Rebecca Johns provides a beginner’s guide to buying used machinery

You’ve acquired your first piece of land, you fancy keeping a few sheep, so you need a tractor with a few implements for grassland management…where do you start? What size tractor do you need? Do you know what a three point linkage is? What should you look for in a second hand mole plough? This article outlines the essentials anyone should bear in mind when looking at machinery, and highlights some of the pitfalls involved – and how to avoid them! CS has had articles on various aspects of buying machinery, so here, I’ll recap on tractors before focusing on tractor mounted equipment suitable for the smallholder such as a baler, chain harrow or topper.Points for buying second handAlways know what the new price is! That way you can compare what you see, and what the seller tells you with what you’ve already found out. Beware – it’s sometimes easy to pick things up at farm machinery sales, but you might be paying as much as for a new item from a dealer.  The best buys tend to be genuine, recently used, machines or equipment, especially if you know the seller. Ones that have been used recently usually have all the parts in working order, clean and greased up because they had to work for the previous job. Machines that have sat in someone’s yard for nine months may have seized up. This could be relatively easy to fix with a tap from a sledgehammer but it could mean hours of frustration trying to loosen something before you can get on and do some work! Take a grease gun with you to a sale and try one or two of the grease nipples – if the grease goes everywhere and your arms ache after two pumps, treat that machine with a bit of caution.Collective machinery sales can provide good buys, but go along to a couple before you buy anything. Say you want a baler – go along and look at the balers and see what they go for. Notice if the same baler doesn’t sell each time, and stays in for the next time. Also notice if machinery bought in for sale by a dealer doesn’t sell and ask yourself why he’s trying to sell it this way, rather than from his yard. Often the obvious answer to these questions is that you should steer well clear. Obsolete or rare machines can come at a lower price, but the parts may be difficult or impossible, and usually expensive, to obtain.  If you’re offered an apparently good Renault tractor, ask yourself whether there’s a Renault tractor dealer in the area, or is your French good enough to obtain parts directly?  Machines with moving parts that have to work hard, such as rotovators, drum or disc mowers and toppers, need to be viewed with caution – they can wear out quickly and be expensive to repair. Consider whether you’d be better off buying new, or newer.Right tractor with the right toolsIt’s essential that you match the right tractor with the right machinery. Tractors come in various engine sizes (Categories) as follows:

 Category I – up to 50 horse power (hp) Category II – 50 to 90 hp Category III – 90+ hp

The greater the horse power, the more weight the tractor could lift, tow and so on.  Most smallholders might opt for a tractor in the Category II range and these often come with Category I and II three point linkages.  This refers to the size of the holes on the end of the arms at the back of the tractor, onto which you fix various implements such as a topper. If the tractor is too large, it’s difficult to operate small implements and these may get damaged or break. If the tractor is too small, it can become dangerously imbalanced if it tries to lift too much weight.For example, you may well decide to buy a small Category I mole plough because, although you have a Category II tractor which it will fit, the job you need to do is only a small one on relatively easy ground. That mole plough will do the job perfectly well, but you wouldn’t want to use it on acres of clay. Weigh up what machinery you need for which particular job and what you’re prepared to pay for it.Buying a tractorAs well as determining what size tractor you require, and what jobs you want to do with it (towing, topping, baling, muck spreading… the list is endless!), also look at the following:

Four wheel drive or two? The first has a lot more moving parts to go wrong.Do the hydraulics work? Lift something heavy with them so they have some resistance – don’t be fooled into thinking they work because they can lift a person.Are the Power Take Off (PTO), clutch, brakes and steering satisfactory? Can you engage and turn the PTO?Are there any oil or water leaks?Start the engine and look at the smoke signals – is it blue (burning oil), black (excess fuel) or white (water in combustion)?Look for perishing and bad cuts in the tyres. Eight ply tyres are preferable, especially for a tractor with a front end loader. Don’t be put off by worn tyres if you’re only using the tractor on grassland; up to 50% worn tyres are ok for this type of work.Consider the general condition of the tractor – do the lights work? Rusty and dilapidated tractors often mean expensive labour and parts costs if they need repairing.  Is the draw bar complete? This is particularly important on tractors which have specially designed draw bars such as the Little Grey Fergie which has a nine hole draw bar. These can be hard to find if you bought the tractor without one.

