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Key considerations for making your next tractor purchase.

“Tractors aren’t sexy.” Tell that to country music crooners and it’ll take a toll on their achy-breaky hearts. Tell that to cattlemen and they’ll agree it’s all about business when making an investment on a tractor for their operation.

Whether a cattle producer has 20 or 2,000 head, it’s important to figure out what is needed from a machine before beginning the search for a tractor.

“One of the first things to look at is how much you’re going to use the tractor and what you’re going to use it for,” says Justin Raski, mid-range tractor marketing manager in the Dairy and Livestock Brand Marketing division for New Holland Agriculture. “When it comes to size of the tractor it all depends on what you’re doing.”

This will help determine what size will be needed to adequately handle chores and run implements such as hay equipment and feed wagons. Buy a tractor too small and it’ll cost you on capabilities; buy one too big and pay extra for unnecessary power.

“When we talk to cattle producers, a key factor that plays in is how well it runs their power take-off (PTO) implements,” says Brad Tolbert, division marketing manager, John Deere Waterloo Tractor Works. “The answer lies in how much horsepower is needed to operate them.”

If a producer plans to trade out a single piece of his or her equipment fleet at a time, it is essential that future implement purchase decisions be kept in mind.

“If you’re looking to upgrade implements, look ahead,” Raski says. “The tractor has to be capable of lasting as well as being the correct size.”

Easy upkeep

In a recent survey conducted by Case IH, ease of maintenance is at the top of the list for livestock producers when it comes to equipment purchases.

If a producer plans on doing the majority of mechanical work himself, Raski recommends finding a more mechanical line that includes less electronics and more basic features.

“When you get into more modern tractors, everything tends to be more electronic, and unless you have certain equipment to troubleshoot, you’re going to need a dealer to help you,” he says. “But if you are only wanting to do simple service tasks like change the oil and filters yourself, leaving major mechanical work to someone else, having more electronics won’t be an issue.”

Over the years, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been cracking down on emission requirements for non-road diesel engines by adopting a series of multiple emission standards. The first federal standard, Tier 1, was passed in 1994 to limit particulate matter emissions, and that was followed by the more stringent Tier 2 and Tier 3 standards. Due to sulfur content in non-road diesel fuels not being limited by environmental regulations for Tiers 1 through 3, the ruling of Tier 4 standards in 2004 called for more extensive engine redesign to work with new EPA sulfur-content restrictions.

This includes Tier 4A, which began its phase-in process in 2008 and is expected to be complete by 2015.

There are different approaches to reaching the Tier 4A emissions level, two of which include using a selective catalytic reduction (SCR) system and which leaves the engine alone and installs a diesel exhaust fluid injector and SCR catalyst on the exhaust side to remove nitrogen oxides, or using a cooled exhaust gas recirculation (EGR) with a diesel particulate filter (DPF) system to recirculate exhaust gasses back into the engine to help decrease nitrogen oxides and eliminate particulate matter.

“A DPF is added to the tractor on the exhaust side of the engine that is designed to capture the particulate matter coming out of the engine. That particulate filter is designed to work based on the heat inside the filter to cause a chemical reaction to break down the particulate matter and capture essentially the soot in the filter,” Raski says. “Generally speaking, filters have a lifespan of about 3,000 hours before they need replaced.”

This requires regeneration. While not all manufacturers’ engines operate the same, Raski explains, there are three types of regeneration that are common for engines with over 75 horsepower.

Passive regeneration: At around 800° F, the chemical reaction occurs, slowly breaking down particulates. This will occur naturally.

Active regeneration:  At around 1,200° F, the diesel fuel is injected into the exhaust stroke of the engine or it’s injected into the DPF to drive that temperature even further.

Active forced regeneration:  This requires the operator to shut down PTO applications and hydraulics, moving the engine into idle to initiate the regeneration. Diesel fuel will be injected directly into the exhaust stroke of the engine or the DPF, driving up the heat of the filter. This can last anywhere from 20 to 30 minutes.

According to Raski, manufacturers are already preparing for the initiation of Tier 4B, which is even more stringent to the point where an operator can run a Tier 4B-compliant tractor for 180 days and produce the same amount of emissions as a Tier 1 machine would in just one day. He also says there have been signs that this will move up to a hybrid system of the cooled EGR and SCR methods to meet emission standards.

For the do-it-yourself producers, emission equipment on a tractor means calling in help from a dealer.

“Legally, a customer is not allowed to work on any part of an emissions component. Those components should be serviced by certified dealers since there are legal implications through emissions requirements,” Raski says. “Unfortunately, a customer who is mechanically inclined and really wants to work on a tractor himself will have to start relying more and more on the dealer.”

Comfort and safety

“A big difference between a row-crop farmer and a cattle producer is the amount of time spent in a tractor,” Tolbert says. “The row-crop producer will be in the tractor for long hours during planting and harvest seasons, but the cattle producer will be in and out of a tractor for a few hours every day of the year doing chores, and longer hours at a time during hay season.”

Something as simple as control placements can save a producer from constantly reaching. It’s also important to keep safety in mind. Tractors with sloped hoods are designed for more visibility on the front end, and some tractors are designed with high-visibility panels.

The transmission can play a huge role in comfort as well. While a basic gear transmission requires using the clutch for gear changes, a continuously variable transmission allows the operator to move through different gears, only using the clutch to remove the tractor from park.

“It’s a great transmission for baling,” Raski says. “It’s easy to adjust speed for the amount of crop feeding into the baler.”

New or used

Not one cattle operation in the country is the same as another, making each producer’s decision whether to purchase a new or used tractor different. According to Tolbert, the decision all boils down to how the user wants to manage his or her business.

“A new tractor isn’t a better purchase than a used one, and a used tractor isn’t a better purchase than a new machine — it all depends on the individual customer,” he says. “By running new equipment you’re operating something you know is under warranty, service expenses are minimized and you have control of what options are available for the machine, whereas a used tractor may have a reconditioning cost, but the initial purchase price will be less.”

Regardless of their preference, Tolbert says equipment dealers are a good source for producers to utilize when finding the tractor that best suits their operation.

For a cattle producer, investing in the right tractor may not be the first business decision that comes to mind when preparing operational plans each year, but it is an important decision that will affect one’s ability to operate efficiently and safely, and will impact the financial bottom line. Making a list of equipment and use requirements, and keeping upkeep and maintenance in mind, will help keep the gears turning on this critical farm or ranch investment decision.

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