Buying a Tractor Backhoe: What you Need to Know – Subframe vs 3-Point

Considering buying a backhoe for your tractor? It’s a big investment that has been well worth it for me. I cover the reasons why you might consider a backhoe and the differences between the two major types: subframe and 3-point.

The main uses for a backhoe are:  digging holes, digging trenches, removing stumps, removing rocks, moving logs, and various landscaping tasks.  But they are expensive, ranging in cost from about $5,000 to over $10,000, so you have to intend on doing a lot of these types of projects to justify the cost vs renting and excavator or backhoe loader.

The bottom line is that I knew I had lots of digging projects ahead of me for many years to come and that’s why the investment in a backhoe made sense for me.  Of the 540 hours I have spent on my tractor so far, most of them have involved using the backhoe.  One of my earliest big projects was replacing my driveway culvert pipe, which I was able to do in one day.

There is however one more factor I considered in the decision: operating a backhoe is a LOT of fun! I learned this even before I bought my tractor by renting a backhoe loader a couple of times.  If you haven’t rent one before, you may want to try renting one first to get a feel for operating a backhoe and help determine if this is a tool you’d use enough to justify the expense.

Keep in mind that while backhoes excel in digging trenches and deep holes, you can also do a lot of digging tasks with a front-end loader, so you also need to think about the types and frequency digging jobs you’ll do over the years.

Speaking of front-end loaders, my Kubota BH77 backhoe weighs in at 850 lbs, which effectively takes that much weight off the front tires, make the front of the tractor too light.  In fact, my backhoe manual warns that you must never remove the front-end loader while the backhoe is attached.  The LA525 front-end loader on my tractor weighs 925 pounds, which is more than enough to counteract the weight of the backhoe.

There are two types of backhoe attachments you can buy for your tractor: subframe mount and 3-point mount. A subframe backhoe involves having two sturdy steel supports that your dealer will bolt to both sides of your tractor, attached to where the loader towers bolt on and to the rear axle.  The subframe provides the extra strength your tractor chassis needs to stand the stresses a backhoe can create and also makes it quick and easy to attach the backhoe, compared to 3-point attached backhoes.

The dealer will also extend your tractor’s hydraulic lines to the rear of the tractor to provide hydraulic power for the backhoe.

Besides easier hook up, another advantage of a subframe backhoe over a 3-point mount backhoe is that it can attach closer to the rear of the tractor, which helps with balance and stability.   You can see this in the picture below, which shows my tractor on the left and a 3-point backhoe on the right. Notice that the stabilizers on my backhoe are close to the rear tires.  Now notice how much farther the stabilizers on the 3-point backhoe are from the rear tires.  The 3-point mount puts the whole backhoe farther from the tractor, shifting the center of gravity more toward the rear than a subframe backhoe.

Also as the picture below shows, the operator’s platform and seat on 3-point backhoes typically sit higher off the ground than a subframe backhoe, making it more of a challenge to get on and off as well as raising the center of gravity. 

This particular 3-point backhoe shown below is set dangerously far back, in my opinion, probably to accommodate the PTO shaft.

Speaking of which, 3-point backhoes are typically powered one of two ways: either by a short PTO shaft that connects to a hydraulic pump and reservoir mounted on the backhoe like the one above.  Or they have a hydraulic pump that connects directly to the PTO like this one shown below. 

If you want to see all the steps involved in attaching a 3-point backhoe this video on the Yogi YouTube channel is a good one to watch

The biggest risk of a 3-point backhoe is damaging your tractor 3-point hardware. Backhoes put tremendous stress on the 3-point. Especially when digging to the side. 3-points are designed to handle pulling and lifting, but not for extreme side-to-side stresses.  My backhoe is strong enough to drag the whole tractor to the side even with the outriggers down.  In some extreme cases, the forces of a 3-point backhoe can break a tractor in half. 

But you don’t have to take my word for it.  In this video from Messicks Neil explains in detail why they don’t encourage buying 3-point backhoes.

Subframe backhoes, on the other hand, are designed by the tractor manufacturers to fit specific tractor models, optimizing the size, weight, and power of the backhoe to those models, from subcompacts, to compact, to full size tractors.

Whatever tractor brand and type of backhoe you choose, the best deal you’ll like get on a backhoe is when you are purchasing your tractor.  That’s what I did when I bought my Kubota L3900 and other implements.