Ultimate Guide To Buying The Best Compact Tractor

Owning a compact tractor can make life in the country much easier and save you a lot of back breaking work. Many rural property owners have never owned or operated a compact tractor before so we put together this guide to give you a primer on what to look for and how to buy the best compact tractor for your needs.

Start with the tasks you need to do

The very first step to buying the best compact tractor is to make a list of the tasks you need to complete. After all, the tractor is a tool to to do your work. Being realistic about how you will use the tractor will help guide you toward the best fit.

It’s important to focus on your tasks. Start by making a list of tasks you will use the tractor for and circle the 2-3 you will do most often.

Here’s a few examples of common tasks our customers are looking to handle with a tractor:

  • Mowing
  • Road maintenance
  • Firewood processing
  • Forestry work
  • Brush clearing
  • Barn cleaning
  • Fence building
  • Ditch cleaning
  • Trenching
  • Stump removal
  • Digging and grading
  • Food plots
  • Garden installation and maintenance
  • Spraying
  • Snow removal
  • Moving materials on pallets
  • Harrowing
  • Pasture improvement
  • Hay handling & feeding animals

Now that you’re clear on the jobs you’ll be using the tractor for we need to select the right size. Keep in mind this isn’t exact science. There are lots of reasons you might need a larger or smaller tractor based on the guidelines below.

Sub-Compact Models: 1-3 acres

  • Horsepower: 20-25
  • Fuel: diesel
  • Weight (tractor only): 1,400-1,600 lb.
  • Loader lift (pivot pins): < 1,000 lb.
  • Examples: LS MT125, KIOTI CS2510

Sub-Compact tractors are the most popular size tractors sold in North America. These tractors are 4wd, 20-25 horsepower and weigh between 1,400 and 1,600 lbs (tractor only). Tractors in this class can operate most 4’ implements and have a loader lift capacity of less than 1,000 lb. Examples of sub-compact tractor models include the LS MT1 series and the KIOTI CS series.

Small Frame Compact Models: 2-5 acres

  • Horsepower: 24-30
  • Fuel: diesel
  • Weight (tractor only): 1,600-2,200 lb.
  • Loader lift (pivot pins): 1,000-1,00 lb.
  • Examples: LS XJ2025, KIOTI CK2510

The next step up from a sub-compact is the small frame compact models like the LS XJ2025 and KIOTI CK2510. Small frame compacts are larger, heavier and more capable than sub-compacts . Most tractors in this category have 24-30 horsepower, four wheel drive and weigh 1,600 to 2,200 lbs (tractor only). Most small frame compacts will handle 4-5’ implements and lift 1,000-1,200 pounds at the pivot pins. 

Mid-Size Compact Models: 5-15 acres

  • Horsepower: 25-40
  • Fuel: diesel
  • Weight (tractor only): 2,200-2,900 lb.
  • Loader lift (pivot pins): 1,600-2,200 lb.
  • Examples: LS XG3025, XG3135, KIOTI CK2610, KIOTI CK3510

Mid-sized compact tractors like the KIOTI CK10 and LS XG series have 25-40 horsepower, much larger tires and lift capacities vs. the smaller framed models. Models above 25 horsepower feature Tier 4 electronic diesel engines; models below 25 have simpler mechanical engines. Tractors in this class can use 5-6’ implements, have loader lift capacity of 1,600 to 2,200 lbs and weigh between 2,200-2,800 lbs.

Full Size Compact Models: 10+ acres

  • Horsepower: 40-60
  • Fuel: diesel
  • Weight (tractor only): 3,300-4,400 lb.
  • Loader lift (pivot pins): 2,100-3,000 lb.
  • Examples: LS MT345E, XR4140, KIOTI DK4510, KIOTI NX4510

Full sized compacts vary a lot in size depending on the manufacturer.  Full size compact tractors are 40 to 60 horsepower, weigh close to 4,000 lb. and will lift over 2,000 lb with the loader. Full size compacts are big enough to handle hay equipment and 6-7’ implements with ease. Factory enclosed cabs with air conditioning are available. The LS Tractor MT3, XR4100 series and KIOTI DK10 and NX series are examples of full size compact tractors.

Personal use vs. commercial operator?

If you will only be working around your own property and using your tractor in your spare time the general size guidelines above should work well. If you plan on doing work for hire consider going one size larger than you would for your own property. Going larger gives you more options for outside work. Plus your tractor will last longer.

Do you need a cab?

