March 15, 2016
A modern compact utility tractor (CUT) is a true force multiplier. A good one maximizes your effort and available time. The same axiom applies to tractor implements. Yes, there is still a solid place for ATVs, but sooner or later, you'll want to pop for a tractor and tools that allow you to maximize your time to work the dirt and deliver the satisfaction of getting it done right.
A case can be made to buy used, but this can be fraught with perils because you have to know exactly what you're looking for and how to evaluate the condition. With the low- or zero-cost financing options available today, and package buys that offer a front-end loader and other implements free, buying new from a reputable dealer makes sense.
For the average small-plot land manager putting in 10 to 40 acres of warm season plots and fall grains, a CUT in the 30- to 45-hp range is ideal. Tractors in this category are affordable, economical to operate, capable of lifting implements up to 3,000 pounds, easily trailered with half-ton vehicles, and provide enough power for tougher jobs like working a plow, disc, or tiller.
I bought my first CUT — a 29-hp lesser-known brand — used, without knowing what I really needed. I faced a major breakdown the first season and had to get in line for repairs, when the shop was at its busiest with farmers needing immediate help. I waited weeks for parts, then dealt with the problem of the dealer not being familiar with the brand I owned. Lesson one.
I also didn't know what implements I needed and was reduced to begging and borrowing the right tools from other local land managers who needed their implements the same time I wanted to borrow them. Inevitably, there are only a few weekends a month each spring and fall when conditions are right to mow, lime, fertilize, spray, disc, till, and plant. As weekend warriors, you need your equipment on call and operable when the weather allows. Lesson two.
When it became time to replace my tractor, I invested a winter of research before choosing a new rig. Rock-solid reliability and power-per-dollar were my main priorities, but I also wanted a list of specific features based on a lot of in-field experience and frustration, especially when working alone.
My other criteria were 35 hp, 4-wheel drive, aggressive ag tires, strong hydraulics and a 3-point lift capacity of at least 2,500 pounds, telescoping 3-point arms, spacious cab, tight turning radius, minimum wheel width of 60 inches (to fit inside the rows on my corn/bean planter), a compact overall length (to fit on my trailer), a large fuel tank, and a comfortable seat. I also thought I wanted a manual transmission, but after some research, I opted for a unique Glide Shift Transmission (GST).
After a long search, my Ultimate Food Plot Machine is a Kubota L3560 with a GST transmission. Its performance is stunningly strong.
Glide Shift Transmission:I've always been a manual transmission fan, not only for the reliability, but also to maximize available power from CUT engines. Hydrostatic transmissions, while convenient, bleed off some available working horsepower to help drive the system. Kubota's exclusive Glide Shift Transmission is the best of both worlds. A simple dash-mounted throw lever chooses forward, neutral, or reverse; a gear shift on the left side of the cab allows you to choose between 12 forward and eight reverse gears — with no clutching on the fly! Super convenient and it works amazingly well.
Front End Loader: A front end loader is a must for all sorts of work, from moving downed trees off trails to moving piles of dirt and other material. Watch for Kubota promotions that provide it free with purchase during spring or fall sales.
Rotary mower: The Land Pride rotary mower is key for everything from initial plot site clearing to creating travel lanes and maintaining annual plots like clover. The 72-inch width is small enough for tight spaces and efficient for large clearing jobs.
Tiller: My overall favorite tillage tool. Great for incorporating prior-year plant residue into your plot, improving organic matter, and quickly delivering quality seedbeds. While slow to operate, on established plots it provides one-pass results. Don't scrimp on this implement; get the heaviest built, widest model your tractor's horsepower will accommodate.
Sprayer: Either in electric ATV (25-gallon capacity) or PTO driven tractor mount (50 gallons), you will need a sprayer for burning down plots prior to planting, applying preplant herbicides, and spraying established plots. Fimco makes many field-proven models.
Spreader: From spreading lime, fertilizer, and other soil amendments to salting your ice-covered driveway, get the largest hopper your tractor can accommodate.
Planter: If you want corn, soybeans, and sunflowers in precision rows for optimal growth and spraying access, this time-proven model, originally produced by Deere, is superior. Midwest Wildlife Management manufactures a limited run each year, so order in time for spring planting.
Do-all tool: The Firminator G-3 is a multipurpose disc, drop seeder (clovers, brassicas, fall grains, beans, etc.), and cultipacker that replaces three tools with one. This is a truly heavy-duty piece of gear, and the adjustable angle disc gang works way better than it should due to the overall weight of the unit. You can also adjust the G-3 to engage all three tools simultaneously or individually based on need. The only multipurpose implement I've used that works better than advertised, in four-, five-, six-, and eight-foot models. Buy the width that covers your tire tracks and can be lifted safely by your 3-point.