Choosing a tractor hydraulic fluid (THF) can be a complicated choice with potentially serious consequences. It might seem that whatever’s cheapest should be the obvious choice, but the cheapest may lead to more expensive costs down the road.  

Many think that all THF products are the same, but the THF market is flooded with low-quality fluids masquerading as legitimate quality lubricants. These bargain-bin blends might be easy on the wallet, but their true cost comes later, when they can cause irreversible damage to your equipment. Here’s what you need to know when choosing a THF.

The origin of THF 303 specification
THF has a tall order to fill. It needs to control friction, protect gears, uphold seals, prevent rust and more. All these demands mean that THF is a complex lubricant. To make sure their products are up to the job, high-quality THF manufacturers test them for certain specifications, or performance metrics, set by original equipment manufacturers (OEMs). 

But this wasn’t always the case. In the early 1970s, John Deere became the first OEM to define a set of standards for lubricating its tractors — this was referred to as the JDM 303 specification or just simply the 303 specification.

But this specification was retired after about a year on the market because of changing regulations and standards. And even though John Deere hasn’t used its 303 specification since the 70s, some lubricant manufacturers have continued making products labeled as THF 303. Why? Read on, and things start to make sense.

Verifying THF specifications
Many bargain-bin THFs are sold in attention-grabbing, yellow 5-gallon pails at rock-bottom prices. These lubricants advertise claims like “multipurpose product” or “good for older tractors.” But again, this product is advertising a 303 specification that has been retired for more than 40 years.

When a THF is designed to current specifications, it must undergo rigorous performance testing. This is to ensure the product backs the claims it makes. For example, if a THF’s specifications declare it has a pour point of -50 degrees Fahrenheit, then performance testing verifies that specification is indeed true.

But since the THF 303 specification is no longer supported, that means neither is THF 303 performance testing. So for all the checks and balances that current-spec fluids are subject to, THF 303 claims are unregulated.

Think of it in comparison to food. Food that is labeled “organic” has to meet specifications set by the FDA, but claims for “all-natural” food are not regulated and can be used on any package. In this way, sub-par lubricants manufacturers exploit the THF 303 specification as a loophole. By marketing a fluid under an obsolete specification, questionable manufacturers can cut corners during production — saving a buck for themselves, and in doing so, putting their customers’ equipment and business at significant risk.

What’s really inside THF 303
So, what actually goes into THF 303? The honest answer is anything and everything. Because there’s no independent party verifying the content of THF 303s, the sky’s the limit for what types of fluids these products can contain. And that’s a major problem. 

Often, THF 303 contains high levels of a fluid called flush oil. What is flush oil? On any given day, a lubricants production line may create many different fluids. To prevent cross-contamination between products, the entire production line is flushed with an inexpensive oil between production cycles, removing any residue from the line. 

The problem with flush oil
While flush oil plays an important role inside a lubricants production facility, it was never meant to be used by consumers. Its job is to collect leftover fluids, so once it’s been used, it becomes a stew of any number of chemical elements that were never intended to be combined.

Maintaining a tractor’s hydraulic system depends on a finely tuned balance of precise ingredients. But because flush oil doesn’t follow a recipe, there’s no way to control its chemical makeup or its blend of additives, meaning there’s no way it can truly protect your equipment.

Time is running out for THF 303 manufacturers
Recently, states have begun cracking down on THF 303 manufacturers. In multiple cases, government regulators found that THF 303s fail to meet their claimed specifications. What’s more, these regulators have found that THF 303s are so underperforming that equipment damage is likely to result from use.

Because of their fraudulent claims, the sale of THF 303s has been banned in several states. As the truth about these defective products continues coming to light, many industry experts agree it’s only a matter of time before THF 303s are banned nationwide.

A quality alternative to THF 303
There’s no such thing as a quality THF 303 product. While it can be tempting to cut costs with a less-expensive hydraulic fluid, in the long run, THF 303 costs far more than its price on the shelf. Lower productivity, unplanned downtime and shorter equipment life can all result from using THF 303.

Instead, choose a high-performing THF made from a quality base oil and enhanced with the right balance of additives. Cenex® offers a full line of high-quality hydraulic fluids designed specifically for the needs of farmers. To find out which lubricants meet the right specifications for your equipment, use the CENEX LUBRICANTS EQUIPMENT LOOKUP TOOL.
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