Introduction to Energy-Efficient Tractor and Field Operations

Table of Contents

Photo: Vern Grubinger.


Tractors and related field equipment can use a lot of energy on the farm, so it makes sense to take practical steps to optimize their efficiency. These include:

  • Properly maintaining equipment. Timely replacement of air and fuel filters and lubricants can reduce fuel use while increasing horsepower. Repair of leaking valves and piston rings will improve engine performance and therefore energy efficiency.
  • Reclaiming old fuels and oils is one way to minimize energy use by using fewer fossil fuels.
  • Reducing tillage to save fuel. Conservation tillage generally uses less fuel than full tillage systems because the soil is tilled less intensely and less often. These tillage practices may also allow seedbed preparation, fertilizer application, and seeding in fewer passes. Such practices are also eligible for carbon credits.
  • Gearing up and throttling back. Increasing the gear and lowering the throttle speed can lead to fuel savings. Make sure not to overload the engine; excessive black smoke indicates overloading.
  • Optimizing wheel slippage. Some wheel slippage is needed to reduce excess wear on the tires. The optimal level is generally 10%, but the actual level depends on the type of tractor, the speed, and the implement being used.
  • Ballasting tractors correctly. Properly ballasted tractors with recommended tire inflation rates can improve fuel consumption and increase tractor efficiency by creating the required amount of tire slippage for the specific tractor, implement, and field conditions.
  • Matching implement size to the tractor. Using a large tractor for light loads is inefficient because extra horsepower is used to move the larger tractor. Producers should consider using a smaller tractor if possible. On the other hand, using a smaller tractor to perform operations that require more horsepower can overload a smaller tractor, reducing its fuel consumption and efficiency.
  • Selecting the optimal engine and travel speeds. Most tractor engines have the highest fuel efficiency when operated at or near rated speed and load, or maximum power. For primary tillage implements properly matched to the tractor, the best fuel efficiency in the field is achieved by pulling loads at the fastest speed possible within the acceptable speed range for the implement.
  • Optimizing efficiency of field operations. Field efficiency refers to the time the operation takes versus turning and other nonproductive time. Spending an inordinate amount of time turning around at the ends of short, wide fields or overlapping tillage operations within a field can result in higher fuel consumption. Planning road travel efficiently can also save fuel.
  • Fuel storage can save fuel before it goes into the tractor. Keep aboveground fuel storage tanks shaded and paint them a light color to reduce the loss of fuel by evaporation.
  • Using biodiesel or other biofuels will reduce reliance on petroleum products.
  • Reduce Emissions. Beginning in 2011, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will require all new off-road engines to meet stringent requirements for emission requirements. These are commonly referred to as Interim Tier 4 emission regulations. Final Tier 4 regulations will apply in 2014. New tractors and motorized farm equipment will have to comply with these regulations. While adding more cost to each machine, new engines are expected to be both more energy efficient and to have fewer emissions.

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