Can you fix it?It’s common, even for experts, to go along to a farm machinery sale and view a particular piece of equipment, wiggle a few parts and decide to buy it, only to get it home, use it once and find something, somewhere doesn’t work as it should. Some things are relatively easy to fix (even by someone with limited knowledge) with a decent manual and a few tools, whilst other jobs are impossible.  Machinery that looks like there’s nothing to go wrong on it, such as a roller, can still have bits to fix. For older tractors such as the David Brown there is an owner’s club which you could join and be able then to access expert knowledge, someone to tell you that it’s a couple of ‘O’ rings you need to fix that part of the hydraulics. So beware of thinking something looks like an easy, fix-it-yourself job, and try to find local experts to help.Buying implementsThe same principles apply to buying implements as to buying any second hand machinery or tractors, as outlined above.  Look closely at the implement and all the working parts, for example, the tines or discs, the PTO, gears, grease nipples and so on. Are these in sound working order? Are any of the tines bent or broken? Are the discs and scrapers bent out of line or chipped? What are the implications of what you can see – if the discs are thin, they might do the job for a while but are likely to need replacing and this will be expensive. If any of the moving parts have been immersed in water, they’ve probably seized up or corroded.  Consider the relative merit of buying something new against second hand. Take, for example, a small chain harrow. An old one might be heavier and need to be pulled with a tractor, where a new, lightweight version could be towed around your horse paddock on the back of a quad bike. Any serious work on the new one, however, and you might find that the links stretch or simply break because the metal used to make the implement is lightweight and inferior compared to the old one.You must remember to match the implement with the tractor size. A mole plough originally designed for a Category I tractor might come with a couple of handy welds to provide fixings for a Category II tractor. But any drag on this and it will break because it wasn’t designed for that strength tractor.Will the implement perform well? Will it do what you want? If you’re after a baler to make small bales, will it do just that? Can you adjust the density and length of the bale?  Is the main cutter still good and sharp? Has it been cleaned and oiled after the last use?  Look for repairs, welding, rusty or seized parts – the first often indicate abuse while the latter can be purely cosmetic, or a pain to fix.  Implements that require several different parts to make them work can be particularly difficult to buy as you must make sure all the bits are there at the time. A simple fertiliser spreader could be just the thing for sowing grass seed in a small field, but will probably require the agitator in the centre of the hopper to be in place and working. Otherwise, you might end up with dollops of grass seed at intervals, or none at all. Buying the spreader without the agitator would be fairly pointless because you would then spend time and money finding the necessary part.Sound investment or unwise purchase?Sought after machinery, whether it is a PZ Haybob or Ford 3000 tractor, will always fetch a premium. Dealers will charge you more, but if you find one you like and trust, they can be excellent sources of machinery and implements as they get to know your particular requirements and can look out for specific items for you. When going to a machinery sale, try to find an expert to go along with you, compare prices with other second hand and with new examples, set yourself a budget and be prepared to walk away without that particular thing. Consider whether the machine you want is really a niche market one, for horse paddocks for example, and then expect to pay a bit more.  Economical buys can be made at genuine farm machinery sales, as larger farms will sell machinery with a few hundred hours on the clock, but which has been well looked after simply because they now have a requirement for something bigger/faster/stronger.  Saturdays can be more expensive days to buy on than week days as more potential buyers turn out!Having considered all this, you may decide to get contractors in for every job and not have the bother of all this machinery, or you may decide that the joy of tinkering around with belts, gears and grease nipples, as well as being able to bale your hay with your machine when it suits you is the way forward. Buying appropriate, sound, machinery is certainly within the scope of the smallholder and with just a little bit of knowledge and experience, it could be very rewarding. 

Rebecca Johns a freelance farm secretary in Sussex and a training organiser for the Small Farm Training Group. Visit for more information.

This article is from the March 2006 issue of Country Smallholding magazine. << To order back issues click the link to the left.

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