Though they are a common sight today on construction sites, farms, and even in many people’s backyard, the tractor (taken from the Latin word trahere meaning ‘to pull’) was one of the most significant byproducts of the industrial revolution, and had a massive impact on the world of agriculture almost from their very beginning.
First coming into limited use in the 1820s, originally farm tractors were powered by wood or coal-fired steam engines and used heavy leather belts to drive two large wheels on a single axle, providing propulsion. The operator would walk behind the machine and steer it using two poles, attached on either side of the wheels. Early tractors were almost exclusively used to pull tillers across farmland, replacing horses, mules, or humans in this task and greatly increased the amount of land that could be tilled in a day.
Unfortunately, early steam tractors were very unstable machines and were prone to exploding, due to a build-up of pressure in their boilers. It was also not uncommon for the leather drive belts to break while the tractor was in use, often severely injuring or killing the operator.
Continually altered and improved upon over the years, steam-driven tractors were widely used on farms throughout the 19th and into the early 20th century, eventually morphing into three and four-wheeled machines which could be ridden.
Today, tractors are often very sophisticated and expensive pieces of machinery; however, their basic purpose has not changed significantly since their invention: tractors are still designed to pull (and sometimes push) things from one place to another.
Today’s tractors come in all shapes and sizes, and are used in many capacities outside of their agricultural applications. Broadly speaking and with some notable exceptions, there are two basic kinds of tractors: those that have other things built onto them, and those that have other things attached (in front or behind) to them through the use of some kind of coupling or hitch. In many cases, a tractor is defined by its attachments.
So, let’s take a look at some of the different types of tractors in common use today.
Home and Landscaping Tractors
Also frequently marketed as riding lawn mowers, lawn tractors are most commonly used for mowing medium to large residential lawns. Normally powered by gasoline engines ranging from 16 to 22 horse power (HP), riding lawn mowers can usually achieve speeds of between three and seven miles per hour (MPH) depending on engine size.
In most cases, the operator sits in the tractor while the blade(s) used to cut the grass are mounted beneath the machine in the cutting deck, which will usually be adjustable to several cutting heights. After the tractor is started, the blades can be engaged or disengaged manually using a lever mounted on the frame or in the dashboard.
First gaining wide popularity in the 1960s, most lawn tractors today feature rear-wheel drive, manual or automatic transmissions, and single or twin-blade cutting decks between 30 and 48 inches wide, although some wider decks are available. Lawn tractors will often come with mulching and /or canvas grass collection attachments. Higher-end models will sometimes feature a power-assist steering system, adjustable headlights, and cruise control.
Outside of their automobile, the lawn tractor is usually the largest mobile appliance most people will own and will weigh anywhere from 300 to 500 pounds. In terms of cost, depending on the engine’s HP, the width of the cutting deck, and additional features a good quality lawn tractor can be had for under $1,000 and can go as high as $3,500 for a top of the line machine.
Small Landscaping Tractors
While the big machines used for large landscaping projects can be quite massive and are classified as industrial or agricultural tractors (both discussed below), small landscaping tractors are, in essence, larger versions of the lawn tractor with more power, attachments, and capabilities.
These tractors are often a step up for home-owners who want a tractor that will do more than just mow the lawn, and are widely used by professional landscaping companies. Many will feature 60 to 72 (and larger) inch cutting decks, coupling attachments (which allow other equipment to be pulled behind them), and snow plowing attachments in the front. They will also usually feature larger engines (sometimes over 30 horsepower) and can often attain speeds in excess of 10mph.
Small landscaping tractors are usually operated with the driver seated in it, although some larger versions have a deck mounted behind them where the operator stands while driving it. While the majority of these machines have gasoline or diesel engines, liquid propane engines have recently become widely used.
Along with residential use, these tractors are also used to maintain business campuses, playing fields (football, baseball, soccer) and golf courses. Some versions are also used to clear heavy brush for land development. They will generally cost anywhere from $6,000 and $13,000 depending on their power and available functions. Attachments (carts, plows, etc.) will usually be extra.
Evolving from the exploding steam-powered, hand driven nightmares of old, today’s agricultural tractors are generally quite sophisticated, multi-purpose pieces of heavy equipment capable of performing multiple tasks. Often featuring advanced engine, transmission, steering, and body designs, some of the agricultural tractors today will also utilized technologies that include advanced hydraulics, air filtration, heating, and air conditioning, and even GPS tracking.
