2021 John Deere 3038E Tractor Review: You Can Do a Lot With 37 HP

Numbers aren’t everything—but neither is a compact tractor. We tested the limits of John Deere’s latest.

Caleb Jacobs

Few things are better than tools that function just as they're intended to. I'd wager to say everyone feels that way, whether they work with their hands, their minds, or both. If you fall into the latter category and have a decently sized piece of property to maintain, then you might be looking into a compact tractor like the 2021 John Deere 3038E. Luckily for you, I spent a month testing one at my family's creek frontage and I've got plenty to say about it.

The circumstances aligned just so that I had one of John Deere's most popular consumer tractors in my driveway right after a spring flood hit. That meant the humble but capable 37-horsepower machine had its fair share of rock and brush to move alongside our larger Kubota. In a lot of ways, it was what I hoped for; when you spec out your equipment exactly the way you like, great results come from it. Even if I still found myself wishing for something heavier duty from time to time.

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Then again, I understand not everyone has more than 10 acres to keep in tip-top shape. People shopping the 3038E are more likely to have a series of odd jobs that require more than they want to do by hand but not nearly enough to justify a full-size loader or similar. For those folks, then, it's an all-around player whose credentials run deeper than the color of its paint.

2021 John Deere 3038E: By the Numbers

  • Base price (as tested): $23,800 ($30,556.36)
  • Powertrain: 1.57-liter, three-cylinder turbodiesel | two-range hydrostatic transmission | selectable four-wheel drive
  • Horsepower: 37.2 with a maximum engine speed of 2,500 rpm
  • Curb weight: 2,222 pounds
  • Front axle clearance: 14.3 inches
  • Turning radius: 44 inches
  • Loader lift capacity: 1,186 pounds
  • Max loader height: 84 inches
  • Quick take: A punchy compact tractor that does almost everything you ask it to. If you've got a lot of big jobs, though, don't skimp out on bigger equipment.
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What You Get When You Buy New

The 3038E is touted by John Deere as a value-centric option in what's arguably the brand's most broadly appealing range. The 3 Series is neither the smallest on-offer nor is it the biggest intended solely for commercial use—it's a piece of machinery better suited for individuals who've got a lot of work to do around their place in the woods. The 3038E is more powerful than the 3032E though not as cushy as the 3039R, which includes an enclosed cab and air conditioning. To sum it up, it's a mid-level tractor for people who need a bit more than base-spec while skipping out on the whole enchilada.

Deere's entire 3E range comes standard with four-wheel drive—a must when operating on (and moving) loose surfaces. You'll never be sorry it has it, and when it comes time to do real work, you'll want it engaged with the gearbox in low range. The locking differential, which you kick in by pushing the brake pedal halfway, rounds out the running gear that helps get jobs done, fairly big or small.

Tractors don't change a ton from year to year. Unless it's a new generation, there aren't many noticeable differences. That's not to say you don't get anything new for your money when picking up a 3038E with zero hours. For starters, John Deere offers a six-year/2,000-hour powertrain warranty, meaning the dealer will fix that 1.57-liter Yanmar diesel engine for you if anything happens. Thanks to the handy executive order Joe Biden signed, you can also work on the tractor yourself, though I'd wait until after the warranty's up for that.

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In its most basic form, the 3038E is a blank slate, ready for whatever attachments you buy to go along with it. Mine had a 300E front loader ($5,404), which is perhaps the most popular option on these, as well as a BB5060 box blade ($1,075). There were a few other niceties like a rear auxiliary light ($69.37) as well as cruise control ($271.70).

How It Works

The 3038E's startup procedure is standard fare for diesel tractors: turn the key part-way, wait for the glow plugs to warm, then hit it. It quietly clacks away with three cylinders, idling under 600 rpm with the throttle set at what I like to call "tortoise." Once cranked to "hare," it's rated to operate at a max engine speed of 2,500 rpm, though I rarely crossed the 2,000-rpm mark in my pretty strenuous testing.

Unlike some machinery that features a single rocker-type pedal controlling forward and reverse motion, the 3038E has two separate pedals. It didn't take much to get used to that, and I found myself shuffling my foot left and right on our personal tractor even after they picked up the Deere from my house. Anyhow, intuitive touches like that are aimed at keeping operator fatigue low, paired with clearly readable analog gauges and fairly sturdy levers with easy-to-grab orange handles.

