily cheap and a small 2-wheel tractor plus a couple of implements might set you back about $2500.  A larger one will cost $5000 for the tractor alone, so they are not exactly cheap, but they can be very, very useful.

On the other hand, if one has say between 1-5 acres, a subcompact or small compact tractor might suit you very well.  Expect to pay $10000 for the tractor itself and $2500-3500 for a loader.  Implements typically run between $500-$2000 apiece depending on exactly what you want (obviously this is a very generalized estimate and actual prices vary so do your homework and shop around).

Expect to pay at least $5000 for a backhoe and probably more.  I personally can’t justify a backhoe on my tractor and I don’t know many people who can. They are expensive and get used very infrequently.  For my purposes, if I need a backhoe, I will rent one.

A 2-wheel tractor can be very useful, but at the end of the day, you end up physically man-handling the machine and they might well end up being 1/2 the expense of a 4-wheel tractor.

A subcompact tractor looks like an overgrown riding mower but comes with a Diesel engine, basic hydraulics, mid and rear PTO’s and a rear 3 pt hitch.  I personally think that the loader is by far the most useful implement for the tractor.  I can do some basic digging, lift extremely heavy loads in excess of 500 pounds like it is not even there, serve as a sort of power wheel barrow, grade uneven ground, and the list never seems to end.  They can also run all sorts of different and highly useful implements such as finish mowers, roughmowers, box and grader blades and many, many more.  These tractors usually run about 25hp gross or 18hp at the PTO.

A small compact tractor has about the same HP as a subcompact and sometimes a little more.  The most obvious difference is the much larger rear tire size that tends to give more traction and gives a bit smoother ride.  They will run all the same implements and might have a few more bells and whistles.

All of the above information assumes a new tractor just to make an apples to apples comparison.  These tractors require some maintenance, but really it is not too bad at all.  I am pretty competent with tools, but mechanical maintenance is not my favorite things to do.  That being said, I don’t find it hard at all to do.  I have owned a utility tractor since 2005 and I have never had a major break down.  

I saw a previous post stating that a tractor would be uneconomical unless used for at least 1000 hours per year.  I must respectfully state that I have a different position entirely.  I like to think that the tractor pays for itself in terms of work I don’t have to do.  For example, the first snowfall after I moved into my new house was 10 inches of heavy, wet snow.  We have a 450’ driveway that I tried to clear with a garden tractor with a snow blade.  This machine was completely inadequate for the task and I ended up clearing much of the snow by hand!  It took me over 3 hours.  A month ago I cleared a similar amount in 15 minutes using a tractor with a grader blade.  I recently upgraded from a subcompact tractor to a 37hp medium sized tractor.  It used to take me all day to mow my 5 acres of tall grass.  I now do the same task in just 1 hour and I even use a fraction of the fuel to do so.  My point is that a tractor is an extremely useful tool that can drastically cut down your work load.

My final point/suggestion is to size the tractor to the job.  My first tractor (a JD2305 subcompact) was really too small for my 9 acres of land.  My present tractor (JD 2038r) is very nicely sized to my property.  Neither tractor significantly compacts my clay soil, though I do not use either in my garden.  Larger tractors might compact worse, but one may have a need for one.

Personally I find a tractor to be indispensable.  The tractor I currently own I purchased last spring and will be the last tractor I own so I bought one with a few extra bells and whistles and the ability to upgrade (think hydraulics).  At present I have a loader, a 7 ft grader blade, a 6’ rough cutter and have plans on getting a 5’ flail mower ( amazing mower!) and a grapple for picking up logs and working in the woods.  I can’t imagine having my property without a tractor and I think that even a person with only a very small amount of land (1-2 acres) can find an appropriate tractor that truly makes life easier on the homestead.

I have rambled on a bit more than I expected, but if anyone has any questions or challenges to my perspective, please feel free to ask/comment.

Eric
 
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Great thread, I liked the info about how much space you need to raise hay to feed 1-2 horses. With limited space, goats seem the biggest animals to keep on a homestead without resorting to buy food.

As for tractors, sure they are cool. But mostly oversized. I have a walking tractor (ancient Honda F800) which still doesn't run, with a trailer, which is what I use most. The trailer is tiltable and even with about 500-800 kg (earth/sand/stones/whatever) it is still possible to tilt it manually. Also you sit if the trailer is mounted, no need to walk. It is very helpful transporting wood logs if you make your own firewood. Only downside it is only front powered no 4x4. ;-( It uses very little fuel.

You still get various attachments for it brand new. Though there are people who built there own, there are some videos (youtube). Other walking tractors brands are Holder and Agria, the later still exists. If you need to move about +8000 kg of firewood yearly and your terrain is anything else then flat, machinery is pretty helpful. For this work and quite some other (construction/earth moving/etc), the Honda just needs about perhaps 8-10 l/year. I know tractors might use that or more in an hour.

Also your access path are important, there is were these small machines shine.
 
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Brian Shaw wrote:

Zachary Morris wrote:Some days I wake up and say "I AM THE TRACTOR." At which time my dog barks and we show off in the mirror.

Others I think "Hmm, maybe a small tractor would be the way to go" and proceed to shovel shit n' huff rocks in a wheel barrow up a hill.

