Tractors have been a significant part of farming since the early 1900s. Prior to that, farmers relied on draft animals and human labor to manage their fields and crops. The modern-day tractor serves many purposes. Tractors assist in soil preparation, planting, fertilizing and harvesting. Tractors can also be used for loading and hauling.
Utility tractors are designed to pull and power attached implements. These include implements such as hay mowers and balers, disk harrows and trailers. Utility tractors are smaller than general-purpose tractors, and they cannot perform all the functions of a general-purpose tractor.
General-purpose tractors are also called row-crop tractors. They can perform nearly all of the functions of a utility tractor, but are better suited for use with row crops such as beans, beets and carrots. They are built to have more clearance between the tractor base and the row crop, thus minimizing damage done to crops during tilling for weeds and harvesting. They are also designed specifically to straddle crop rows, which also minimizes damage.
Perhaps the primary function of a tractor is to assist with soil preparation. Large, open fields of soil can require many hours of hard labor to prepare by hand or with draft animals. Implements can be attached to tractors to make the soil preparation process easier and quicker. Tillers, plows and disks are all implements that can be attached to a tractor and used for various stages of soil preparation.
Tractors can be designed or equipped to assist with harvesting. Combines, for example, are implements attached to a tractor to harvest grain and seed crops. Grain carts that collect harvested crops can also be hooked to a tractor. Some crops, such as potatoes, are harvested by tractors that have been constructed specifically for the crop. The tractor pulls potatoes from the ground and moves them to a conveyor belt, where they can be sorted by hand prior to being dropped into a grain cart. Though tractors have made large-scale harvesting easier in many cases, some crops, such as berries, must still be harvested by hand.
With increasing focus on the environmental impacts of farming, many small farms in particular, are choosing to go without a tractor. Tractors can increase the pace of soil erosion. They can also compact sub-layers of soil due to their weight, making it more difficult for plant roots to grow. Tractors also come with additional costs in both fuel and maintenance. If you are considering purchasing a tractor, your best resource may be another local farmer who manages a similar amount of acreage and grows some of the same crops.