303 Tractor Fluid:
Problems Offset Upfront Savings

Consider less-than-optimal efficiency and long-term equipment damage before buying this outdated product.

Despite the fact that John Deere dropped its 303 specification in the 1970s, tractor hydraulic fluid (THF) sold as 303 THF is still on the market and is promoted for its cost-saving advantage. It’s often sold in 5-gallon containers.

While it’s true that 303 might cost less than high-performance THF blended to current specifications, that savings can be offset quickly by lower productivity and repair costs. 303 THF is inferior for use in modern farm equipment, can cause more frequent breakdowns, and requires more maintenance work, all of which cuts into productive farming time. Over the long term, 303 THF increases wear and can shorten the life of a tractor.

Here are some facts about what you are putting into your machinery when using a 303 THF:

  • The John Deere specification has evolved from 303 to J14B to J20A, which was then upgraded to the current specification — J20C. A 303 THF will not meet current tractor OEM fluid requirements.
  • The manufacturers of 303 THF typically use a low-cost, heavier base oil to thicken the fluid and do not use a viscosity modifier (VM). On the other hand, high-performance THF manufacturers add a VM, which is a more effective method for controlling fluid thickness. If your fluid does not have a VM in the formulation, it could be inconsistent and be too thick or too thin to flow in modern equipment. The result is poor lubrication, which contributes to wear, brake chatter, hydraulic pump starvation and inadequate flow at cold temperatures.
  • High-performance THFs blended to current specifications have oxidation-protection properties that keep parts cleaner and provide better overall performance. 303 THF can oxidize due to the oxidative properties of poorer base oils that are used. Oxidation will reduce the performance and shorten the life of a tractor by causing the formation of deposits and sludge.
  • Because it breaks down more, 303 THF has shorter drain intervals and needs to be drained and replaced more often than high-performance THFs.
  • THFs produced to current specifications improve operator safety and comfort by improving brake performance. They interact with friction materials better than 303 THFs, and optimal friction improves braking performance and reduces brake chatter.
  • 303 THFs are not formulated to prevent water contamination, which can cause erosion and corrosion, i.e., sluggish performance and hydraulic pump failure.
  • Bargain fluids don’t perform as well in cold temperatures as high-performance THFs. This is another downside that cuts into productivity. Higher-quality fluids are formulated for superior performance in temperatures below freezing, providing instant lubrication.

Every farmer is concerned with the bottom line, but it doesn’t pay off when productivity takes a hit and expensive equipment is damaged.

Consider this the real bottom line on 303 THFs: They may have worked well 30 years ago with old equipment, but as the hardware evolves (higher loading, higher temperatures) and power densities increase, the demand on lubricant performance is increasing as well. Using the proper fluid — high performance and designed for current specifications — is critical to the life of your tractor and the productivity of your farm.

In order to help you select fluids you can trust, we launched the tractorlife.com Authenticated mark. Fluids endorsed by this mark meet and often exceed OEM credentials, providing you optimal protection against wear, rust, oxidation, brake chatter, extreme temperatures and, ultimately, premature equipment failure. Find out more now!

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