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Tractors: The Backbone of the Farm

The astonishing production capability of modern agriculture can, in no small part, be attributed to the tractor. Once the internal combustion engine hit the farm, there was no turning back. Farms grew bigger, with farmers able to cover more ground faster. Cash crops replaced oats needed for horses. Family size became smaller as less labor was needed to farm.

Rural America was forever changed.

Today’s tractors are incredible, amazing, powerful feats of mechanical engineering and precision. Read on to learn more.

Manufacturers unveil new tractors

New innovations in tractor technology are coming out all the time. In other words, it’s not your grandpa’s tractor anymore. In 2018, equipment manufactures seemed to focus on combines. In 2019, their shift has turned to tractors. Sales are up nearly 5%, and the new models offer innovative possibilities.

CASE IH unveiled its AFS Connect Magnum series at the National Farm Machinery Show, with its updated exterior and cab design and improved precision technology.

Other manufacturers feature versatility to perform multiple operations around the farm, along with improved precision technology.

John Deere’s new 6230R and 6250R models focus on the needs of livestock and hay producers with an infinitely variable transmission (IVT) that allows the machine to accelerate quickly, haul heavy loads, and reach optimal transport speed in a hurry, making it perfect for baling and hauling hay. An improved factory-installed command center works smarter and adds to driver comfort.

John Deere also has updates to its largest lineup of tractors. The new John Deere 9R series offers 120-inch track spacing and 30- and 36-inch tracks to help reduce field compaction and increase stability on hilly ground. A new command center and software upgrade is geared toward saving fuel and allowing more acres to be covered in less time by reducing overlap. A hydraulic kit, in either factory or field installed versions, helps manage implements that require continuous hydraulic power. The kit is retrofittable on some older models.

Plenty of used tractors available

For farmers put off by that new tractor price, dealers have plenty of used models to offer, especially if it’s a chore tractor you’re after. The used 130- to 150-hp. machines are perfect for running a batwing mower, pushing a snow blade, running an auger, or pulling a grain wagon. Midsize 60- to 120-hp. models work great as a utility tractor on your acreage. The larger models can be a better buy, since they have likely seen less wear and tear spending their lives in the field as opposed to doing odd jobs.

Prices are generally reasonable, but beware – models from the 1970s are beginning to catch the collector’s eye. If you’re unsure of the value, check out the Iron Solutions Inc. appraisal service at

Dealers wanting to move their new tractor inventory are offering good trade-in prices on those late model 250- to 400-hp. front-wheel-drive models. That also means if you are shopping for one of those tractors, you’re going to pay more than in the past couple of years.

That leaves buyers and sellers asking some hard questions as they assess their equipment needs. Everything from technology needs to warranty status to income estimates based on next year’s projected commodity prices factor into the decision, so make sure to do your homework before you hit the dealer’s sales lot.

Proper tractor maintenance

Keeping a tractor well maintained will not only give you better use of the machine but will increase its trade-in value.

It’s not unusual to see white smoke coming from the tailpipe when starting a diesel engine in cold weather, but if it doesn’t disappear after the engine warms up you may have a problem. Issues could involve timing, malfunctioning injectors, or a plugged crankcase breather, or a host of other fuel system issues.

If smoke is black or gray, check for adequate airflow and double-check fuel quality and grade. Blue smoke is generally a sign of an engine burning excess oil.

Ballast matters. To get the most horsepower transferred to the ground, make sure the tractor ballast is set before it is ever used, based on the tractor’s main intended use. The experts vary on the recommended slippage, but agree tire inflation pressure has become even more important as tires have gotten larger, and compaction from too much weight can lead to significant yield decreases. It’s best to check your owner’s manual and keep an eye on performance to make adjustments.

If you have an older model tractor, you may have outdated lighting. The technology has improved significantly the past few years. LED lights are now all the rage, and most tractors can be retrofitted. Known for their energy efficiency, longer life, and light output that offers minimal shadows and light color that resembles sunlight, LEDs can be worth the extra cost.

The debate over tires vs. tracks

Tires or tracks. The debate continues. Each producer and equipment dealer has a preference. But there is solid information to consider beyond personal opinion.

In field demonstrations, Firestone has proved the advanced deflection design tires, both flex (IF) and very-high flex (VF), can offer increased traction with reduced inflation pressure. More traction means better operational efficiency realized in savings on fuel, labor, and time. The tires can also reduce compaction, aiding in achieving maximum yields.

Others claim tracks provide benefits, and the Canadian Camso company offers the Camso Conversion Track System (CTS) that makes replacing tractor wheels with tracks a timely and efficient operation. Camso claims replacing wheels with tracks reduces ground pressure by 65% and increases soil absorbency in their wake.

Tractor history

Invention of the tractor is credited to Benjamin Holt, an American inventor who patented the first practical crawler type tractor.

The first incarnation of the modern gasoline-powered tractor was built by John Froelich in 1892 in Clayton County, Iowa. A Van Duzen single-cylinder engine was mounted on a Robinson engine chassis controlled by a simple gearbox and was capable of moving both forward and backward. Steam engine tractors, credited to Thomas Aveling, had been in limited use since 1858.

It was 1902 before Froelich manufactured tractors on a large scale.

Tractors were slow to catch on at first, but once they did, growth was phenomenal. From 1910 to 1970 tractor production increased from 1,000 tractors to nearly 5 million.

It was 1912 when John Deere dealers realized leading the market in sales of plows and other implements was not enough; it needed a tractor to complete the line. The resulting three-wheel All-Wheel-Drive tractor boasted heavy drive chains for outstanding traction and fuel efficiency, a friction drive transmission, and a high-speed four-cylinder engine. But farmers, used to horse and mule power, found the stylized machine pretty pricey. Only 90 were manufactured.

In 1918, Deere purchased the Waterloo Gasoline Engine Company in Waterloo, Iowa, and the simple, cheap to produce Waterloo Boy tractor took off, securing John Deere’s place in American tractor history and the industry.

The story of tractor design since the early 20th century is one of constant improvement and innovation. Simple, rugged two-cylinder machines steadily evolved, adding horsepower and features like power take offs, hydraulic power lift systems, high crop carriages, one-piece transmissions, and rubber tires to replace steel wheels.

Companies began producing tractors of different sizes for different sized farming operations and needs.

By mid-century, farmers wanted four-cylinder gas and diesel engines, high horsepower to weight ratios, and enclosed cabs for comfort.

In the late 1980s a focus on increased agriculture production brought high horsepower machines with dual and triple wheels that had difficulty traveling off road. Case IH developed the four-track Quadtrac tractor. The line continued to develop to meet farmers’ needs and now includes Steiger Quadtracs, the Steiger Rowtrac, and the Case IH Magnum Rowtrac series. The tractors specialize in handling heavy loads at high speeds while providing a smooth ride and minimal ground disturbance.

The latest tractor models introduced feature turbocharged high horsepower engines and rugged machinery construction with the latest technology inside and outside the cab. Driverless tractors are predicted to take their place in the field within the next decade.

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