Compact Tractor Buying Guide

In this article we provide detailed compact tractor information including history, types, tractor brands, features, attachments, resources, and buying advice.

Compact Tractor

If you’re a homestead owner who wants to maintain and improve your property, you’re going to need some equipment to help get the job done. Since you’ve arrived at this article, you’ve probably already figured that you need a tractor of some kind, and you’re probably on the right track with that thinking.

More than 250,000 small tractors are purchased every year in the United States alone, and millions of units are already in service. Small tractors (known to the tractor industry as compact utility tractors) are very popular with homeowners thanks to their size, price, ease of use, versatility, and capability. Compact tractors are considered ideal for acreage owners with around 1-100 acres of property.

Homesteads like this one can become idyllic with the help of a compact tractor.

Brief History of Small Tractors

The first tractors ever produced were relatively small machines with horsepower in line with what you’d see in today’s compact utility tractors, even though they were designed for farm use. Therein lies the kicker, of course: Back in the early 1900s, farms were a lot smaller, so a small tractor was a perfect fit. As farms grew in size so did the equipment, and as homeowners moved from small scale agricultural professions to industrial jobs, the need for small tractors was passed by the efficiency of larger equipment that could farm much larger plots in the same amount of time. Farm tractors were born and small tractor needs were largely filled by the abundant supply of early machines still in service.

Early 20th century small tractors looked like this Farmall Cub.

As tractors got bigger and yards got smaller, homeowners wound up taking on fewer tasks and lawn and garden tractors (riding mowers) exploded in popularity. These little miniature tractors found their way into suburban life and remain to this day for homeowners whose needs are limited to basic yard and garden maintenance capability from their equipment.

It wasn’t until the early-1970s that the tractor world started to come full circle in a sense, when a Japanese manufacturer named Kubota brought their tiny little tractors that were popular in Japan, to the United States. For acreage homeowners and professionals alike, the versatility of a small tractor with 4-wheel drive, hydraulics, and powered implements was an instant hit. Since these small Kubota tractors had the same types of features of larger utility-size tractors, they were dubbed compact (or compact utility) tractors. 

Modern Compact Tractors

Building on the success of the early compact tractors, today’s popular modern compact tractors have evolved into easy to use, powerful, durable homestead tools that most owners would consider essential to their lifestyle. Perhaps soon you will agree!

Compact Tractors vs Other Tractors


When you say the word “tractor” to somebody, maybe images of a big farm tractor out in a 500-acre field come to mind. But thanks to the universal nature of the word, the definition of tractor is very broad. There are many different types of tractors, and orienting yourself towards the right size and type of tractor for your needs is the first step toward getting a tractor of your own.

We’ve already made an introduction of compact utility tractors as being great for homesteading, but here is a brief description of each type of popular tractor class:


Most L&G tractors (like this Husqvarna) are rear-wheel-drive gas-powered riding mowers with light duty implement options.  Typically horsepower range is 10-25.

Price range: $1,000 - $10,000


The smallest of all compact tractors, subcompact tractors are lightweight but capable and feature hydraulics, a PTO, 4WD, and a ROPS. Horsepower range: 15-25. This John Deere 2305 is a popular choice for homeowners.

Price range: $10,000 - $20,000 with attachments


This Kubota L series tractor fits into the broad compact utility category of 25-50 horsepowertractors.

Price range: $15,000-$40,000


Utility tractors like this New Holland Workmaster are generally in the 50-100 horsepower range. A dividing line between compact utility tractors and utility tractors is when the 3-point hitch size increases from Category 1 to Category 2 (larger link ends to accommodate heavier implements).

Price range: $20,000 - $50,000


Once tractor power exceeds 100 horsepower (like this Zetor), there's little doubt that they are designed for agricultural tasks. Within the ag tractor size range there are multiple categories as well, with some machines reaching 500 horsepower or more.

Price range: $30,000 and up

Compact Tractor Features

Like every motorized vehicle, tractors have an engineered configuration that defines and enables their capabilities. A basic tractor will be built with a steel frame that has a drivetrain (engine and transmission) mounted to it, which will be connected to transfer cases that power wheels. That will get your tractor to drive around, but a few key features take things to the next level:
 

Hydraulics

A hydraulic system comprised of a pump, reservoir, and lines generate a high-pressure system for powering implements that use hydaulic cylinders to move, tilt, or and lift (example: front-end loader).