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In high range, the 37.2-hp engine sends you zipping along surprisingly quickly—great for getting from one place to another without a load. When working it as I did with some brush in the front loader bucket and rock collecting inside the box blade, low range is an absolute must. You won't get anything done in high range save for moving something light that doesn't bog down the 3038E. That's by design, of course, and the low range keeps the tires spinning even when the load behind gets to be too much.

I encountered exactly that problem when dragging big fell trees with a chain around the 3038E's box blade. While the mean green machine moved plenty of moderately sized oaks and elms without issue, its limits were clear; if it looked too big to pull, it was. I'd say that's mostly to do with the compact tractor's weight—since mine wasn't optioned with the front-attached ballasts, the rear would squat and I wasn't getting as much traction as I wanted. Again, though, this likely boils down to needing a bigger tractor overall; not really a knock against the 3038E given the segment it competes in.

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What our place normally looks like...

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What it was like around the time they dropped the Deere off at my house.

Once I got whatever I was hauling to the brush pile, though, the 300E front loader matched the engine's grunt and promptly lifted mighty logs onto the top. I meant it when I said I really worked this thing.

What's Good and What's Not

Here's where I want to discuss the intangibles; items you might not think of when looking at a brochure but will wish you'd asked about before signing any paperwork. It starts with the ingress and egress, which I found to be just fine, even as I hopped off, threw a chain around each log, and reversed those steps after hopping back on and driving to the burn pile. I may be a spry guy in my mid-20s but I don't see it being a problem here more than with any other compact tractor.

It's also easy to use at night thanks to a blindingly bright front headlight, plus a movable, rear-facing lamp that was mounted on the roll hoop. I don't always operate a tractor while burning the midnight oil, but when I do, it's nice knowing I'll be able to see my way 'round the trees and holes in the ground.

Then there's the fuel economy, which I was honestly over the moon about. Not to be hyperbolic, but I was blown away after seeing that I'd used just over half a tank in my first 16.5 hours on the 3038E. With fuel capacity totaling 7.5 gallons, that meant I'd used roughly four gallons of diesel in two full days of 1,500-rpm operation.

Caleb Jacobs
Caleb Jacobs

With regard to that front loader, my feelings about it are mixed. It had no issues lifting a bucketful of gravel to its max height of 84 inches, but then again... its max height is only 84 inches. That's probably plenty for a lot of people, but it narrowly cleared the sideboard on my 1966 Ford dump truck. Even then, I couldn't actually dump the bucket into the bed on level ground. 

Likewise, the loader doesn't like to move up or down while tilting the bucket. By that, I mean it seems technically possible, but the simultaneous adjustments slow to an absolute crawl. It's a small gripe, but I found myself waiting to make one movement at a time; it would've streamlined the gravel-moving process tremendously if I could do both at once. Digging into the ground and lifting the rock in one swift motion, for example, would've been better.

All that said, it still got the job done and I imagine most people who do that on a regular basis will opt for a bigger tractor. Not going to lie, I considered buying this very one when I was done testing it. Seeing as flood cleanup is such a big part of why I need a tractor in the first place, though, I've decided to hold out for something in the 45-hp range.

Minitrekker via YouTube

New Holland Workmaster 35

The John Deere 3038E Versus...

There's plenty of competition in the near-40-hp compact tractor segment, so I'll narrow it down to American manufacturers. Starting with the New Holland Workmaster 35, they're mighty similar on paper.

Engine specs for the blue tractor are right there; New Holland also offers a Workmaster 40 model that's slightly more powerful. Regardless, New Holland's 35-hp unit is powered by a 1.9-liter, three-cylinder turbodiesel that makes a little less than the 3038E I tested. It's a fairly negligible difference, all things considered, though the New Holland makes use of an optional three-range hydrostatic transmission that doesn't require shifting with a clutch. The John Deere, as I mentioned, only has two ranges—high and low.

The New Holland Workmaster 35 weighs significantly more, too, with a curb weight of 3,067 pounds compared to the 3038E's 2,222 pounds. That might fall in favor of the New Holland when you're working on big jobs, though the John Deere is less likely to tear up your yard or pasture. That's one that's hard to judge on paper—real-world experience and opinions are crucial here.

