Tractor Buying Tips

What to look for when buying a compact!

Whether you grew-up on the farm or just moved to your first rural retreat – there’s a lot to consider when thinking about the purchase of a tractor for your property. There may be some tractor terms or John Deere features that you aren’t familiar with. Most often tractors are categorized by horsepower, however – when initially buying a machine you may not know how much horsepower is right for you. We’ve put the following information together to help!

Here are a few questions to ask yourself:


First Steps

The first step in choosing the compact or utility tractor right for you is by first determining what tasks or chores you expect it to handle.

What chores would you like to accomplish?

  • Mowing? Loader work? Ditching? Fence Building? Snow Removal? Tilling? Grading?

Depending on how much or how often you are performing certain tasks will help determine what tractor is right for you. Will you be doing loader work? Mowing? Both? Perhaps a model with a quick-attach loader or auto-connect deck would be best to switch from one task to the other easily. Just doing loader work? Perhaps a larger frame model to lift and move more would be best.

The great thing is there are a wide range of models to best suit your needs.

What implements/attachments are needed to accomplish those chores?

  • Mower deck? Finishing Mower? Rotary Cutter? Backhoe? Post-hole auger? Snow blower? Tiller? Box or Rear Blade?

    John Deere and Frontier provide many implements and attachments for all series of tractors to tackle nearly every task or to make regular tasks easier. Click here for more info on Frontier Implements.

What are the power requirements of those implements/attachments?

One of the most common way to measure a tractor’s capabilities is by considering its horsepower…too little, and you may not be able to handle all the chores you’d like, while too much power may mean you sacrifice fuel efficiency. As a rule it’s better to have slightly more power than you think you’ll need – if you have just the minimum horsepower to operate your implement, your machine will be in a constant state of strain – and won’t allow you the opportunity to grow should your needs change.

  • Often power implements like tillers or snow blowers have minimum horse power requirements to work at their best. If you are planning to use certain implements, a great way to determine how much horsepower your tractor should have is by finding out how much horsepower is needed to run the implements.
  • What are your future plans or the property or your machine? Are there tasks/implements or power requirements you need to consider down the road?

    Engine vs PTO Horsepower

    As you’re comparing models and manufacturers, make sure you know how the manufacturer reports horsepower. Currently, there’s no industry standard governing how horsepower is reported. Be sure to check when comparing specs – a straight comparison of figures may not give you the most accurate idea of the tractor’s capabilities.

    Engine Horsepower – is the power that engine of the tractor is able to produce. In recent years many manufacturers have adopted the practice of naming models of tractors to reflect approximate horsepower.

    A John Deere1023E for example has approximately 23 (22.4) engine hp.

    PTO Horsepower – simply put, PTO (or Power-take-off) is the rotating shaft at the rear of the tractor that rotary implements like cutters are powered by. The PTO is driven through a series of gear cases and is a truer indication of the actual useable power of the tractor. Think of it in the same way as measuring a car’s horsepower at the wheels, versus where the motor meets the transmission. The power at the wheel is the useable power. Typically the PTO horsepower is about 15%-20% less than its engine horsepower depending on the size of tractor and its gearing/drivetrain.

What are the comfort and convenience requirements you’re looking for in a tractor?

  • Seating? Lights? Accessories? Cruise Control? Power Steering? Power Lift? Quick-attaching implements?

If you’re more likely to be blowing snow early in the morning, or later in the afternoon – a good lighting system might be a consideration. Front mount or rear snow blower? Wait. Snow? A cab would be nice. Which models have cabs available?

Various models offer a variety of options all tailored to make your experience more convenient and enjoyable. Be sure to ask us about what options might be available.

What other logistics or preferences need consideration?

  • Will it fit in my garage or on my landscape trailer?

    • Are there any size restrictions where you might store the tractor?

    • Will you need to move the tractor regularly to another property? Are there size/weight restrictions you should consider?

  • How do you view your property care tasks? How you approach your tasks may also lead you to some of the features or models available.
    • “I love being outside, but I don’t have a lot of time – so I need a machine that has the size and the features to get the job done fast!”
    • “My property is my passion…I’m happiest if I’m outside working on it all day! I’m looking for something that helps me get the job done, but I don’t need all the bells and whistles.”

Knowing your preferences or logistical considerations helps to ensure that you are selecting the right machine for you.

Terms or other things you might not be familiar with:

Hydrostatic vs. Manual Transmission

Why is transmission selection important?