Compact tractors with enclosed cabs are very nice to operate. The cab keeps you warm and dry in winter and cool in the summer. Air conditioning does use a few horsepower to operate. We recommend going up 5 horsepower on cab models vs a tractor without a cab. Factory cabs add about $5,000 to the tractor base price. 

Comparing specs, what do they mean?

When you start researching specific models and trying to compare them it can get a bit tricky. Manufacturers speak their own language and call the same thing by different names. How do you know what matters? Here’s a brief explanation of what each specification means in the real world:


Tractors have two different horsepower ratings, engine and PTO. Engine horsepower is the output of the engine without anything connected to it. PTO horsepower is the net available horsepower after powering the hydraulics and transmission. PTO horsepower is the better spec to compare because it’s the power that’s available to do work with. 

Hydraulic Flow (GPM): 

Hydraulic flow is measured in gallons per minute at the highest engine RPM. The hydraulic system on most compact tractors includes a 2 stage hydraulic pump mounted to the engine like this:

The can see there are two distinct sections to this pump,  so it’s two pumps together in a single housing. The reason for two sections is for performance and safety. Usually the hydraulic steering system is supplied oil from one section and the remaining functions of the tractor are supplied oil from the second section. The reason for the split output is so the steering system always has enough oil flow to operate properly even when there are other functions demanding oil. A tractor with a single stage pump might not have power steering while raising the loader or while powering an implement from the rear remote valves.

Tractor hydraulic system output is measured in gallons per minute (GPM) but there are different ways to list the output. It’s important to know which rating is being used for comparison sake:

  • Total Capacity (GPM): this is the maximum output of the system including all pumps (steering pump + implement pump)
  • Steering Pump (GPM): steering flow is usually the rated output of the steering pump section only.
  • Main Pump or Implement Pump (GPM): the implement pump is the larger section of the hydraulic pump and the output is usually what’s available at the rear remotes.

When comparing hydraulic specs make sure you’re using the same rating. For example comparing the implement output of one model to the combined output isn’t apples to apples.

Three Point Hitch (3PT):

The three point hitch or 3PT is the lift arms on the back of the tractor that allow implements to be mounted on the tractor. It’s called a three point hitch because the implement attaches at three points, the two lift arms and the top link. 3PT hitches have standard size specifications by horsepower. Three point hitch sizes are called category, most compact tractors have a category 1. If your tractor has a CAT I hitch, most CAT I implements will be compatible.

On compact tractors the three point hitch lifts hydraulically and uses gravity to lower. The important spec you should pay attention to is the lift capacity and how it’s rated. The more weight the hitch can lift the better but it’s important to know which rating was used. 

  1. Lift capacity at ball ends: This is the max weight the tractor can lift at the end of the lower arms
  2. Lift capacity at 24”: This is amount the tractor can lift 24” behind the end of the lift arms. 

It’s important to know which rating is being used. There’s as much as 50% difference in how much the tractor three point can lift at the ball ends compared to 24” behind. It’s a lot like lifting a bucket of water with your arms at your side vs lifting the same bucket with your arm extended. The farther the weight is from the tractor the less lifting capacity you have.

  • Draft control vs. position control

The other important three point feature to note is draft control vs. position control. Most compact tractors under 40 horsepower have what’s called position control. That means you manually set the hitch height and adjust it while working with the control lever. Tractors with draft control can adjust the hitch height automatically as the load changes. Today, the majority of compact tractor users don’t use draft control even if the tractor has it. There are some good uses for it though. If you plan on doing a lot of grading or road maintenance draft control is a nice feature.

Power Take Off (PTO)

The power take off (PTO) is the shaft on the rear of the tractor used to power implements like mowers or rototillers. Modern compact tractors use a standard 1-⅜” diameter 6 spline PTO that operates at 540 RPM. 

Independent PTO vs. Live PTO

There’s a lot of difference in operating a tractor with a live PTO compared to a independent PTO. A live PTO is “live” whenever the tractor is moving and stops when the tractor stops. This is not ideal for most tasks if you need to start and stop or change directions while working. Some tractors with live PTO also have a 2 stage clutch. You can depress the clutch pedal to the first stage which stops the tractor while the PTO stays running. Independent PTO means the PTO output is independent from the transmission. With independent PTO the power take off is turning even when you stop or back up. 

Remote Valves

A remote hydraulic valve has two ports that can supply hydraulics to an attachment like a backhoe. These valves are double acting which means one valve has two ports. They are often referred to in pairs (2 pairs = 2 valves or 4 ports). Most economy models don’t come standard with remotes. Premium models often have 1 or 2 pairs as standard equipment. The most common uses for rear remotes on compact tractors are to operate a backhoe or a top & tilt kit. 

