ATV vs. Compact Tractor for Food Plots

By author of Brow Tines and Backstrap

In the battle to break ground, which machine is the best bet for hunters?

Food-plotting is a money-and-time-sucking endeavor rivaled only by boat ownership or a blackjack addiction. Consider this before clearing that thicket and planting clover. Yet, in many situations, nothing can make a faster, more dramatic improvement to your hunting.  

Food plots can be created in a pinch with minimal tools. Hansen, thrift-shopping Yankee that he is, is the master of that. But for serious work over the long haul, you need more substantial toys than a rake and lighter. A tractor is the only practical choice for larger plots in excess of, say, 2 acres. Yes, I realize farmers once used mules for this task. They also had nothing else to do in a week’s time. You probably do.   

The average food plot is much smaller than 2 acres. Often, you can’t even get to it with a big tractor, much less maneuver a 10-foot disk. Many times, these hidden, half-acre plots are the true gems when it comes to hunting potential. For areas like this, which is better: an ATV or compact tractor? There are pros and cons to each, but the answer is clear. Here's what to consider.

WEIGHT An unpleasant portion of your food-plotting time will be spent fixing flat tires and extracting stuck equipment from the mud. It’s the nature of the game. The heaviest ATVs weigh around 800 pounds (most weigh considerably less). Even a small diesel tractor like a 23-horse New Holland Boomer weighs 1,700 pounds, without implements. Heavy things get stuck harder and are more difficult to move. Edge: ATV

IMPLEMENT ATTACHMENT Although the tractor’s actual horsepower rating is much lower than the ATV's, it’s designed for lifting and pulling heavy implements. Implement attachment on a tractor is via a hydraulic 3-point system designed to pivot, tilt and place the weight and work load of the implement on the tractor's large back wheels. A 3-point hitch system is adjustable, depending on the implement and task. The lift capacity on the Boomer referenced above is 1,400 pounds. I’ve tried my whole life to tear up a 3-point hitch. I’ve never succeeded beyond occasional damage to a hydraulic hose (which can be replaced in a few minutes). ATV implements, on the other hand, attach via a standard draw bar (trailer) hitch. Tearing those up is relatively simple. Edge: Tractor

The only advantage offered by an ATV for a dedicated food plot machine is that it’s lightweight and maneuverable. It’s woefully outclassed by even a small tractor when it comes to actually breaking ground.

IMPLEMENT CAPABILITY A tractor’s Power Take Off (PTO) system is designed to operate implements such as tillers and mowers. A tractor’s hydraulic system can lift, lower and maneuver box blades and front end loaders, and many of them can apply downward pressure to disks, plows and the like so that they will cut the ground more effectively.

 ATVs don’t have PTOs or hydraulic systems. Equipment for them is hitch-up and pull-behind only. Tow-behind mowers are available for ATVs, but they require their own engines and cost near three times that of a similarly sized PTO-driven rotary mower (generically called a bush hog, though Bush Hog is a name brand). The bush hog will have no trouble with a 2-inch sapling. The pull-behind mower probably will.  

Used tractor implements are available everywhere, and they last. It’s not unheard of to untangle a half-century-old 2-bottom plow from a blackberry thicket behind a farmer’s barn, hand the farmer a fifty, and be plowing by the following afternoon with little more involved than some grease in the fittings and time spent scouring the blades.

ATV implements are comparatively expensive and difficult to find. Edge: Tractor

LONG TERM COST A new subcompact tractor will cost more than a new ATV up front (but not much more if you get a big, 4x4 ATV model). Prices level out fast on the used market. Diesel tractors last a long time. I’m currently handling most of my food plot work with a tractor that’s nearly 40 years old. It has minor leaks and occasional hiccups, sure. But day in and out, it just works and runs without asking for anything more than fuel, grease and the occasional oil change. You can find tractors like this throughout farm country for less than $5 grand. If there are 20-year-old 4-wheelers out there still running after a lifetime’s worth of cultivation work, I’ve not seen them. Edge: Tractor

Really, the only advantage offered by an ATV for a dedicated food plot machine is that it’s lightweight and maneuverable. It’s woefully outclassed by even a small tractor when it comes to actually breaking ground.

In a perfect world, a land manager owns both. Fire up the ATV for moving stands and hauling deer out of the woods. It’s great for spraying herbicide and broadcasting lime, fertilizer and small seeds, like clover and turnips, too. But when you have a big-boy task like clearing brush, leveling ground or breaking dirt to complete, use the tractor. That’s what it’s designed to do.