Coping With High Diesel Prices

Given most farms' reliance on mechanization, what can be done to manage rising fuel expenses? Diesel fuel prices have risen significantly over the past few months. In many areas, prices have risen by 40% or more which means higher operating costs for farm tractors, combines, cotton pickers, forage harvesters and otherself-propelled farm machinery. Rising fuel costs can be tempered to some degreeby proper maintenance and operation of farm equipment.

Use the smallest available tractor that is safe and efficient for jobs to be performed. With diesel priced at $2.00 per gallon, fuel cost for a 70-Hp tractor is estimated at $6.13 per hour, while fuel for a 100-Hp tractor costs $8.76 per hour and fuel for a 150-Hp tractor costs $13.14 per hour.

For crops that require tillage, hitch two or more implements together to reduce the number of tillage passes required. For example, instead of disking once and then harrowing twice, hitching the harrow to the disc to perform the first harrow operation will eliminate one pass through the field and save an estimated $5.28 per acre for a 100-Hp tractor and 10-foot harrow.

Change from conventional tillage to no-till. Fuel cost for corn planted following plowing, discing, and cultivating is estimated at $14.17/acre. While fuel cost for no-till corn is estimated at only $9.14.

When pulling light loads, highergears and lower throttle settings greatly decrease fuel consumption. Match tractor size to implement size. Never use a large, high horsepower tractor to pull small or light loads when a smaller tractor capable of handling the load is available.

Shut off diesel engines rather than idling for long periods. New studies show that significant fuel savings can be realized by not idling diesel engines for more than ten minutes.

Eliminate all non-essential machinery operations. For some, there's no better way to spend a sunny afternoon than driving a tractor. Just remember that this enjoyment will come at a greater cost this year.

Whenever possible, operate in higher speed gears and lower throttle settings to conserve fuel and drive train wear. Cutting engine speed by about 300 rpm's can reduce fuel consumption by as much as 10%. When pulling light loads, higher gears and lower throttle settings greatly decrease fuel consumption.

Train tractor operators in proper operation of farm tractors. Operating tractors in lower gears at high engine revolutions increases fuel consumptionand greatly increases wear on the drive train components. Whenever possible,operate in higher speed gears and lower throttle settings to conserve fuel anddrive train wear. Cutting engine speed by about 300 rpm's can reduce fuel consumption by as much as 10%.

Keep tires inflated to correct pressures. This also extends tire life.

Check tire slippage and add weight if necessary. Slippage can be estimated by measuring the difference in distance traveled per tire revolution when pulling a load and when unloaded. Slippage over 15% causes poor fuel efficiency and excessive tire wear.

Farm tractors are designed to be operated with additional weight or ballast when pulling heavy loads to prevent wheel slip. Insufficient ballast can cause excessive wheel slip and increased fuel consumption. Two-wheel drive tractors are normally ballasted with about 65% of the total weigh on the rear wheels and about 35% of the total weight on the front wheels. Four-wheel drive and mechanical-front-wheel-assist tractors are usually ballasted with 60% of the total weight on the front wheels and 40% of the total weight on the rear wheels. In motion under load, weight transfer will result in about 50% of the weight on the front and 50% of the weight on the rear of the tractor. Drive wheel slip should be no more than about 10% for optimum efficiency. Some slip is desirable to reduce the wear and tear on the drive train of the tractor.

Check drive tires for excessive wear. Worn tires can cause wheel slip from poor traction and increased fuel consumption. Radial ply drive tires have more flex in the side wall of the tire which results in more traction when compared to same size bias-ply tires. Tractors that pull heavy loads are good candidates for radial ply tires. The increased costs of radial tires is usually more than offset by the increased traction, fuel savings and extended tire life. Inspect the inflation pressure in drive tires and inflate according to manufacturersrecommendations based on your loads and traction needs. Increasing inflation pressure by one or two pounds can improve fuel efficiency significantly from reduced rolling resistance.

Dirty fuel injectors can cause inefficient combustion of fuel and some loss of power. Clean injectors if you see black smoke coming from the exhaust. Minor cleaning needs can be accomplished by using fuel injector additive in the fuel. Make sure you use a type recommended for diesel engines. If in doubt, contact your machinery dealer for information on acceptable types of additive. More severe cleaning needs may require removal of injectors and service by a trained technician. Again, machinery dealers can make recommendations on cleaning and service.

Dirty air cleaners restrict the flow of air needed for the combustion process. Less than sufficient air for the combustion process results in excess fuel in the fuel-air mixture and fuel consumption increases with less available power and higher fuel costs. Look for black exhaust smoke or check the air flow indicator found on most air cleaners. Service the air cleaner or replace the filter if needed.

Use the proper viscosity of oil in the engine to maximize engine efficiency. Oils that are too thick decrease power and lubrication and increase fuel consumption. Change the oil on a recommended schedule to remove contaminants that can reduce lubrication and increase friction between moving parts. Contaminants change the viscosity of the oil and can cause corrosion of engine parts if left in the engine too long.

Modern diesel engines (any tractor manufactured during the last 10 years) should be shut off when not in use for more than 2-3 minutes. Today's engines only need a 2 minute cool down even after running long and hard. Long periods of idling not only increases fuel use but can also lead to carbon build up on injector spray holes and valves.

Train operators to service tractors each day prior to starting to work. Small maintenance items can be noticed and corrected without a trip back to the service area from the field. Fill fuel tanks in the morning while engines are cool and safer to refuel. This will prevent many refueling trips (and fuel) back to the fuel storage tank from working areas over a farming season

Keep diesel price increases in perspective. UT budgets estimate that fuel as a percent of total production costs (excluding land) averages 4% for no-till corn, 7% for no-till soybeans, 9% for wheat, 8% for grass hay, and 3% for no-till corn silage. Fine-tuning management to control fuel expenses makes sense, but other decisions may have bigger impacts on net farm income (especially fertility, chemical, variety selection, and marketing decisions).