Tire Types

Compact tractors have three tire options:

R-1 (Ag): R1 tires provide the best traction in dirt and mud. Due to the aggressive tread ag tires will do the most damage to soft soils and grass. Ag tires are usually the narrowest option if width is a concern.

R-4 (Industrial): R-4 or industrial tires are the most popular tire on compact tractors. R-4 tires are puncture resistant and are the longest wearing tire. They also provide good flotation but do give up traction in certain applications like deep mud and side hills vs R-1 tires.

Turf: Turf tires have great flotation and do the least amount of damage when driving on grass. The trade off is less traction compared to the other options.

Tire ballast

Any compact tractor with a loader should have ballast added for safety. The easiest option is having the rear tires filled with liquid like beet juice. Beet juice is heavier than water, won’t freeze and is environmentally friendly. A gallon of beet juice weighs about 10 lbs. so filling the rear tires adds significant weight. The best part is the weight is there all the time, even when there’s no attachment hooked to the three point hitch. 

Transmission Options

Modern compact tractors have two transmission options: Gear or hydrostatic (HST)

There are tons of opinions about which transmission is best. Both options have their own pros and cons which are listed below. The best option is to drive both and see which you like best. 

Gear Transmission

Manual transmissions in tractors are called a lot of different things but “gear” is the best term to describe all transmissions that are not HST. The most common gear transmission options are:

  • Manual: typically has 3-5 speed selections ( “gears” ) and 2-3 ranges. Must press the clutch pedal to change speeds or direction.
  • Manual Shuttle: Same basic transmission as a manual but has a dedicated lever for forward and reverse. 
  • Power Shuttle: Same as a manual shuttle except a power shuttle uses a wet clutch pack that allows shifting from forward to reverse without using the clutch pedal or stopping. More common in tractors over 50 horsepower.

Pros: minimal horsepower loss, easier to maintain fixed ground speeds, lower initial cost

Cons: requires you to use the clutch to change direction or speeds. 

Hydrostatic (HST) Transmission

HST transmissions are a fluid drive instead of a mechanical. Without getting too technical, the transmission is driven by a hydraulic motor which allows for infinite speeds and quick direction changes. HST transmissions are controlled by directional pedals on the platform and don’t require the use of a clutch pedal to operate. The basic operation is when you press the forward pedal the tractor moves forward and the speed increases the more the press the pedal down. 

Pros: for most the HST is the easier to operate, higher initial cost

Cons: higher horsepower loss compared to gear transmission, harder to maintain fixed speed

Buying a tractor with a front end loader

The majority of compact tractors are sold with a front end loader. This is probably the most used attachment and for good reason. Digging, moving material like bark mulch or gravel, cleaning manure or clearing brush are all jobs you need a loader for. 

When comparing various tractor models you should also compare the features and specs of the front end loader package on the tractor. The two specs to pay the most attention to are maximum lift capacity and lift height. 

The maximum lift capacity is normally measured at the pivot pins, although some manufacturers do print a rating forward of the pivot pins. Just like the 3pt hitch ratings the lift capacity at the pivot pins doesn’t represent what the loader will actually lift in real life application. 

The maximum lift height can be measured a few different ways, normally with the bucket level measured at the pivot pins. Keep in mind if you plan on using any attachments other than the standard bucket that the usable height might be a little different depending on the location of the mount.

There are several different types of bucket mounts available too. Some are manufacturer specific but the most common type is the universal skid steer mount (sometimes call SSQA or SKC). Any quick attach mount is better than the pin-on type because changing attachments is fast and painless with the quick attach. The skid steer type quick attach is the most popular mount and is recommended because most attachments are available with that type of mount, attachment choices will be limited with manufacturer specific mounts. 

One additional recommendation for a tractor with a loader is to use some type of ballast. Modern tractors have powerful hydraulics and many loaders are capable of lifting more than the tractor can safely handle, especially on uneven terrain. Adding ballast by filling the rear tires with something like beet juice or using a 3pt ballast box will make the tractor much safer and improve loader performance. 


New tractors come with a factory warranty similar to a new car. Different components of the tractor have varying amounts of warranty coverage. The general warranty or ‘bumper to bumper’ term will be different than the powertrain coverage for example. Be sure to ask questions and review the OEM warranty policy before buying to be sure you understand how and what your new tractor warranty will cover. Be aware that no manufacturer warranty covers transportation of the tractor to the dealership for repairs. Some dealers will provide this service at no cost but check with your dealer for specifics. 

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