Have you had your tractor start, but the steering or brakes don’t respond? Or maybe your steering is sluggish and the implements don’t work? Your hydraulic system is having problems. What can you do about it?

Here is an example. A farmer called me one day and said his tractor started up just fine that morning, but when he went to feed his cows, he didn’t have any hydraulics. No steering, no brakes, nothing. So he ran it for awhile, then shut it off. I went to his farm and started asking questions. “When was the last time you changed the oil? When was the last time you changed the hydraulic filter?”

And he said, “Hydraulic filter? What’s that? This has a hydraulic filter in it?”

Well, it’s covered, and it doesn’t look like a filter. It’s pretty easy to get to; it just has a couple wing-nuts on it. And if he had gotten down on the ground and looked, it had a decal on it that said hydraulic filter and what to do with it. His operator manual told where it was and how to change it.

We got under there and took the filter out. It was a chunk of ice. We put a new filter in and drained as much water out of the system as possible, and I told him to check for water again the next morning. After that his steering, brakes and loader worked fine.


A lot of times these steering, brake or implement problems start at the filter. Underneath the hydraulic filter, in the housing, there’s a screen. It’s across the bottom of the transmission case and the differential housing (location could be different on some machines, so check your manual). So any metal goes across the bottom and stays there. The fiber and metal can plug that screen. On some equipment, the oil goes through the screen first before it goes to the filter. A lot of people don’t even know that screen is there. If you have a problem or failure, the dealership or mechanic is going to look there first.

Also, I mentioned that we drained as much water out as possible. Make sure you do this next check when the oil is cold. You can drain the water by following these steps:

  • Find a clean, white 5-gallon bucket. (Use white because it’s easier to see what is in the liquid.)
  • Get under the tractor where the drain is for the oil and hydraulics. (Most equipment today is drained through one location. That is not always the case, so you have to go to your operator manual to find out.)
  • Loosen the plug until it’s just about to thread out. Don’t pull it all the way out.
  • Oil or water will start to drip out. If it’s water, then you have condensation. Let it drain until oil starts to come out. (I have seen as much as two or three cups of water drained from one piece of machinery. If you have that much water, you better change the oil because the conditioners and inhibitors aren’t working anymore and it needs to be changed.)
  • If you pull the plug all the way out and let two or three quarts out, then put it back in, you can look to see how much metal and debris is in your system.

There will usually be some brass flakes and metal in the oil, but if there are chunks falling out, then you have a problem and you need to look into it. It could be your brakes, your transmission, a pump or something else.

Steering and brakes are priority. You always have to steer the tractor and stop it, so in most cases, they get the oil first. Any time you have sluggish steering or brakes, there is a good chance you have a problem with your hydraulic system. Always go back to filters and screens and check them first. They’re an easy fix. PD

Jim Schlund
Diesel Mechanics
College of Southern Idaho