How Much Horsepower is Enough?

July 11, 2017 09:32 AM
How Much Horsepower is Enough?

The following insights and opinions are from Will Nelson, president of Nelson Tractor Company with locations in Blairsville and Jasper, Ga. 


You’re ready to purchase a tractor, but with a variety of models, types and brands to choose from, you’re not quite sure where to start. All of the options can be overwhelming, even for those who are experienced with lawn maintenance vehicles and tools.

The best way to find the right tractor for you is to hone in on the most important criteria. This will help you sift through the product specifications and features to find the best piece of machinery for your needs and your land. One of the best features to start is with horsepower. Here, we’ll help you determine how much horsepower you actually need.

Types of Tractors

Tractors are classified into three basic groups: compact tractors, utility tractors and farm tractors. If you have a half-acre lot and plan to use your machine primarily for mowing, you’ll do just fine with a compact tractor, which generally has 25 horse power (referred to as “hp” from here on out).

If you plan to use your tractor for mowing in addition to other basic farming tasks, like manure handling, consider a compact tractor with 25 to 45 hp. Compact tractors are convenient and easy to use. They’re small size also allows you to store them in a garage or shed.

If you have ten acres or more, or if you’ll be traveling over moderate or rough terrain, you should look for a utility tractor. Utility tractors have 45 to 85 hp and are better suited to attachments like rakes, scrapes and spreaders. Ultimately, this means you can do more with your tractor, potentially getting more bang for your buck. Utility tractors also have added transmission and hydraulics and a heavier lift capacity.

Lastly, farm or row crop tractors have 85 to 450 hp and are the only choice for full-scale farmers, large plots of land and rough terrain. Naturally, they’re the biggest and most expensive and are made with top features like comfortable seating and heating and air conditioning. 

To make it easy, I tell people to classify the various tractors like Ford trucks:

  • Ford Ranger: Compact Tractor
  • Ford F150: Utility Tractor
  • Ford F350: Row Crop Tractor

Get More Horsepower Than You Think You Need

The less-is-more rule doesn’t apply to tractors. For example, if you think you only need 25 hp for your machine, you’re better off buying something slightly more powerful. This doesn’t mean you need to splurge on 500 hp, but if you purchase a machine at the bottom of the range, your tractor may have to strain to complete routine tasks. This can cause your tractor to fail or lead to expensive, frequent repairs.

Not to mention, when you discover how much easier your tractor makes outdoor tasks, you may want to do even more with your machine. You won’t be able to take on bigger projects if you purchase a low horsepower tractor to start with.

 Horsepower vs. PTO Horsepower

If you plan to purchase anything beyond a lawn or garden tractor, find out the Power Take Off (PTO) horsepower and not just the engine horsepower. The PTO horsepower is the amount of horsepower available for running implements with your tractor, like a bush hog. Most tractors have a Power Take Off shaft, which is what connects to your implements to power them.

Because the shaft draws power from the engine, the PTO horsepower indicates how much power is available to run various implements. High PTO is also critical when you start talking about terrain. Hilly or weedy terrain diminishes HP. So PTO is key if you plan to use your tractor for rough terrain.

The tricky part is differentiating engine hp from PTO hp because they aren’t the same. For example, a tractor with 45 engine hp might only have 34 PTO hp to run your implements. If you don’t know to check both of these ratings—the difference isn’t always clearly stated—you may end up going home with a tractor that doesn’t have enough horsepower to run your implements.

For example, the 1025R sub-compact utility tractor from John Deere lists engine horsepower (23.9 hp) in the main “Features & Specs” section. Its not until you click “See All Specs” or scroll down on the page that you find the PTO hp is 18 hp.

How Much Horsepower Is Enough?

So how much horsepower do you really need? Unfortunately, there is no straightforward answer.  We wouldn’t recommend going below 25 engine hp, but aside from that, you need to assess your land and your needs.

If you need to do basic mowing on flat terrain, find a compact tractor with 25 to 30 hp. If you need something more substantial for plowing, invest in the 45 to 85 hp range. For full-scale farming, a row crop tractor is likely your best choice.

Remember, if you can find a compact tractor that’s in the same price range as a lawn or garden tractor, go with the compact model—you’ll end up getting better features without spending a lot more. In the end, budget and overall needs will dictate your choice, with both horsepower, brand and style. 

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Spell Check

Memphis, TN
7/11/2017 11:01 AM

  One other important factor to consider is how much tractor do you need to do the work you intend. It surprises me how many people do not calculate how long it will take to work a field using the field efficiency formula. I was taught this over 35 years ago. I continue to see many farms over horsepowered; and $150,000 machines sitting idle for 10 months out of the year.


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