Also often referred to as utility or simply farm tractors, general purpose tractors are a must-have on any commercial farm or ranch today, and are considered to be standard farming equipment in most parts of the world.
General purpose tractors are used for plowing, and pulling other large pieces of farm equipment including tillers, threshers, harvesting and planting equipment, hay cutters and balers – pretty much anything that is used on a farm or ranch that is not self-propelled. General purpose tractors are also often used by larger landscaping companies to clear tracts of land for building.
Built with a fixed tread design, general purpose tractors will usually have gasoline or diesel engines, although some newer versions are designed to run on propane or biodiesel fuel. Open and closed-cab (which provides protection from the elements, noise, insects, and throw-off) models are manufactured, and virtually all modern models will have trailer and plow-attachment hitches. Larger models will often utilize smokestack-type vertical exhaust pipes, power steering, and advanced transmission systems.
General purpose farm tractors are available in a wide range of sizes and price points, and most will offer between 60 and 150 HP engines. Smaller (also called compact) tractors will usually cost between $15,000 and $25,000, while the largest, most powerful models can run up to $100,000 and more.
Row Crop Tractors
Row crop tractors are designed for use on farms that plant crops in rows. Farmers that exclusively produce row crops will often opt for these instead of a general purpose model as both tractors will perform many of the same tasks.
Row crop tractors will usually have an adjustable tread design which allows them to make their way through crop rows easily, a vertical exhaust pipe, and higher ground clearance so that they can ride over the crops that have been planted without damaging them.
Many row crop tractors will feature enhanced steering capability, and increased fuel storage capacity to allow the operator longer periods of operation between refueling. Higher end models will often also offer a hydraulic lifting system in the rear to make heavy farm equipment attachment quicker and easier.
In terms of cost, these tractors will be slightly more expensive than general use models at the lower end, but the two will even out in the mid- and higher ends.
Orchard tractors are specifically built for use in fruit and nut orchards, and vineyards. Designed to travel between the rows as opposed to over the crops, these tractors are usually narrower and built lower to the ground than general purpose tractors.
Due in part to their narrower width and lower ground clearance, these tractors will usually be lighter and have a tighter turning radius (sometimes as much as 60 degrees) than other farm tractors. They also almost exclusively feature a horizontal, ‘ground level’ exhaust pipe, to help avoid damaging low-hanging produce.
Normally having a closed cab, many orchard tractors will utilize air filtration systems designed to keep the operator safe from exposure to the pesticides and other chemicals used in orchard management, which are typically sprayed upward into the plants.
Two-wheel (also called walking, single-axle or walk-behind) tractors are smaller, lighter weight agricultural tractors most often used for tilling and plowing, and pulling smaller harvesting and seeding implements and trailers. Widely used on small and specialty (herb, cannabis, etc.) farms, community gardens, and large personal gardens, these tractors will often feature a built-in tiller in the Western world, although this is rarely the case in Africa, Asia, and some parts of South America where this is often a small farm or village’s main tractor.
Normally powered by relatively small (18 to 30 HP) gasoline engines and featuring varying designs of handlebars, the operator will usually walk behind the tractor while using it, although some are designed with extendable handlebars to allow the operator to ride on the implement being towed.
Usually, quite simple and basic machines compared with their larger agricultural counterparts, two-wheel tractors do not offer a great deal of versatility or a large number of bells and whistles, but they do tend to be quite durable. Their cost reflects their relative simplicity, and they will usually run between about $1,200 and $7,000.
Autonomous Farm Tractors
With the advent of the driverless car, could the autonomous (also called self-driving and driverless) tractor be far behind?
Still more or less in the developmental stage, (although there are some in limited, experimental use) autonomous agricultural tractors could possibly become the wave of the future for the industry. They are controlled by an individual in a remote location and utilize a combination of computer, satellite, GPS and (in some cases) drone technology, effectively eliminating the need for a human on-tractor operator. In theory, a single controller could be able to control an unlimited number of tractors from a single location, although some industry experts have suggested that a far more realistic estimate would be around a dozen.
While the practical future of the autonomous tractor remains in question, their development has sparked excitement the agriculture community for several years now, and that excitement is unlikely to diminish anytime in the near future.