Oh, and the Workmaster 35's loader has a max lift height of 100 inches—16 more than the John Deere's. While not everyone will spec their tractor with a front loader, a lot of 'em will, and that seems to be the 3038E's biggest pain point.

Case IH

Then, the Case IH Farmall 35C comes into play. Like the New Holland, it also makes 35 gross horsepower and sends output to either a 12-by-12 manual shuttle or a three-range hydrostatic gearbox. Its three-cylinder engine measures 1.88 liters in size and uses a turbocharger, like the other two. In terms of weight, the Case IH is also heavier than the John Deere 3038E at 3,175 pounds. Do what you will with that info. 

Its max lifter height is listed at 105 inches, so it's the best of the three. The Farmall 35C can lift more than the other two as well with a lift capacity of 2,000 pounds at the pivot pin; the New Holland can shoulder a load of 1,843 pounds while the John Deere is lower at 1,186 pounds. Seems like the 3038E's Achilles heel is clear, at least for those who are willing to buy something that isn't green.

Price-wise, the New Holland Workmaster 35 has the most affordable base figure at $21,600. The Deere 3038E is next up with a starting price of $23,800. Finally, rounding out the bunch is the Case IH Farmall 35C with a $24,537 entry point. (All prices listed are before destination.)

Caleb Jacobs

Your Questions About the 2021 John Deere 3038E, Answered

Since this is typically a car site and we're trying something new here testing farm equipment, I asked what you wanted to know about the handsome green tractor. You all came up with lots of good questions and hopefully, these answers tell you what you need to know about the 3038E that I haven't already covered.

Q: "How do those tires do on softer grass surfaces? Do they tear it up? I am looking for a smaller tractor (JD 1025 or Kubota BX23S) and worried that the R4 tires will tear up my yard." — Stay_Classy

As I mentioned, we had a huge amount of rain just before they dropped off the 3038E at my house. While I mostly worked on creek gravel, the tires didn't tear up my grassy yard, even with the ground as soft as it was. That's one area where the Deere's relatively light weight comes in handy, too.

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Q: "Will it take a belly mower or just a bush hog? What is the range of accessories? I'm guessing an excavator is available? Can it load your dump truck - reach?" — steveone

There are multiple pages of available attachments and accessories for the John Deere 3 Series. It can be fitted with a belly mower, a brush hog, a backhoe—you name it. If I were to spec mine out, I think it'd be handier with a backhoe than a box blade since it gets bogged down when dragging large amounts of rock.

Q: "Is it enough power to run a 5' bush hog?"— Spitfire77

That shouldn't be a problem. I didn't test it with any PTO-driven implements though Deere does offer them for the 3038E.

Q: "Can you float the front bucket when grading, or if plowing snow?" — Arrow_True

Yes, and it's a nifty feature to have in case you don't spec yours with a box blade like mine. I imagine with a little practice, you could get a good amount of landscaping done with these in a hurry.

Caleb Jacobs

The Verdict

Manual labor might not be for everyone, but with a 3038E, it's actually pretty fun. It was entertaining to find the Deere's limits which, truth be told, are still plenty high despite its competitors outdoing it in some regards. I got a more capable machine than I expected, and that's always a plus—just because 37.2 hp sounds like a little doesn't mean you can't get a lot of work done with it. In all, I was more than pleased with how it handled the big and small jobs I threw at it. Plus, since it's so darn compact, it can fit in plenty of places that bigger tractors can't.

There are too many factors that play into each person's situation for me to say, "Buy this over everything else." When you've got a piece of equipment you depend on—not for transportation, in this case, but for commercial or personal use—you'll want to be near a dealer. As much as anyone hates to pay good money to someone else when they'd rather do it themselves, it's crucial to at least have replacement parts readily available. In my experience with Deere, that's maybe the biggest advantage of buying green. Should you break down—and you will when you really push it—your local store can get you back in action.

People have their preferences and depending on which brand logo you've got tattooed on your bicep, a John Deere might not even be in the question for you. It probably should be, though, because it's incredibly handy to have around any piece of property. You can always spring for something bigger if you want but, for most folks, I can't imagine needing something more.

Got a tip or question for the author? Contact them directly: caleb@thedrive.com