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Modern farm tractors employ large diesel engines, which range in power output from 18 to 575 horsepower (15 to 480 kW). Tractors can be generally classified as two-wheel drive, two-wheel drive with front wheel assist, four-wheel drive (often with articulated steering), or track tractors (with either two or four powered rubber tracks). Variations of the classic style include the diminutive lawn tractors and their more capable and ruggedly constructed cousins, garden tractors, that range from about 10 to 25 horsepower (7.5-18.6 kW) and are used for smaller farm tasks and mowing grass and landscaping. Their sizeespecially with modern tractorsand the slower speeds are reasons motorists are urged to use caution when encountering a tractor on the roads.
Most tractors have a means to transfer power to another machine such as a baler, slasher or mower. Early tractors used belts wrapped around a flywheel to power stationary equipment. Modern tractors use a power take-off (PTO) shaft to provide rotary power to machinery that may be stationary or pulled. Almost all modern tractors can also provide external hydraulic fluid and electrical power.
Most farm tractors use a manual transmission. They have several sets of gear ratios divided into speeds. In order to change the ratio, it is usually necessary to stop the tractor. Between them they provide a range of speeds from less than one mile per hour suitable for working the land, up to about 25 miles per hour (40 km/h) for road use. Furthermore it is usually not necessary to change gear in order to reverse, one simply selects a lever. Older tractors usually require that the operator depress the clutch in order to shift between gears (a limitation of straight-cut gears in the gearbox), but many modern tractors have eliminated this requirement with the introduction of technologies such as power shifting in the 1960s and more modern continuously variable transmissions. This allows the operator more and easier control over working speed than the throttle alone could provide.
Slow, controllable speeds are necessary for most operations that are performed with a tractor. They help give the farmer a larger degree of control in certain situations, such as field work. However, when travelling on public roads, the slow operating speeds can cause problems, such as long queues or tailbacks, which can delay or aggravate other road users. To alleviate conditions, some countries (for example the Netherlands) employ a road sign on some roads that means "no farm tractors". Some modern tractors, such as the JCB Fastrac, are now capable of much more tolerable road speeds of around 50 mph (80 km/h).