Thursday, June 4, 2009

Small Farm Tractor Advice

Couple of useful letters follow, published over at Surivival Blog:

James,I just wanted to respond to the recent article on small tractors. In 1981 my wife and I bought 12 acres and started market gardening, selling produce locally. I grew about 3 acres of produce each year and put up hay for animals. Our first big investment at the time was a BCS 725 machine with the tiller and sickle-bar mower attachments. We used that machine, and used it hard.
Today it's 2009 and I just finished cutting hay and putting in my green bean patch, using that 725. It's still on the original engine, which has never been rebuilt, only annual oil changes for the last 27 years. It no longer starts on the first pull, these days it starts on the second pull each time, but guess I can't complain too loud about that.

In my life I must admit I've made very few incredibly good investments, but that Model 725 is definitely one of them. It's saved me untold labor and has just simply worked for 27 years without a bit of trouble. It's like an old Ford 8N, it just keeps running and doing what it's supposed to do. Old farm equipment was made to last forever, the BCS machines are farm equipment, not cheap consumer toys. The price reflects it, but from my opinion they're a bargain in the long run. Highly recommended. - Bobalu

Hello Mr. Rawles,Regarding the recent letters on micro-farm tractors, I have another viewpoint for your consideration.

In addition to the Troy-Bilt Horse rear tine tiller and other tools scaled for 1-2 acres, I have also purchased a larger farm tractor to better suit the conditions in and around my retreat. The recent letter mentioned Ford 9Ns and Farmalls. While these are still very common and many 9Ns are still in service, they are of 1940s-1950s vintage. My personal choice was a Massey Ferguson 100 series diesel tractor (135 or 165, for example). These were built between the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, and have decades of excellent service history with much information available online (for you to save on paper now).

There were several factors leading me to this decision:
I obtained the tractor from a seller on Craigslist for a bargain price. This allowed me to retain a budget for maintenance rather than blowing it all up front on a new machine. While the peripheral systems needed attention, the engine and transmission were rock solid. The Perkins Diesel engines are renowned for reliability and durability. My updates and repairs serve two purposes: Restoring the mechanical soundness of the machine and its systems, and forcing me to become familiar with the repair and upkeep now. This is a mechanical restoration only – it needs to work, not look good. Surprisingly, every part that my 40 year old tractor has needed was both in stock and relatively inexpensive. While it’s comforting to “gear up”, eventually you will have to repair what you buy. Two years after TSHTF is not the ideal time to start the learning curve on your life-sustaining equipment. An old tractor you have mechanically zero-timed before the world comes to grief will give years of reliable service, and you will have the experience of your earlier work to guide future repairs.

While a larger tractor is overkill for a few acres, it is compatible with most all the equipment on surrounding farms. 1960s and 1970s tractors will have modern 3-point hitches with the ability to add additional hydraulics. The Massey-Ferguson 165, at 53 horsepower, can run a myriad of equipment that might overtax a smaller tractor. In addition to your own needs, you will have the option of volunteering to help your neighbor prepare his field or bring in his crop, using your extra muscle and standard 3-point hookups. That would be a Grade-A trade for food, fuel, or assistance when you need it, as opposed to showing up with a shovel and asking “what can I do to help?”
A larger tractor will also turn and disk your two acres in a hurry! I have collected smaller 3 point hitch equipment, like a two-bottom moldboard turning plow and a disk harrow, very inexpensively. The equipment is old, but made of such heavy steel that it still has decades of life left in it. Another barter option is to quickly prepare ground for other small-scale neighbors that may have purchased less durable equipment. Attempting to till up hard, fallow ground, even with a rear-tine tiller, is tough on the equipment and the person. Your tractor with plow and harrow would make short work of that fallow ground, allowing the rear-tine tiller to finish much more quickly and without the mechanical abuse.

The other posts mentioned diesel-engined ATVs. I respectfully submit that this may be a case of can rather than should. While you can pull a disk or maybe even a small all-purpose plow, the machine simply does not have the tractor-like durability to stake your family’s future on using the ATV as a tractor long-term. By the time you have bought a rare diesel ATV with ATV-specific implements, you might as well have bought an older, real tractor with standard 3-point implements for the money. Remember, from a duty cycle perspective (if I may anthropomorphize), I’d want my tractor to think: “wow, that was only two acres” as opposed to the ATV thinking: “Wow, that was two acres!”
On the issue of noise, I agree that a stock machine can be heard a ways off. However, the noise can be significantly reduced by using non-standard exhausts. If your goal is to prevent advertisement of your activity, it is time well spent to install a series of mufflers which will deaden the roar of a working engine. That slight drop in horsepower might be worth the relative quiet. This is true of your rear tine tiller as well as any other equipment. As an example, I have an old Onan generator with a high volume double muffler that some guys at a muffler shop helped me rig up. I can stand right next to the thing while it’s running, and carry on a conversation with only slightly raised voices.
Thank you for your efforts, Mr. Rawles! - J.I.C.

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