On-Farm Savings Not Hard to Come By, If You Know Where to Look

February 18, 2008

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Farmers don't have to wait for "green" technologies or other advanced energy conservation techniques to conserve fuel and save money on their farm.

Randall Reeder, an Ohio State University Extension agricultural engineer, said the savings are already available, if they know where to look.

"Farmers don't have to wait for new technology. Money-saving ideas are out there," said Reeder. "They can practice energy conservation, often with little or no investment."

Reeder, who also holds an Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center appointment, said that making changes in crop production, effectively managing farmstead facilities, and maintaining vehicles and equipment are just some of the ways farmers could practice energy conservation.

In the area of crop production, Reeder offers several tips:

• Practice conservation tillage, either with no-till or other tillage-limiting techniques. "The fuel used for getting the crop established in no-till is about half compared to using intensive tillage," said Reeder.

• Grow cover crops as a partial replacement for commercial fertilizer. "Making use of cover crops to capture nitrogen can cut commercial purchases by 50 to 100 pounds per acre," said Reeder. Whether farmers grow legumes or non-legumes as cover crops, they are reducing the need for purchased nitrogen. "The value of a legume is that you are growing nitrogen, and the value of a non-legume, like ryegrass, is that you are storing nitrogen. Either way that's less commercial fertilizer you have to add to the soil, and there will be less available nitrogen over-winter to leach and end up in a stream or lake." Many farmers report that the savings on purchased nitrogen is enough to cover the cost of establishing a cover crop. "We still need to get more information out to farmers so they can feel confident in managing a cover crop," added Reeder.

• Practice crop rotation. "Soybeans rotated with corn supplies nitrogen for the corn crop. Yields are usually higher compared to continuous corn," said Reeder.

• Practice controlled traffic, especially if precision technology is already in place on the farm. "As RTK (real-time kinetic) auto-steering becomes more affordable, it makes controlled traffic a much easier decision for farmers," said Reeder. "The accuracy of auto-steering makes it easier for farmers to drive in the same path year after year." Controlled traffic saves money on fuel, labor, crop inputs and equipment costs. It can virtually eliminate yield loss from compaction, and makes continuous no-till more economical, said Reeder.

Farmers can also save energy by managing their farmstead facilities, from their maintenance shop to their livestock buildings, more efficiently.

"One key is managing ventilation and heating systems," said Reeder. "The ventilation system inlets and exhaust fans should be checked. An inlet opening that's too wide could result in poor distribution of fresh air in winter. Any excess ventilation above the minimum required for the animals is using more fuel to heat the air."

Farmers can also conserve energy through more efficient lighting by switching from incandescent to fluorescent lights, both in farm buildings and in their homes.

"They cost more, but they use less electricity and last much longer," said Reeder.

Proper maintenance of equipment and vehicles can also lead to energy savings. Here are some tips:

• Maintain the right kind of tires at the proper inflation. Reeder said that tractor tires can be a major source of fuel loss. "On the average farm, the majority of tires are over-inflated," he said. "Over-inflation causes excess slippage. Keeping tires at the correct pressure improves traction, floatation and wear." Reeder recommends that farmers check tire pressure once a week during times of heavy usage. He also emphasized that tractors need the proper weight for traction, and the correct balance between front and rear axles for peak performance. "You want enough weight to eliminate excess slippage, but you also want to remove ballast when it is not needed," he said. "When pulling a load, the correct amount of slippage is 8 to 12 percent on a firm surface and 10 to 16 percent on soft ground." This does not apply to rubber tracks, which have almost no slippage. A good way to determine if a tractor has the right slippage is to measure the distance after 10 tire revolutions in the field pulling a normal load. Next, measure the distance after 10 revolutions with no load on a driveway or other hard surface. This is representative of zero slippage. Then calculate the percentage between the two numbers to determine if you have the correct slippage.

• Maintain regular maintenance on equipment. Regular upkeep includes changing air and fuel filters. "Scheduled maintenance saves fuel and increases power," said Reeder. "A partially plugged fuel filter cuts down the amount of fuel getting to the engine, thereby losing power."

• Shut off idling engines. "Don't let a diesel engine idle more than about 10 minutes," said Reeder. "Research shows it's less efficient to keep an engine idling for warmth than it is to re-start it. Of course, results may change in extremely cold weather."

• Be mindful of fuel-wasting use of the equipment. For example, when subsoiling, don't go any deeper than necessary to break up compacted soil. "The deeper you go, the more power it takes," said Reeder. "Don't subsoil 16 inches if going 12 inches deep is doing the job." Reeder also recommends eliminating recreational tractor driving. That is, don't get out the chisel plow after harvest just to stay busy.

• Replace worn equipment parts. "Keeping any ground-engaging tools sharp makes a big difference when it comes to saving fuel and improving speed and field efficiency," said Reeder.

"For many situations, every dollar saved in fuel can save a farmer $5 to $10 in total production costs," said Reeder. "Some of these are common sense tips that I'm sure most people are already practicing. But when gas and diesel are around $3 a gallon, folks don't object to being reminded of ways to save money."

Candace Pollock
Randall Reeder