Equipment Management: Utility tractors

When it comes to defining the multi-purpose utility tractor, it can be a little hard to pin down. If you’re considering purchasing one, the dizzying array of features, options and attachments also tends to complicates things.

“Simply put, it’s a do-it-all tractor,” says Paul Williams, sales and marketing product manager for Kubota Tractor Corporation. “Generally, it’s equipped with a loader, and you can use that implement on the front to do a lot of work for you. It’s your right hand man to do chores with.” If it’s truly a landscape tractor, they’re generally still in the 40 to 60 horsepower class of machines. They can be less, but if you’re going to do any PTO work you’re pretty marginal at less than 40 horsepower. And I’m talking about PTO horsepower, because that’s what the customers want to know.”

Mahindra Tractor offers 11 models in the 40- to 70-horsepower range. “Roughly 75 percent to 80 percent are sold with a front-end loader,” says Martin Cisneros, marketing communications manager, Mahindra.

Other defining characteristics of the utility tractor include a short wheelbase (ranging from around 75 inches to 88 inches) which translates to maneuverability in tight landscape situations. They also typically feature a heavier-duty three-point hitch and chassis when compared with most compact utility tractors. “The utility tractor is ag-related. It’s a tough tractor, just in a smaller package [than an agricultural model],” Williams says.

Manufacturers typically divide their utility tractor models between economy and premium models. Kubota, for example, offers both types of tractors, including the premium M-40 Series, which has more transmission features and hydraulic shuttle options than its economy models.

The hydraulic shuttle (approximately a $1,500 option) allows an operator to change directions by rocking a foot throttle back and forth. “It uses a wet clutch, and they’re very efficient and nimble,” Williams says. “They’re really designed with loaders in mind, because loading is a back-and-forth operation. You generally won’t find a straight shift, standard transmission in a landscape application.”

Bobcat, a company best known for the past 50 years for its skid-steer line, began production of utility tractors in fall 2007. They offer nine models, categorizing them into a basic economy package and a standard package which adds a loader joystick, control valve, and a cab option.

“The best part is they all use the Bob-Tach quick-attachment mounting system, which makes all the front-end loader attachments interchangeable,” says Bryan Zent, marketing manager, Bobcat. “It’s become an industry standard.”

A few key questions
Williams recommends landscapers consider a few key questions before walking into a tractor dealership. The first question he poses is, “What do you want this tractor to do?” He says the majority of landscapers want loaders with a bucket and perhaps pallet forks, quick-couplers, and self leveling mechanisms, which can run as much as $7,800 for a large loader with bucket.

Williams cautions against selecting a tractor that isn’t capable of lifting heavy loads – such as wet soil, rock and gravel – high enough to empty the material into a truck or trailer.

“Even if they own smaller trucks, they might have a big tandem truck come to the site and they need to be able to dump into it,” he says.

A landscaper doing serious tear-outs, site clearing, or heavy masonry work will want a larger tractor with more horsepower. Those who are simply doing finish grading and adding small plantings can get by with a more economical model.

“Second, ask, ‘What am I going to put on the hitch?'” Williams says. “We want to find out if they already have some attachments or if they have their eye on something, but haven’t really checked the horsepower requirements for it. All manufacturers of implements give a PTO minimum rating.”

Other considerations
Another significant consideration is the tractor tires, which generally comes down to three basic options: agricultural, industrial and turf.

“The majority of tractors we sell in the landscape market are equipped with industrial tires,” says Ron Parrish, market develop manager, Kioti. “Ag tires provide the best traction, but also have the greatest impact, and these days everyone is conscious of disturbing the soil unnecessarily.”

Williams says landscapers in the western United States have latched on to one feature that is sure to make its way eastward. For around $1,500, consumers can add a Top-N-Tilt mechanism to a three-point hitch. “Basically you’ll have a three-spool valve on the tractor – one for the top, one for the tilt, and one for the scarifier teeth, so the operator can adjust the teeth up or down from the comfort of the seat,” Williams explains. “With a good operator, the Top-N-Tilt cylinders let that box scraper dance. Operators can adjust the box to be less aggressive on the cutting side, giving a smooth surface. Or if they need to bite into the ground, a simple adjustment lets the operator dig in. It’s like magic,” he says.

Two-wheel or four-wheel?
Kioti believes four-wheel-drive to be such a necessity they decided to offer it on all of their utility tractors, Parrish says.

“In 99 percent of the cases I’d say four-wheel-drive is a critical element,” he says.

Cisneros says Mahindra has decided to offer customers a choice in this department. He predicts their two-wheel-drive vehicles will be more popular along the Gulf Coast and in the southwest. “It’s just like automobiles,” he says. “Places that have hills and more snow and ice buy more four-wheel-drive vehicles. For flat terrain and a warmer climate, a two-wheel might suit you fine.”

Standard or automatic?
Cisneros suggests that landscape companies with one or two dedicated tractor operators might select a geared, four-wheel-drive model. Others companies that typically have numerous crew members with limited experience at the controls might consider an easy-to-learn hydrostatic transmission (HST). “It’s similar to their car that they’re used to,” Cisneros says. “You just put it in drive and go. It doesn’t require as much training.”

“We’re finding the hydrostat is growing very, very fast,” Parrish says. “In the landscape industry where you may have relatively unskilled labor operating machines, you don’t have the possibility of over-wearing the clutch or mis-selecting range and/or gears.”

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