Tractor Versus Tiller for the Self-Reliant Homesteader

Most serious homesteaders come to realize at some point in their journey to self-reliance that certain equipment not only makes life easier but is essential for efficient utilization of time. For financial reasons many homesteaders hold down jobs while at the same time juggling the demands of the home place. Possessing the right equipment can make the difference between struggling to get everything done and being able to keep up with the workload. One of the questions all of us face is which piece of large equipment is the ultimate choice for working the land, a tractor or a tiller. Let’s explore the pros and cons of a tractor versus tiller for the self-reliant homesteader.

Ron Tilling Under Cover Crop in Nova Scotia Garden

Ron Tilling Under Cover Crop in Nova Scotia Garden

Our Experiences

We’ve had both a tractor and a tiller at one time or another. At the Maine homestead we had an old Massey Harris tractor that dated from the 1930’s. We used it to plow and disc the garden as well as the field area where we planted crops for supplemental animal feed. It had a mower attachment we could use to mow the pasture and cut grass for hay. A handy trailer hooked to the tow bar which always came in handy to lug firewood and do miscellaneous tasks. We also had an old walk behind cultivator that we hooked to the back of the tractor and while I drove the tractor, Ron walked behind the cultivator guiding it.

Massey Harris Tractor from 1930's

Massey Harris Tractor from 1930’s

We used the tractor for other jobs besides plowing and cultivation too. Using the tractor’s power take off (PTO), we ran a post peeler for the cedar fence post part of our tree farm business. Other than using the mower attachment for mowing, that was the extent of our using the PTO, although there’s a myriad of attachments one could purchase that require the use of the PTO.

When we moved to the wilderness of northern Saskatchewan, flying in a farm tractor via bush plane was out of the question so we purchased a Troy-Bilt tiller Horse model and flew that in instead. We used it to break up virgin ground that was full of roots and small stumps from the forest we had to clear. Because of this we knew we needed a powerful enough machine to deal with these obstacles. As it was, Ron had to stop often, as in every pass or 2, to clean the tiller tines of roots that had wrapped themselves around.

Heavy Duty Tiller

Heavy Duty Tiller

Ron Making First Pass with Tiller in Saskatchewan Garden

Ron Making First Pass with Tiller in Saskatchewan Garden

When we moved to Nova Scotia, we hauled the tiller with us and once again it has been invaluable in preparing virgin ground that was once forest and turning it into a lush garden. Could a tractor have done the same thing here as in Maine? Sure, but we already had the tiller and we’re frugal people not afraid of hard work so we went with what we had.

Advantages of a Tractor

In addition to preparing the ground for a garden, a tractor can be used to prepare a field prior to planting. It can even be used to plant said field provided you have the right attachments. In fact if you have a big spread and plan to have a hay field and cut hay, a tractor is almost a necessity unless you have the time and inclination to do it all manually. And yes it can be done manually as we can attest. When the horse drawn mower gave us trouble, we were out there with both a scythe and a hand scythe whacking hay and grains.

A tractor is certainly more versatile than a tiller. It can be used to pull out boulders and tree stumps. With a tractor you may be able to yard out some trees for firewood and if you have a trailer that attaches to the tractor you can most definitely use it to haul cut up firewood, bales of hay or straw, large amounts of manure or compost not to mention rocks that have been “picked” out of the garden and/or fields.

If the tractor has a bucket on it, the versatility of the machine increases significantly as now you use the bucket to scoop up vast amounts of material at a time. Manure and compost are 2 things that come to mind that can be scooped up and transported to their destination in one big swoop. A huge labor and time saver.

The bucket can be used to turn large piles of compost that would require much effort and time to turn manually. The bucket can be used to transport things too such as hay or straw bales, sacks of feed, rocks, roots and stumps that have been removed from the garden areas. In winter, in a pinch, the bucket can be used for snow removal although in truth there are better options than that.

Tractor with Bucket and Forks Being Used to Move Around Logs

Tractor with Bucket and Forks Being Used to Move Around Logs

A tractor has what’s called a power take off (PTO). Some tillers also have a PTO. Obviously the output power of the PTO will be determined by engine size and gearing. What good is a PTO? A PTO can be used for providing power to devices. For example, a tractor drawn mower needs to have some means of power going to it to engage the cutting blades. The transfer of power is done through a PTO shaft which is the connection between the tractor and the device.

A tiller PTO might come in handy but is limited to a few attachments and those attachments are specific to each manufacturer.

This past fall we rejoined the crowd of tractor owners by purchasing a small, used farm tractor. It came with a bucket that we’ll use to scoop up mulch and composted manure for distribution to areas where those materials need to go. We can also use the bucket to collect the many rocks our soil seems to grow each season.

The tractor came with a snow plow attachment which may come in handy as we do get snow in the winter. But given that our driveway is a mile long gravel woods road through the forest it remains to be seen how much we’ll actually use it to plow the road. It will likely be simpler and easier to continue parking the vehicle at the driveway entrance and use the snowmobile to get in and out.

And the final attachment this tractor came with is a small backhoe. How I wish we’d had that when we were digging all the holes for the orchard trees!

Disadvantages of a Tractor

We think it goes without saying that if you have a big spread and plan to do some serious farm work a tractor is essential but for a suburban application even a small tractor is over kill and totally unnecessary.

While a tractor is more versatile than a tiller, that versatility comes at a greater cost. Tractors are more expensive than tillers. Furthermore, even though a tractor is capable of doing many types of jobs, they generally can’t do many of them without special attachments that have to be purchased. You want to plow, disc or harrow, you’ll need to buy each of those attachments separately. Want to bale hay for the livestock? Well guess what? You need to buy the baler. But you’ll also need the mower attachment to cut the hay. So you see where I’m going with this. You can do many different tasks with a farm tractor but you’ll need to buy the implements to do them.

Advantages and Disadvantages of a Tiller

One of the first advantages that come to mind regarding a tiller is cost. A tiller will be cheaper than a tractor. It will also be much smaller so it’s great for small spaces such as suburban gardens. But even large gardens in rural areas can be prepared with a tiller and even the field we planted back in Maine could have been prepped with a tiller. No question a tiller can fully prepare the ground prior to planting. It can also be used through the season to cultivate in between the rows provided your crops are planted in rows. But that’s about all it can do.

Tilling Under Winter Rye in Spring in Nova Scotia

Tilling Under Winter Rye in Spring in Nova Scotia

Forget about pulling out rocks or tree stumps, hauling anything around or using it to plant, bale hay, etc etc.

Bottom Line

There are advantages and disadvantages to both a tiller and a tractor. When deciding which is best for your self-reliant homestead, consider your budget, what jobs you need to do around your place and how big your place is. You may even decide that having both a tiller and a tractor make sense given your goals and circumstances. We are now in that category having both a tiller and a small farm tractor.

Until next time, keep the dream alive! We wish you a great day!

Ron and Johanna

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