Fuel prices are hitting farmers hard going into spring, but there are things that can make tractors more efficient. Credit: Julia Bayly / BDN

Drivers are not the only ones experiencing sticker shock at the pumps. Just like passenger vehicles, farm machinery like tractors run on gas or diesel, both of which have experienced sharp price increases in Maine.

The current price per gallon for unleaded gasoline in Maine is $4.24, up 73 cents from a month ago. Diesel is now averaging $5.16 a gallon, an increase of $1.13 from 30 days ago. As farmers and homesteaders head into the spring planting season, anything they can do to save on those fuel costs will help.

While not much can be done about the price of fuel, there are steps that can be taken to increase the fuel efficiency of rolling farm iron, according to Jason Lilley, sustainable agriculture professional with University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

To begin with, Lilley recommends good preventative maintenance measures to stretch out farm machinery gallons per hour. Unlike cars and trucks, farm equipment fuel consumption is measured in time, not distance.

Lilley says to start with the tires.

“Take a look at your tires and your ballast weight on the tires,” he said. “You also want to make sure your tires are gripping so you are not continually spinning in place.”

Properly inflated tires will help increase fuel efficiency. The optimum tire pressure should be on the tire itself or in the tractor’s operating manual.

Wheel weights, or ballast, are added to tractor tires to help load distribution on the machine. They help keep all four wheels on the ground, depending on what sort of implement is attached to the tractor.

“Moving those weights around, depending on what you are doing in the field, helps you have the best balance and will help keep those tires from spinning in place,” Lilley said. “When they are spinning all you are doing is burning fuel.”

Tractors, like cars, have filters for fuel and oil. Lilley said those should be checked and changed on a regular basis. How often that should be done can be found in the tractor’s operations manual.

The manual will also describe how often to should grease or lubricate your tractor. Every tractor has a specific number of metal fittings — known as zerks — located over bearings on the tractor, where lubricant is added. Those locations will also be in the manual.

These are more common on older machines since newer models come with sealed bearings. That means all the lubricant that bearing will ever need is added in the factory and sealed in.

Proper lubrication means your tractor will run better with more fuel efficiency.

Lilley recommends using good throttle management when using your tractor.

“Gearing up and throttling down is a good way to conserve fuel,” he said. “As long as you are not doing it in a way that is overworking the tractor.”

It’s a method he said is best suited when using the tractor to tow an implement.

At the same time, it’s important to make sure the tractor is an appropriate size for whatever implement you are using. If the implement is too big, your tractor is going to work too hard and burn more fuel.

Checking the brakes is not only crucial to make sure your tractor is safe to operate, but making sure those brakes are not sticking is going to help extend your gallons per hour.

“If your brakes are sticking and you are dragging tires, that’s not good for fuel efficiency,” Lilley said.

Reducing the time you are running the tractor also is going to save on fuel.

“I work with a lot of vegetable producers and crop farmers on reducing tillage,” he said. “One of the big advantages aside from improved soil health is reducing the number of passes through your fields.”

How you drive in the field can also affect your fuel efficiency.

“If you are turning too much due to inefficient row direction or overlapping passes, that is going to result in increased fuel use,” Lilley said. “Row markers or [global positioning systems] can help to reduce or eliminate those inefficient passes over the field.”

It’s important to allow your tractor time to warm up when it’s first started for the day, but Lilley recommends against letting it idle for extended periods.

“For the health of the tractor it’s a good idea to let it idle for a short bit,” he said. “But you don’t want to leave it running while you go inside and have lunch.”

Lilley covers all aspects of tractor safety and operations in his regular tractor safety course, which will be offered through UMaine Cooperative Extension in April and May.

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.