How to Choose the Right Utility Tractor

A John Deere tractor.
AP Photo/Sara D. Davis

If you're serious about your lawn and garden, sooner or later, it's bound to happen -- your ambitions will outstrip your muscles, and you'll face a choice: Give up on your home and garden plans, or get some help.

Fortunately, when it comes to hobby farming, ranching or even just routine lawn care, there's plenty of help to be had -- big metal help, often in a certain shade of green.


While you may associate tractors with large farms, the fact is that tractors come in all shapes and sizes. Odds are, even if you just have a few acres, there are a number of utility tractors that could help make your life easier. And a tractor's usefulness goes well beyond plowing and tilling fields. With the proliferation of available attachments, today's utility tractor can handle whatever you can throw at it, from moving and spreading manure, clearing snow, digging post holes and, oh yeah, tilling soil and clearing brush, too.

Of course, with so many tractors able to handle so many jobs, finding the right tractor for your needs can be confusing. We'll help you determine how to choose the right utility tractor for your needs.


Assessing Your Utility Tractor Needs

The initial step in choosing the right utility tractor is to take a good honest look at what you need one for in the first place. Now, if your lawn care is limited to mowing an acre or two of grass each weekend, you probably don't need a utility tractor -- a simple lawn and garden tractor will likely work for you. These machines can do some light towing and may even have a few useful attachments like a snow blower, for instance. However, they probably won't have a three-point hitch for more complex attachments, and they likely won't have power take off (PTO) either.

If your home and garden includes extensive areas of brush, pasture, as well as livestock and even large gardens, you may find that a subcompact or compact tractor works for you. Subcompact and compact tractors generally have horsepower ratings from 15 to 50 horsepower, two-speed transmissions and may even have available attachments like small hay balers. They also tend to come with a PTO and a three-point hitch. You can also usually find compact and subcompact utility tractors with four-wheel drive and diesel engines.


When you've gone way beyond typical lawn care needs, and say, own a small farm, you'll likely need more than what a compact utility tractor can provide. Enter the utility tractor. This type of machine goes one better than compact and subcompact utility tractors. Like its smaller brothers, the utility tractor offers a PTO and a three-point hitch, but it also has more horsepower -- generally between 45 and 110 horsepower. This type of tractor is extremely useful on small farms, but even larger operations may have a use for a smaller tractor that can handle jobs where it might be tough to get a larger machine in place.

Utility Tractor Transmissions

Farmer Mel Babbert, age 75, climbs into his tractor on land he farms near Canal Winchester, Ohio.
AP Photo/Paul Vernon

If you've ever been stuck behind a belching, lurching tractor on a country road, you might think that operating one of these machines is hard work. And, to a degree, it is -- you definitely need to know what you're doing. Still, since most utility tractors are designed for consumer use, they can actually be quite a comfortable place to do your home and garden chores.

Some buyers may be concerned about having to deal with using a tractor with a manual transmission for lawn care. Since most Americans don't drive a car with a standard transmission, and driving a car with a manual transmission at slow speeds is more difficult than it is at high speeds, driving a tractor with a manual transmission slowly around your lawn and garden can be pretty intimidating.


Luckily, it doesn't have to be. While some utility tractors still have manual transmissions, most large tractors now have Continuously Variable Transmissions (CVTs). To the driver, CVTs operate like an automatic, though under the hood they use an infinite range of gear ratios, instead of a set number. However, odds are you won't be able tell the difference between the feel of an automatic and a CVT on a tractor.

A benefit of a utility tractor with a CVT is that a tractor's powertrain isn't just used to move the tractor from point A to point B. It's also used to power various attachments. In a tractor, a CVT always delivers the right amount of power to the attachment -- something that a human operator with a manual transmission may not always be able to do. While tractors with manual transmissions do fine, for less experienced buyers, one with a CVT may be easier to live with. A more reliable and flexible model has been introduced that performs above and beyond the CVT models. The Hydrostatic transmission feels like an automatic to the driver, while allowing for any possible transmission speed. This also allows for rapid change of direction as well.


Utility Tractor Engines

If you're like most people, when you hear horsepower, you think cars, not lawn and garden care. Of course, if you're looking for a utility tractor, you may actually begin to think about actual horses. But when you compare the horsepower rating of car engines to the horsepower ratings of tractors, you'll see there's a big difference. You may wonder, how can something with just 50 horsepower get anything done?

Horsepower isn't quite as important to tractors as it is to cars. Horsepower is what keeps a vehicle moving once it's up to speed. However, if you remember your physics, an object in motion wants to stay in motion -- it doesn't really take much effort to keep the motion up.