Power Take-off (PTO)

The PTO is a fast-rotating spindle connected to the tractor’s power source that, when connected to, powers rotating implements like mowers, tillers, snowblowers, and similar high-speed or blade-equipped implements.

3-Point Hitch

The 3-point hitch is the hitch on the back of the tractor that most implements attach to. It consists of two hydraulically-powered lift arms at the bottom, and a third stabilizing top link.

These three features generally separate compact tractors from lawn mowers as they extend the functionality beyond just mowing, and allow a tractor to accept many implements. While it should be noted that in recent years some of the largest garden tractors also offer some of these features, there are three additional features that set compact tractors apart from their little siblings:

Four-wheel drive

A four-wheel drive system will improve traction and help put a tractor’s power to the ground.

Diesel Engine

Diesel engines are design for torque and durability, two things that tractors need.

Roll-Over Protective Structure (ROPS / Rollbar)

A telltale sign that you’re looking at a compact utility tractor and not a lawn & garden tractor is the mounting of a factory-installed, OSHA-certified rollbar (technical name ROPS). Due to the roll-over hazard that tractors with variable loads present, a ROPS is required on all new compact tractors sold. 

Tractor Size vs Tasks

The bigger the better, right? When it comes to tractors, that’s not always the case. The size of tractor you need will depend on what you plan on doing with it. Many tractor buyers want to do routine finish mowing of their lawns, which will usually restrict choices to machines that are small enough to navigate their lawn without damaging it, but large enough to also have some utility to do other tasks.

Common tasks that tractor buyers should consider include moving material (gravel, dirt, snow, mulch), scraping or grading (driveways, paths, cleanup), food plot work (plowing, tilling, cultivating, fertilizing, spraying), digging (trenches, holes, stumps, or for projects), towing and hauling (material trailers), mowing (fields or lawns), and snow removal.

 

The good news is that compact tractors can do all of these tasks! But the bad news is that if you want to do ALL of them, you will find that you will need to make some compromises. For example, if you need a machine to mow a small lawn and prioritize maneuverability, the machine will be somewhat small and its capability with a backhoe, for example, will be limited (though not useless).

Many tractor owners focus on their most frequent tasks and match the tractor to those tasks. Sometimes this even leads buyers to consider an inexpensive riding mower to handle close-quarters finish mowing, which enables them to let the tractor size go up a bit and focus on a more powerful machine for everything else.

Horesepower Per Acre

This is a common question, but by no means is our chart an end-all answer so much as it is a starting point:

  • Lawn & Garden Tractor Less than 5 acres
  • Subcompact Tractor (Under 25 HP) 1-10 acres
  • Compact Utility Tractor (25-35 HP) 5-15 acres
  • Compact Utility Tractor (35-50 HP) 10-50 acres
  • Utility Tractor (Over 50 HP) More than 50 acres

One of the factors that will impact the size and horsepower range of your tractor is the type of property you have. If you have 50 acres, but 45 of it is wooded and you will only maintain a 5 acre area, then you might want to be looking at a subcompact or small compact utility tractor and not a larger 50-horsepower machine.

Another factor is whether your tractor purchase considers major jobs or just routine maintenance. Many property owners have big plans for their land, and if they plan to tackle those jobs exclusively with their tractor, extra size and horsepower is usually a good idea.

What is the Difference Between Size and Horsepower?

The terms size and horsepower are not interchangeable; sometimes tractor manufacturers will produce several models of fundamentally the same tractor (on the same frame), but with different horsepower engines. So technically two nearly identical tractors could vary in power depending on the engine they are equipped with.

You may also find smaller-sized tractors with similar horsepower to a larger model. Side-by-side the machines may look vastly different in size, but have the same horsepower. Once again this is due to the frame size being different but engine horsepower being similar.

More power will translate into more capability, in simple terms. Whether you’re digging a bucket into a pile of gravel, or mowing a thick patch of overgrown field, more horsepower can definitely help.

Which Options and Features Are Important?

Some common options and features on tractors that you will want to evaluate:

Many tractors come with 4WD as standard, and most buyers want machines equipped with 4WD. Unless you have a very specific use and have no use whatsoever for 4WD and also want to save money by buying a 2WD tractor, we recommend going with 4WD.