Industrial tractors are widely used in the construction and demolition, transportation, aviation and aerospace, and other types of heavy industry. Moving on either wheels or a continuous track (think of a military tank), industrial tractors are often very heavy-duty, purpose-built machines and will usually lack the versatility and add-on capabilities of agricultural tractors but make up for this by typically being more sturdy.
Bulldozers are purpose-built, often massive tractors primarily designed to push large quantities of earth and other material from one place to another for land clearing and debris management purposes. These tractors usually run on continuous tracks (although some wheeled versions are available), and are widely used in residential and commercial building demolition and construction projects; road and airport construction; mining and quarrying; swamp and bog reclamation projects; and military combat engineering.
Bulldozers are equipped with a large, curved blade on the front, and will often feature a ‘ripper’ – a long device that looks like a giant claw – on the rear which is used to dislodge large rocks and break up hard-packed or rocky ground. Tractor blades will usually either be straight (to push material straight ahead) or curved, to allow debris to be pushed off to the side. Some bulldozers will also have spaced blade edges, which resemble a long row of evenly spaced, metal teeth. An armored bulldozer is also manufactured for use in military applications.
Generally speaking, bulldozers are very heavy machines but, like most other tractors, they come in a variety of sizes. Small bulldozers (sometimes called ‘calfdozers’) will usually have an 80 to 120 HP gas, diesel or biodiesel engine and weigh around 20,000 pounds. Large bulldozers can often weigh over 200,000 pounds and have 900-plus horsepower engines.
Loaders (also sometimes referred to as wheel, bucket or front-end loaders) are, in effect, a bulldozer that has been modified with hydraulic arms (usually mounted in the front) which allow it to raise a bucket (attached in place of the blade on a bulldozer) so that it can transport and dump large amounts of material into trucks, other containers, landfills or quarries.
Unlike bulldozers, loaders will often use wheels instead of tracks to give them greater maneuverability. The hydraulic arms to which the bucket is attached are controlled by the operator from inside the cab of the machine and are designed to raise, balance, and eventually dump the bucket’s load. Depending on the loader’s size, the bucket can be raised from about three to over ten feet and larger models can often accommodate over 10 tons of material.
Normally found at many of the same types of sites as the bulldozer, and used in some commercial applications (landscaping supply, coal distribution, wholesale feed, and grain, etc.) loaders will often come with fork attachments, effectively turning them into tractor-powered forklifts. Some can be fitted with ‘grabber’ devices which will secure large objects to move them.
Smaller, compact loaders will have a 40 to 100 HP engine and weigh anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 pounds while larger models can weigh up to 200,000 pounds and have 700 HP engines.
The backhoe (also sometimes called a rear actor) is a mobile excavating tractor with a large shovel/bucket mounted on a hydraulic arm in the front which is used for digging. Different from traditional excavators or power shovels (which are more or less stationary during operation and use a forward digging action) backhoes are mounted on tracks or wheels and are widely used in road and building construction, large waste management sites (dumps), and large-scale farming.
Not to be confused with backhoe attachments which are used often used in conjunction with general purpose farming tractors, industrial backhoes are purpose-built machines which exist to excavate large areas in a relatively short time, due primarily to their mobility.
Not in common use until the 1950s (coinciding with the development of advanced, affordable hydraulic systems) backhoes utilize an articulating arm which lowers the shovel bucket mounted on the front and then pulls it backwards to dig (hence the name ‘backhoe’). Many larger backhoes have front-end retractable stabilizers which steady the machine while it digs and rotatable cabs which allow the cab to turn completely around and deposit its load in a vehicle or container located behind or beside it.
In the last decade or so, small and medium-size backhoes have been largely replaced by the backhoe loader, discussed below. Large backhoes are comparable in weight and price to loaders, sometimes running slightly higher.
The backhoe loader, as the name indicates, is the combination of the loader and the backhoe into one machine. These tractors have the loader in the ‘front’ and the backhoe in the ‘rear’ – although these are relative terms as most of these machines are designed to operate with equal speed and efficiency while in either forward or reverse gears. Many models will feature a 4-wheel drive transmission system.
Usually, among the smallest industrial tractors, the backhoe loader is also one of the most popular, due to its compact design and versatility. Backhoe loaders are widely used in urban and suburban areas for street and housing construction/demolition and disaster management, as well as landscaping; cemetery and waste management; posthole, septic system and swimming pool digging; and similar applications in which their larger cousins are not practical due to their size.