Depending on how often you need to change speeds or what kind of distances you’re travelling between task or what kind of terrain you are covering will help you determine what type of transmission is the best for you.

How far is the mulch or manure pile from where you’re spreading or gardening? You’ll need to go slow when loading, but perhaps need to pick-up speed to get to the flowerbed at the end of the driveway without taking all day.  The ability to easily speed-up/slow-down will really count. And of course, what are you familiar/comfortable with? Here are a few notes on transmissions to consider.

Hydrostatic Transmission

In the marketplace today the vast majority of tractors under 50 Hp feature hydrostatic transmissions. Hydraulic transmissions use hydraulic (fluid) pressure to propel the tractor (via valves, pumps and gears) more than a traditional clutch and gears like in a manual transmission. Hydrostatic transmissions have proven to be a durable, powerful and easy-to-use. They’ve become popular because of their automotive like use, featuring push pedals for forward and reverse, or a forward/reverse lever with pedals for speed and brakes.

Manual Transmission

Manual transmissions have stood the test of time when it comes to utility tractors. Manual transmissions require clutching (or some form of it – electronic for example) to move from gear to gear.

What does synchronized mean when it comes to transmissions?

Non-synchronized – best suited for constant speed jobs – mowing, tilling, etc. Requires stopping and clutching to shift between gears and ranges.

Partially synchronized – allows you to clutch certain different speeds and/or ranges without having to stop the tractor.

Fully synchronized – the easiest of the manual-type transmissions, these allow you to clutch, then shift on the go between any speed or range.

What’s a SyncReverser, PowrReverser or Shuttle Shift?

If your chores include a lot of repetitive loader work – you’ll get to know your shuttle shift well. The shuttle shift allows you to shift from forward to reverse, without having to change the gears in the range or speed you are going. SyncReverser transmissions allow you to shift from forward to reverse within a range by clutching and shifting the forward/reverse lever. PowrReverser transmissions feature a little orange lever on the left hand side of the steering wheel that electronically allows you to shift from forward to reverse without having to come to a stop or clutching.

Tractor Transmissions in General

What are all the levers for?

Don’t let all the levers, letters and numbers intimidate you. They relate to ranges and speeds within a range. Ranges are identified by letters – A,B,C – the further down the alphabet, the higher the range. Speeds within the range are identified by numbers – 1,2,3.


MFWD – Mechanical Front Wheel Drive – John Deere’s way of saying 4 wheel drive on garden, compact and utility tractors. Significance of mechanical – is that John Deere offered a hydraulic version for a period of time, mechanical simply indicates that the drive system happens how you’d traditionally expect via drive shafts, differentials, etc. John Deere categorizes it’s line of large articulating field crop tractors as 4-wheel-drive. 

ROPS – Roll-Over Protection Structure – the safety frame behind/above the operator’s station ensuring roll-over protection in the case of operating on a steep grade or misuse of loader or other implement that may cause the tractor to tip over. Nearly every John Deere model has a folding ROPS to provide the ability to get into shorter spaces (parking in your garage, or trimming under trees, etc.) It’s always a good idea to consult the safety pages in your owner’s manual to proper use and best practices.

3 PT Hitch – 3-point-hitch, universal system for attaching implements to the back of tractors. A 3 PT Hitch consists of two lower links (the draft links) which have the ability to be raised and lowered via hydraulic cylinders/power and an upper link in the centre – creating 3 points of contact – minimizing roll and allowing you to adjust the pitch of your implement so that when it contacts the ground it remains level.

PTO – Power Take Off – the external gear or connection from the tractor that is used to power implements such as mowers, augers, snow blowers, tillers, speaders, etc. The PTO drive spline or gear comes in two configurations – 540 and 1000, which refers to how many revolutions it makes in a minute. A 540 drive spline has 6 cogs, and a 1000 drive spline has 20 or 21 depending on the size of tractor/implement.

PTO Shaft – the drive-line/drive shaft that goes from the tractor’s PTO drive to the powertrain/main gear-box of the PTO powered implement.

Hydraulic SCV – Selective Control Valve – the hydraulic connection on the tractor used to power hydraulic functions on things like loaders, the angle or direction of the chute on your snow blower, or raising/lowering your mower deck. The more sophisticated the implement you want to run, or number of tasks you want to do at the same time will dictate how many SCVs you should consider having. SCVs typically are found in the middle and the rear of tractors.