Tractors have a variety of different types of transmissions available, though the choices on any given model may but just a couple. Commonly, you will have a choice between:

Gear Drive Transmissions utilize a clutch to shift manually between gears, similar to a manual transmission in a car.

Shuttle Shift Transmissions enable multiple reverse speeds and changing direction from forward to reverse with a lever. This direction change is clutchless when equipped with a "power shuttle" type gearbox. Shuttle shift transmissions are preferred by operators who change directions frequently.

Hydrostatic Transmissions are continuously-variable transmissions with infinite speeds. Speed and direction is controlled by forward and reverse pedals connected to mechanical valves, with the amount of pressure placed on the pedals determining the speed by opening or closing the valve. Range selection (low-high or low-medium-high) as well as the engine throttle determine the travel speed. Hydrostatic transmissions are generally considered the easiest to use.

Electronic Hydrostatic Transmissions utilize a variable resistor to control electronics which then control the transmission. Electronics can improve the performance and responsiveness of the transmission.

Rear PTOs are standard on tractors, but sometimes mid-PTOs are an option. This would be useful for a mid-mounted mower or front-mounted power implement (think snowblower or power broom).

Folding ROPS is a popular option as it allows operators to reduce the height of the ROPS for storage of the tractor in a garage or shed that would otherwise not have enough clearance for a standard-height ROPS. Note: do not operate a tractor with the ROPS folded down.

If you want to splurge on an expensive but comfortable protection from weather and the working environment, a factory cab option is a nice feature to have. Be sure you spend some time using a cab tractor before going this route, as many operators prefer an open station configuration in most settings.

Optional remote hydraulic valves are used for accessory hydraulics on implements. This is a common feature of larger tractors as many agricultural implements require remote valves to function, but is only required on smaller tractors when an implement needs the hydraulics.

Quick hitches are a great way to save time and switch implements or buckets easily.

A Visual on Tractor Features

Here’s an interactive photo that shows different features of a subcompact tractor. Click on any of the white bullseyes to find out what you’re looking at:

Instrument Cluster

Mid-Mount Finish Mower

R3 Turf Tires

Backhoe

Foldable ROPS

Front-End Loader (FEL)

Economy vs Premium Tractor Models

Most manufacturers offer different lines that could be called “economy” models at lower price points than “premium” models. Some of the options and features listed above may be found standard on premium models, but absent from economy models.

Economy models are a great choice for buyers who want to get the most size and horsepower for their money, and don’t mind a “no frills” kind of tractor. With an economy line machine, you might not be getting the latest and greatest technology in every feature, but often you will be getting reliable features that have been proven in the field for many years.

Are Heavier Tractors Better?

When comparing tractors, you might find that one machine tips the scales significantly more than a similar model in price or horsepower. Usually a higher weight will be attributed to a heavier frame and that typically translates into a larger machine in physical dimensions, tire size, and larger implements. This may also be a case like we mentioned about a tractor series with several models built on the same frame with different engines. So one model that is 35 horsepower might be the highest horsepower model of a smaller frame series, and another model at 35 horsepower might be the lowest horsepower model in a larger frame series.

To answer this question more directly, weight enables a tractor to put its power to the ground and is a critical factor in a tractor’s overall setup from a ballast and safety standpoint. When a dealer sets up a tractor, the should properly ballast the machine prior to delivery to a customer, based on the attachments and intended uses.

Starting with a higher weight might be desirable, or it might not, depending on your application. Finish mowing is generally considered a task where more weight is undesirable, while on the other hand front-end loader work would be better suited to a heaver machine if you’re carrying heavy loads and need stability. Again, ballast (weights bolted on or added to tires) can compensate for a lighter weight when a tractor is being set up.

Which Tires Are Best?

Tire choice is important and can make a big difference in the performance of a tractor. Deeper bar treads offer the most traction, but are the most destructive of turf and soil. Turf tires offer great flotation and minimal damage to turf, but suffer in the traction department during ground-engaging tasks. Check out our articles on tires for more information on this topic:

Agricultural Tires – A Primer

While tires are an integral part of your tractor, you may not be well informed on the different types of tires available, the variety of tread depths and angles out there, and the proper applications of certain tire types. Not having the right tire can be damaging to your tractor, to your property, or even put the safety of the user at risk.

Go to Article »

Since the late-1990s, R4 industrial tread tires have been the most popular for compact tractors as they offer a good balance of traction and flotation. Your needs might justify a different treat pattern so definitely review your options and check out our article to help you decide.

