Many smallholders, supposedly proficient in the driving of a car or bakkie, will start driving their recently-acquired tractor with absolutely no training whatsoever, simply muttering to themselves “how hard can it be?” And in so doing laying themselves open to, firstly, breaking their machines and, secondly, injuring themselves ~ or worse.

For, tractors of all sizes are inherently dangerous, and are used in sometimes dangerous situations. Fortunately, for smallholders who would like to make their tractor driving safer, or who would like to teach their children and staff how to keep themselves safe, the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) has compiled a manual of Agricultural Safety Codes. Modern tractors, even small ones, are fitted with a Rops, a roll-over protection system, which often incorporates a canopy to shield the driver from the sun. But even with a rops, a tractor can be dangerous.

One of the most common and dangerous practices is to allow a passenger to perch on a mudguard while driving. Next, high speeds, particularly on roads, can cause the tractor to start bouncing. Remember that a tractor has no suspension, and the propensity to bounce can be accentuated if the tractor’s rear wheels are partially water-filled.

Both carrying passengers and high speeds are often associated with fooling about on the machine ~ a sure recipe for accidents, particularly when drink and bravado are combined. Where ~ and how ~ loads are attached to the tractor can greatly affect its stability. Loads attached to the front, for example a full frontend bucket load of something heavy such as mud or rock can be too much and cause the tractor to tip forward, particularly if the trip under load happens to be downhill. Loads attached to the back, such as an overly heavy implement, can cause the front end to lift off the ground, resulting in zero ability to steer.

A tractor with a rops fitted.

In the same vein, allowing the front wheels to lift off the ground, for example when pulling out a tree stump, and then allowing the tractor to slam down again, is a sure-fire way to break the front axle.

With smaller, older tractors, as will typically operate on a smallholding, the implements used should never exceed the ability of the tractor to handle them, and buyers should be mindful of the power output of their tractors when seeking implements. It is also prudent to “buy down” when kitting out an older tractor with implements, to buy implements that are well below or at least comfortably within the tractor’s advertised power output rather than close to its upper limit. Then, when they are being used, the rule of thumb for small tractors is that ground-engaging implements should only be used with the tractor in first gear.

When ripping or ploughing unworked rocky ground, or ground that has been cleared of trees, there is always a danger that the submerged part of the implement can snag an immovable rock or stump. This can cause the tractor to tip over backwards as the rear wheels continue to propel the machine forward. Two things can prevent this from becoming a fatal accident. The first is the presence of a rops on the tractor, and the second, in the case of the plough at least, is the use of a shearbolt (Afr: “breekbout”) plough where a mild steel bolt of about 8mm dia forms the securing bolt of each share. When the share encounters the immovable object this securing bolt will break, allowing the share to swing back and upwards and slide harmlessly over the obstacle.

How implements and loads are hitched to the tractor is also important. Firstly, the implement should always be fastened to the three points of a three-point linkage, with each point secured with a shackle or heavy pin. Secondly, when dragging items such as logs, stationary vehicles etc by means other than a three-point linkage, eg by rope or chain, the natural tendency of the uninitiated will be to remove the centrelink and attach the chain or rope to the high centre hitching point under the tractor’s seat. This is dangerous because the load is too high and can cause the tractor to tip upwards, and therefore over backwards. A very heavy weight on the drawbar, for example the weight of a heavy single-axle trailer, can cause the front wheels to lift.

Travelling up a slope can result in the tractor flipping over backwards, especially if a heavy implement is attached, or if the operator accelerates suddenly. Conversely, travelling down a slope transfers the weight of the tractor to the front wheels, and sudden stopping can cause the tractor to flip over frontwards. Travelling across a slope is dangerous because the tractor, with a relatively high centre of gravity, can easily flop on to its side.

Finally, your ground may be crisscrossed with ditches, for irrigation or drainage for example. Crossing these at right angles can cause the tractor to come to a sudden stop as the front wheels can’t climb out of the exit side. The remedy is to reverse back up out of the ditch and approach it again, slowly, at an angle. Similarly, if you become stuck in a muddy patch, don’t try to force your way forward: your front wheels will just dig into the mud and your back wheels will become caked in mud and begin to slip ~ that is, after they have dug themselves a nice deep hole. Rather, again, try reversing out before seeking a tow if this doesn’t work.

For more information or to order a copy of the ARC’s safety codes email

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