So that's basically the debate I'm encouraging, is a tractor necessary on a permaculture homestead/farm/ranch.

Is it still necessary on 5 acres? 2? 1?

What if you have a steep slope, or dense vegetation and trees?
W
I'm a young guy who's worked outdoors for the past decade and generally my first choice is always to put in the sweat in exchange for the savings. However I wouldn't be anywhere without my tools, and a Tractor, like my truck, is indeed another tool. Used properly I'd be willing to consider that it is in fact a better bang for my buck, especially as I earn better wages. Maybe it could even be a source of employment.

How do you feel? What're your circumstances?  



I've asked my question the same things and i'll share my logic for what it's worth.

#1 it's not about the tractor but what the attachments are.  Do you need those attachments?  There are mowers that fit a tractor and mowers you can push or ride, snowblowers that fit a tractor and ones you can push and i've even seen ones for ATV's, if you want a front end loader that might hook to a skid steer or a tractor clearly, if you want to tow something around the yard you might do that with an ATV or a pickup or a skid steer or a tractor.  So first i'd make a list of those attachments which seem like they would be real potential timesavers, including how a riding mower is going to be faster than a walkbehind clearly.

Whats your time worth?  When youre young you sometimes seem to have all the time in the world (unless you spend it all working) likewise when you're retired.

How is your health?  What you can do now might become alot harder as you age.  I'm disabled and have to plan special accomodations to do anything at all - I never planned to be and nobody ever does.  For that matter will critical work even get done if you break an ankle or something?  Or try shoveling snow with sciatica sometime when the snow blower is broken because the city is going to fine you for not clearing in front of your mailbox and they don't care if youre disabled and cant afford to hire someone and you'll learn to appreciate anything that can be mechanized alot where you mostly have to ride along and work some controls.

Compare up the total costs - not just money but hours spent and hours saved on your most common tasks, as well as hours to learn something.  For instance an old tractor might be cheap but need repairs and learning that might take time too.  A new tractor shouldn't need repairs but costs alot of money.


My own plan is either to go with or start with something called the LifeTrac - https://wiki.opensourceecology.org/wiki/LifeTrac - I actually helped brainstorm and work on some of the thinking parts before the guy(s) in charge went their own way and started ignoring other input.  That said the nature of open source is you can take what you want and change what doesn't fit your needs to create a branching project, which i'd love to do at some point.  It's basically a DIY tractor/skid steer combination, including DIY implements, with at least the tractor itself costing something like 1/10th to 1/20th what a normal tractor will despite doing most anything a normal tractor will do and without the wildcard of some 70 year old Ford tractor.  It's designed for extremely low servicing costs (max $250 for any one part other than the engine) via a hydraulic drive mechanism eliminating expensive pieces like transmissions and axles.

There are things I love about it and things i'd like to change about it for I think the better, but you can apparently build your own right now from the plans and discussions that have been had already.  When the cost of the tractor is absolutely reduced to the floor, it's hard to argue against the labor saving potential of it.





Back when I had a larger farm, I had an old Alis Chalmers tractor, a brush hog, a post hole digger and a grading blade.

Nowadays we have a ZTR mower/lawn tractor and trailer. We have talked about getting a tractor that could run more implements, including a blade for snow removal. But I am hesitant. There’s the money aspect, of course. There’s also the carbon footprint. But, there’s also the fact that we are aging and mechanization IS helpful, even on smaller acreage.

So the LifeTrac concept appeals to me. But I couldn’t build one. I am insufficiently mechanical. Does anyone build and sell them?
 
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Myrth Montana wrote:

So the LifeTrac concept appeals to me. But I couldn’t build one. I am insufficiently mechanical. Does anyone build and sell them?



I dont know of any but then i've been out of the loop for quite a few years so maybe someone does by now.  I would think it should be possible to find discussion forums on the topic and post interest asking someone if they'll build a second for a given price?  That of course drops some of the savings to not DIY but it's still alot less than a normal unit.  Also the design of the tractor is designed to be FAR simpler than many normal designs - the box frame out of box mild steel extrusions with things just directly bolted onto it like assembling Lego.  The intended mechanical knowledge level is lower than many normal things by design.

If it matters I am not sure if there have been direct head to head performance comparisons with 'conventional' units per se yet - I remember way back when it first came out (I was on board before the first was even built) some people expressed some doubts about how well it would work under certain conditions.  For me I dont care - i'm not in the market for a $20,000 tractor, i'm in the market for "as much as a LifeTrac can do is what i'll be settling for probably", because it's alot more than what I can do without one, and hopefully enough to get from here when i'm poorer to there when i'm more able to look at 'serious gear' if things expand beyond a certain level.

I've definately wanted to make my own versions of the tractor though...  one of my biggest (ignored) suggestions was to design in compatibility with existing off the shelf implements, reconfigurable or with some kind of modular interchangeable connection to cover ALL the proprietary hitch types.  Before things were standardized I think sometime in the 70's, the small Ford implements wouldn't work with the others, as everyone had their own 'locked in' implements to buy.  My idea was instead of building every implement from scratch, let people access the used implement market from all these, and hook it to this tractor.  I had many others I thought good that i'd love to engineer given the time, but I dont have the time anymore.
 
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