Popular Compact Tractor Attachments

A tractor without attachments is basically an expensive and slow ATV, so this is one area that most buyers spend a lot of time on research, as well as a lot of money. For most owners, they will spend 50-100% of the price of a base machine on the attachments that they add to the tractor. With so many attachments to choose from, it’s no wonder owners find themselves collecting attachments.

Not only are there dozens of different attachments available, but the features and size of each attachment varies. Buyers can choose different bucket widths or mower widths, or buy heavy-duty or light-duty versions of some attachments—the choice of which is right for you will depend on your planned use.

Guidelines For Attachment Sizes

A very basic guideline for attachment size would be the standard width of a tracto as measured to the outside of both rear tires. The smallest subcompact tractors come in at a bit under 4 feet wide, which suggests a 4-foot wide implement. In the real world, you would want a bucket or mower to at least cover your tracks.

Going a few inches wider than tracks is usually fine, but once you start to add a lot of width beyond the track of your machine, you’ll find that operation can become unsafe or less productive.

 

We have an extensive article that covers the most popular compact tractor attachments. This should give you an idea of where to start your attachment search:

 

Compact Tractor Brands

Moving along to the topic that is probably most-discussed when it comes to tractor buying: Which brand is best? We’re not going to settle that can of worms debate in this article, but we will give you a few pointers that can help you make up your mind, as well as list the most popular brands.

The following companies currently offer new compact tractors for sale in North America (in alphabetical order):

Bad Boy
Bobcat
Branson
Case-IH
John Deere
Kioti
Kubota
LS Tractor
Mahindra
Massey Ferguson
New Holland
RK Tractors
TYM
Yanmar
Zetor

How to Choose Between Compact Tractor Brands

As you can see, there’s no shortage of tractor brands to choose from. In fact there are so many that some buyers have a difficult time making a decision. So here are some tips for getting your tractor search headed in the right direction:

Since tractors are sold by dealers, start by finding the dealers closest to you for each of the popular tractor brands listed above. Having a dealer close by for service and parts needs can save you time and money down the line.

We recommend calling first and making appointments rather than walking in, especially during busy times.

Using your local dealer's sales staff as a helpful resource in your buying process, explain your needs and see if their recommendations for size and horsepower are in line with what you had in mind heading in.

Test drive 2-3 tractors at each dealership and see how you like the controls and maneuverability.

Compact utility tractors often seem very similar but when you get down to the details, that's where you start to find your preferences. Things like control layout, visibility, size, ergonomics of the operator platform, comfort, will vary from model to model.

At this point you can build a list of pros and cons of each model.

Once you've narrowed your search down to 2-3 tractors that you like, collect a price quote on each to see if there is a significant difference in price. Be sure to compare apples to apples.

A wonderful resource to discuss your purchase decision is the Buying/Pricing Forum here at TractorByNet.

Click here to create a new thread

 

You've taken your time, gathered advice and now you've made up your mind. Now you can move on to the final stages of negotiating a deal to buy your tractor!

New or Used?

We see this question come up a lot, and it’s a good question. While there is a healthy market for used equipment in the agricultural market, smaller equipment doesn’t have as much turnover so the selection of used equipment is limited in most markets.

Most buyers find that the advantages of a new purchase, especially for a homeowner who is likely to take good care of their equipment, warrants the investment in a new machine. Factoring in the high resale value of used equipment, buying new is often the most appealing choice.

This isn’t to say that buying used equipment is impossible, as if you search online you will find plenty of equipment. You just might need to drive a couple states over for the tractor the fits your needs.

Getting the Best Deal on a Compact Tractor

When it comes time to buy a high ticket item like a tractor, everybody wants to get the best deal they can. We put together an article on getting the best deal on a new tractor:

Additional Compact Tractor Resources

Tractor buyers should spend many hours researching and becoming familiar with tractors and attachments prior to buying. Reading the advice and experiences of other tractor owners in our tractor forums is a great way to gain knowledge.

Tractor Forums

More than 5 million questions and answers make TractorByNet's forums the largest in the world, and the best place to get your tractor and equipment questions answered.

Enter Forums

There are also numerous channels on YouTube from tractor dealers and enthusiasts who provide a wealth of knowledge. Browsing manufacturer websites to become familiar with all of the models and features of specific brands should also be considered a prerequisite before buying.

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