Once a relatively minor input cost, red diesel has nearly doubled in price over the past five years. But a bit of care and attention paid to how you use it efficiently can reap real benefits.
Across Sentry Farms, the amount used varies from 5-6 litres/t of wheat produced up to 14l/t. While a lot of this variation is down to crop establishment techniques and the number of cultivation passes, we’ve also focused on getting the little things right. Just as well – as all the signs point to higher fuel costs in the future.
The first step is to measure just how much fuel you’re using in different machines for different jobs. The chart below shows typical usage figures. The easiest way is to keep a log book in every tractor that records how much has been put in the tank and what operations the tractor has done.
Use varies considerably, depending on the operation and size of tractor, but typically a farm’s main tractor will use 8-25 litres/hr. Many newer tractors now have fuel consumption information available in cab for the driver that will tell you usage on-the-go.
Once you and your operators begin to use this information, you’ll realise the increased cost of incorrect machine settings, recreational cultivations and wasted trips.
Three golden rules
1. Monitor Get all the team to focus on where the fuel goes
2. Total traction Make sure all the power is pulling for you
3. Reduce waste Recreational cultivations and avoidable road trips are needless costs
You’ll never get the best out of your fuel if your tractor isn’t running at peak performance. Regular servicing of your tractors will ensure that air filters are kept clean, injectors are functioning correctly, and fluid levels are neither too low nor too high.
Engine revs and gear selection will also play a major part in how much fuel you use – lowering revs by 20% from maximum can bring fuel consumption savings of 15-40%. But you have to know the power and torque characteristics of your engine to enable the right gear and engine speed for the task. This is helped by the experience of the operator and knowledge of your field conditions. Consult your machinery dealer and study the power curves for your tractor – optimum fuel use is not maximum engine revs.
A lot of tractors now have ‘power boost’ technology that will increase the engine power through considerably higher fuel use. This can be useful in certain situations, but costly in terms of fuel if used negligently or incorrectly. Automatic and semi-automatic gearboxes with economy settings can also be good for fuel economy and therefore a shrewd investment if you plan to do a lot of road travelling.
GETTING A GRIP
There’s no point in delivering power to your wheels if you then waste it on poor traction. Wheel slip should be no higher than 8-12%, or 2-5% if on tracks.
If you don’t have this information available in the cab, you can easily measure it by counting wheel revolutions across a known distance when the machine is in work.
The key consideration here is power-to-weight ratio. For primary cultivations, this should be 50-55kg/hp and will require additional tractor ballast, but for general pto and light transport work, 35kg/hp will be fine. It’s quite common to ballast a tractor for average conditions and leave it, rather than adjust the tractor weight for specific jobs. Incorrect use of ballast does lead to lower fuel economy and field performance.
The other key consideration is the tyre itself. Lower operating pressures can increase traction and reduce ground pressure, but the pressure must also allow for the weight being carried and the tyre specification. Tyre manufacturers usually provide guidance here, which if applied correctly will improve grip and can play a vital role in delivering cost savings.
A lot of fuel and down-time can be spent travelling between fields on larger arable units, especially those spread out in far-flung blocks. So plan the layout of your cropping carefully.
Block-cropping will clearly bring the biggest rewards here. But spring and autumn work should also be planned to keep travelling to a minimum. Consider taking water and fuel in bowsers to the field, rather than returning to the farm. Leaving tractors and combines in the field overnight can bring time and fuel savings, although this has to be weighed against security concerns.
CASE STUDYJonathan Cole
Keep three cleats of the tyre on the ground when the tractor’s in work – that’s the rule of thumb for Norfolk-based former Farmers Weekly contractor of the year, Jonathan Cole.
“You need to match the tractor to the tyre to the job. That way you get the best performance and the job done efficiently,” he says.
During harvest, he has a fleet working for him that includes a Claas Evolution combine, four teleporters and 16 tractors. In just two months, he gets through £51,000 of fuel.
“Tyre pressure is crucial. If the tyre’s too hard, it won’t grip as well. Get into high-draft ploughing and you can have up to 50% wheel slip. It’s an easy way to waste fuel, which is where you win or lose as a contractor.”
Getting the right engine revs and gear is also important. On this, Mr Cole swears by the CVT gearbox. “We did a trial, putting a Vario against a manual tractor on five-furrow ploughs. Based on the difference in fuel efficiency we were getting, I reckon we save about £5000 a year using Varios in main cultivation tractors.”
It’s getting these things right that ensures a sleek operation across the 690ha (1700 acres) of stubble-to-stubble agreements he farms, and 400ha (1000 acres) of additional land he works, from heavy clays to light blowing sands. On top of this, Mr Cole shifts nearly 70,000 mini and full-size Hesston bales every summer with six balers.
“There’s no one thing that will deliver efficiencies, it’s a whole combination of factors. But if you start with the right tyre pressure and the right tyre for the job, the rest is down to the operator.”