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A Risky Purchase: ‘303’ Tractor Fluid

Any time you visit your local parts or farm supply store, you might see “303 Tractor Fluid” on the shelves. And if you’re bargain hunting, that container of 303 might look like a tempting buy. While 303 sits on the shelves amidst other fluids and lubricants and might even come in packaging that looks similar to brands you know and trust, be warned: 303 is a risky purchase. That cheap buy could end up costing you greatly down the line.

What is 303 Fluid?
In the 1970s, John Deere created an OEM specification for tractors and other similar equipment built between 1960 and 1974. That specification was called JD-303. But after a short time, the specification was made obsolete when the Endangered Species Act outlawed the use of whale oil, which the specification was loosely based on. Today, that “yellow bucket,” as 303 is often packaged, still touts the 303 specs and savings of that original product. However, the usage of that term just gets murkier as time passes.

Since retiring the JD-303 specification in 1974, John Deere created the J14 and then later the J20-A specifications, both of which are also outdated. Later, John Deere updated that J20-A to J20-C. That J20-C specification carried over the additive chemistry from the previous iteration. The only new addition to the J20-C specification was a test that assessed a tractor fluid’s oxidation and seal capabilities so that it could meet the Allison C-4 spec. Otherwise, the specification was the same.

The Risk of an Outdated Specification
As Deere specifications continued to change, some fluid manufacturers saw an opportunity: offer a bargain bin, “cost effective” fluid that was simply watered down. Some smoke-and-mirrors marketing was employed here too. Have an older tractor? These manufacturers claimed 303 was all you needed. However, the “303” sold by these manufacturers was obsolete by a long shot. The treat rate of this fluid was reduced, and the fluid wasn’t even meeting the now-outdated J20-A specification. What’s worse, some blenders were using poor-quality base oils or refinery line wash to make these fluids. No matter how you look at it, 303 wasn’t meeting anyone’s requirements.

Another area blenders cut corners to create 303 was in its additives. Since additives are the key to getting fluids to perform the job they’re supposed to (whether it’s transmissions, hydraulic systems, hydrostatic units, or wet brakes), reducing those additives can have a detrimental effect on the fluid’s ability to do that job. And in the case of 303, that’s exactly what happened: the three primary additives you look for in a quality tractor fluid (zinc and phosphorous, often as ZDDP, as well as calcium compounds) were reduced. Thus, the fluid wouldn’t perform as it should. Once again, the product was marketed as an inexpensive alternative, but was anything but.

There’s proof of poor performance in a variety of studies. The Petroleum Quality Institute of America conducted a study of these 303 fluids from store shelves in 2017 and 2018. With the above information in mind, you probably won’t be surprised to see the following findings:

  • 91% failed to meet the J20-C and J20-A specifications
  • 74% failed to meet any JDM specifications
  • These products had a 60% chance of lower anti-wear protection than J20-C
  • And these products also had a 73% chance they’ll offer less detergency than J20-C

What Else Could Go Wrong When You Use a 303 Fluid?
No matter how you look at it, using 303 fluids is a risk. They’re claiming to use a standard that’s more than 40 years out of date, and in reality they’re often poorly manufactured and blended with low-quality components at inadequate dosing rates. Since the 303 specification doesn’t exist, there isn’t anything that could technically stop a manufacturer from putting whatever they wanted into that yellow bucket.

Using 303 could lead to a laundry list of problems, including insufficient startup protection in cold weather, pump leakage at high operating temperatures, poor protection against oxidation, increased oil thickening and sludge formation, and deposit buildup. Basically, a recipe for high costs to fix your equipment and increased headaches.

The fraudulent claims of 303 fluids have led to several states banning the fluid, including Missouri, Georgia, and North Carolina. More states will surely follow.

While the price of 303 fluids can be a tempting offer, remember that a short-term purchase could have a long-term, high-cost impact on your operations. Choose your fluids wisely.

Choosing a Better Alternative
Choose a high-performing product made from quality base oils and the right blend of additives. Drydene Universal Tractor Fluid fits the bill: it’s a premium, multi-use transmission and hydraulic fluid made from high-quality base oils and the latest additives. As with all Drydene products, you can trust that it meets or exceeds the most up-to-date OEM specifications. There are no cut corners here. The fluid is engineered to operate as a multi-functional fluid, providing maximum performance to each critical application area.

Here’s what you can expect from Drydene Universal Tractor Fluid:

  • Superior extreme pressure (EP) and anti- wear (AW) protection in hydraulic pumps, transmissions and drive units.
  • Controls PTO chatter and clutch performance with enhanced friction additives.
  • Provides exceptional rust and corrosion protection even to units operating in extreme temperature or environmental conditions.
  • Enhances operator comfort by smoothing gear shift performance, quieting PTO engagement, minimizing PTO chatter and brake system noise.
  • Excellent low-temperature performance over extended periods.

Click Here for more information on Drydene Universal Tractor Fluid.

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