The backhoe and loader hydraulic mechanisms work in the same way as their larger versions, although these machines do not usually have moveable cabs; rather, most feature reversible seats in a stationary cab which allows the driver to face either the loader or the backhoe depending on which he is using. General speaking, these tractors will have wheels as opposed to tracks for increased maneuverability, and some versions are manufactured with stabilizers mounted beneath the backhoe.
A mid-size backhoe loader will weigh anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 pounds and will run between $20,000 and $80,000. Smaller versions weighing and costing significantly less are sometimes called Bobcats (so named for the company that originally manufactured them) and are often marketed for rural home and small farm and garden use.
Pushback tractors (also referred to as aircraft tugs) are specifically designed for use in the aviation and aerospace industries and are used to tow or push aircraft on the ground. The process of moving an aircraft on the ground using external power is generally referred to as ‘pushback’ in aviation jargon, hence the name of this tractor.
Built lower to the ground than most other industrial tractors (similar to the agricultural orchard tractor) to allow them to fit under the aircraft’s nose and wings, pushback tractors will often use a tow bar placed behind the front landing gear to tow the aircraft. In some cases, the tow bar will be used to push the aircraft from the rear. Another variety, called the tow-barless pushback, is designed to lift the nose landing gear hydraulically and tow the aircraft on its real wheels alone.
Pushback tractors capable of towing 747s and larger aircraft (which will usually weigh from 450,000 to 600,000 pounds empty) will sometimes weigh around 100,000 pounds themselves and will have 700 – 800 HP engines. Extremely large versions of these machines were used by NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) to move the space shuttle prior to the agency’s ending of that program in 2011.
Military (also sometimes referred to as combat) tractors are used by the military of most countries for construction and demolition, temporary road building, and other projects in high risk areas. The largest user of military tractors in the world today is believed to be the US Army Corp of Engineers.
Military tractors usually are the same basic design as civilian industrial-style tractors, and virtually all the same types (bulldozer, loader, etc.) are used. However, military tractors are often enhanced in a number of ways for use in high risk or combat areas.
Common enhancements include reinforced tractor frames and undercarriages to withstand land mines and other types of explosive devices; armored plating around the body of the machine; and bulletproof, heat resistant glass surrounding the cab. Military tractors are sometimes designed with amphibious or semi-amphibious capabilities, and will travel on tracks, wheels or semi-tracks (a combination of tracks and wheels). Most are painted a camouflage brown or green.
Specialized units called artillery tractors were widely used prior to the 1970s for moving heavy guns to and from different combat positions, and were designed to travel through varying, difficult types of terrain. Today, as most artillery pieces are now single mobile units with their own propulsion systems, most artillery tractors have been converted to perform other tasks, or scrapped.
Machines Incorrectly Identified as Tractors
Often referred to as trailer tractors or semi-trailer trucks, semis are vehicles onto which a separate trailer unit (often having 18 wheels) are attached by a hitch. Referred to together as a tractor-trailer, these are usually the largest vehicles on the road and require special licenses to operate in the United States and most other countries.
While semis fit several of the criteria for being a tractor (using a hitch to connect to a trailer, providing propulsion to an otherwise stationary vehicle, etc.) they are actually considered to be a type of truck, and not what is traditionally thought of as a tractor.
Also sometimes called simply an engine or a locomotive tractor train, the locomotive has a history as long as that of the tractor; early models were powered by coal or wood-fired steam engines, just like traditional tractors. While they do provide propulsion for other cars (usually by pulling them) that are connected to them by hitches, a locomotive is actually a modified train car and not a tractor.
Today, locomotives are most often powered by a gas turbine or diesel-electric engines, or straight electricity provided by the rails (usually a charged ‘third rail’) that they run on. Incredibly powerful machines, locomotives regularly pull trains that are over two miles long. Interestingly, when locomotives are down for maintenance, it is often a tractor (similar to a bar-style pushback aviation tractor) that pulls them into the shop in the train yard.
Lisa has a Bachelor’s of Science in Communication Arts. She is an experienced blogger who enjoys researching interesting facts, ideas, products, and other compelling concepts. In addition to writing, she likes photography and Photoshop.