On the other had, an object at rest wants to stay at rest. And when that object is a tractor pulling a heavy load, it will take a lot of power to initially get it moving. That's where torque comes in. Torque is the amount of force an engine generates to get a vehicle moving. Of course, torque isn't always used to get a tractor moving. It also refers to the engine's rotational power, and that's what powers attachments. When shopping for a tractor for your home and garden, pay attention to the torque rating. The more torque an engine has, the better it is at giving power to attachments at low engine speeds. That means less engine wear and tear (since you won't have to rev the engine to get your work done), less fuel will be used and it'll be less likely to stall, too. In short, having more engine torque means the tractor can do its work more efficiently.

Because tractor engines have different uses than car engines, diesel engines are more common. Diesel engines tend to make more torque than gasoline engines, and they tend to be more durable.


Ease of Using Utility Tractor Attachments

A lawn tractor with accessories attached.
AP Photo/Carl D. Walsh

The biggest benefit of a utility tractor over a light-duty lawn and garden tractor is that a utility tractor can do a lot more than mow your lawn. That's because utility tractors can run a variety of attachments that help you get work done around your home and garden and go way beyond lawn care.

Utility tractors can handle an array of attachments because they come with three-point hitches and a power take-off (PTO). A three-point hitch attaches to an implement and holds it in place. It can also raise the implement and lower it, too. A PTO is a shaft that runs from the tractor to the implement and takes the tractors engine power and transfers it to the attachment. It's what makes it so your tractor can run an auger, mow and bale hay and blow snow.


Generally, using these attachments is fairly plug-and-play. However you should always keep in mind that you're dealing with heavy equipment. Training is essential. Most equipment dealers have clinics showing owners how to use all of the attachments, and if you're out in the country, odds are your neighbors have similar equipment and they can show you how difficult or simple it is to use. Plus, tractor and trade shows are great places to educate yourself. Your local agriculture extension office may also have training programs on using tractor attachments.

Utility Tractor Safety Features

Since tractors are extremely powerful pieces of equipment, it's important to be safe around them. Remember, a tractor is tough. It's designed to go over rough terrain, and implements like brush mowers are designed to run right over and destroy heavy pieces of debris. In other words, they'll have no problem running over and destroying you, too. When you're working with a tractor, lawn and garden safety goes well beyond wearing eye protection and keeping your toes away from your push mower's blade.

When you're shopping for a utility tractor for your home and garden needs, make sure to check out available safety equipment. Tractors, because they're tall and thin, can often be tippy. Make sure to get one with a Roll Over Protection Structure -- that will help lower the risk of the tractor rolling over on you when you're just trying to get a little lawn care done.


A common tractor accident involves the operator getting run over. These accidents usually happen when the operator hooks up an implement on the ground, and then starts the tractor before getting in the driver's seat. The tractor can lurch forward, running over the operator. To help prevent this, look for a tractor that locks the ignition when the PTO is engaged. That locked ignition will mean that you have to get in the driver's seat or cab to start the tractor, keeping you out of harm's way.

Also look for a tractor with good visibility. When working, you want to be able to see as much of your surroundings as possible. A lot of tractor accidents are the result of operators not seeing other people or hazards in the area.

That brings us to the next point: the most important safety feature on any tractor is your own common sense. Don't operate a tractor near children or unsecured animals. Before working, take a walk around the area first. If you're going to be mowing, look for and remove large rocks -- a tractor's mower blades spin at 200 miles per hour (322 kilometers per hour) -- plenty fast to launch rocks hundreds of feet where they can injure people and damage property. Also, be careful operating a tractor on hills or around ditches and water. Always keep a cell phone handy when working, but only use it to call for help, otherwise it's just another distraction.

Having a utility tractor can make working your property easier and more rewarding, but it also introduces a lot of power to the work you do. Be careful with it.

For more information about utility tractors and other related topics, follow the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Burner, Ken. "How to Select a Compact Tractor." Mother Earth News. April/May 2002. (March 20, 2010)
  • DeVault, George. "Tractor Safety is No Accident." Mother Earth News. April/May 2005. (March 20, 2010)
  • Ekarius, Carol. "Taking on a Tractor." Hobby Farms Magazine. December/January 2004. (March 20, 2010)
  • Griepentrog, Troy. "Two-Wheeled Tractors: Just Right for the Homestead." Mother Earth News. June 17, 2009. (March 20, 2010)
  • Hobby Farms Magazine. "Tractor Terminology." (March 20, 2010)
  • Mother Earth News. "Mother's Handbook: Choosing and Using a Tractor, Part I." November/December 1985. (March 20, 2010)
  • Will, Hank. "Frontier Announces New Tractor-Mounted Snow Blowers." Grit. Aug. 8, 2009. (March 2010)
  • Will, Hank. "New CVT Transmission In Farmall Compact Tractors." Grit. July 22, 2009. (March 20, 2010)