AN ILLINOIS farmer spent an average $16.50/acre on fuel in 2005, according to the Illinois Farm Business Farm Management Association and the University of Illinois. That number is a sobering confirmation that the price of fuel demands attention. Here are 11 tips from energy conservation experts on how to combat today's high fuel prices.

  1. Match horsepower

    To save fuel, “try shifting up a gear and throttling back,” suggests Jim Looft, county director of the Shelbyville, IL, Extension Service. Because many farmers use more horsepower than they need, matching horsepower to the load will increase their fuel economy. “You can usually save quite a bit of fuel by running an under-loaded tractor in a higher gear but at a lower engine speed,” said Bill Wilcke, Minnesota Extension engineer. “Make sure, though, that you don't overload your engine.”

  2. Stop idling

    Turning off the tractor when it's not in use, instead of letting it idle, can save up to a gallon of fuel per hour, according to Allen Schaeffer, executive director of the Diesel Technology Forum. Due to the technology behind today's electronic starters, idling a vehicle instead of shutting off the engine does not save any money in the long run. In fact, research shows that more than 10 seconds of idling uses more fuel than restarting.

  3. Use premium diesel

    “Use premium diesel fuel with at least 47 cetane for easier starting and cleaner operation of the tractor,” says Mark Heckman, petroleum sales, Watonwan Farm Service, Truman, MN. Buying fuel in the summer when supplies are more abundant and prices are usually lower is another way to save on fuel costs.

  4. Do preventive maintenance

    “Skimping on filter changes and other preventative maintenance can contribute to lower operating efficiencies,” Schaeffer explains. Changing engine oil on time leads to longer engine life. And clean air and fuel filters increase fuel savings. (Dirty filters restrict airflow into the engine.) Heckman also recommends changing hydraulic oil regularly because 30 gal. of oil costs a lot less than splitting your tractor to work on its hydraulic system.

  5. Practice no-till

    Using no-till for soybeans and strip-till for corn reduces all the tillage trips across the field, lowering fuel consumption and fuel per acre. Eliminating tillage not only affects production costs, but it also allows growers to use smaller, more fuel-efficient tractors. University of Tennessee researchers found that a no-till crop consumes $5.03/acre less in fuel costs than a conventionally tilled corn crop.

  6. Combine operations

    Kill two birds with one stone by merging operations such as planting and fertilizing or spraying and planting on the same trip. This technique saves the fuel involved in taking multiple trips, explains Dwayne Beck, professor of botany at South Dakota State University.

  7. Reduce slippage

    Excessive wheel slipping reduces the area covered in a given period of time and causes poor fuel efficiency. Mark Hanna, agricultural engineer, Iowa State University, explains: “With wheel slip, the engine is driving the transmission and the transmission ends up driving the drive wheels.” While a little slip develops power, the optimal amount of slip depends on the surface in which the tractor is operating. For example, maximum energy efficiency lies in 8 to 11% slip in firm soil, whereas soft or sandy soil calls for 13 to 16% for maximum efficiency. Ballasting, total tractor weight and tire inflation are factors in maintaining optimum slip.

    To check for slip, measure the distance traveled after 10 tire revolutions in the field pulling a normal load. Next, measure the distance after 10 revolutions with no load on a hard surface. This represents zero slippage. Then, calculate the percentage between the two numbers to determine correct slippage.

    As a rule of thumb, 10 to 15% slip is best, but check your operator's manual for what is right for your tractor.

  8. Keep tires properly inflated

    Keeping tires properly inflated helps you get the most life out of your tires while getting better fuel economy, Heckman says. During times of heavy machine usage, you should check tire pressures once a week.

    Also, dual wheels should be accurately matched with same tire size, air pressure and tread patterns to reduce the amount of dragging of a smaller tire, which results in rapid and irregular wear.

  9. Use energy-efficient grain dryer

    Farm use accounts for 7% of the total demand for propane with a majority of that going toward drying grain, so it's essential to make sure your dryer works efficiently. The key to saving energy on drying is to maintain and incorporate new technology in your existing dryer (see sidebar). You also can delay harvest to ensure dryer grain.

  10. Apply correct amount of fertilizer

    An average $53.54/acre was spent on fertilizer in 2005, according to the Illinois Farm Business Farm Management Association and the University of Illinois. Because fertilizer prices are so closely linked with natural gas rates, making good crop nutrient decisions is important. To know how much fertilizer your field needs, have a soil test done.

  11. Make outbuildings energy efficient

    Improving a building's energy efficiency is the easiest way to save on heating costs. Thomas Kuehn, Department of Mechanical Engineering, University of Minnesota, says it's important to have good insulation, tight windows and weather-stripping in your outbuildings. In addition, you should seal any air leaks and maintain existing heating systems. Kuehn also suggests investing in alternative energy sources such as wind power and wood burning. Another option is to own an oil-fired heater that can burn your used motor oil from equipment.

Although high fuel prices can be a daunting opponent, following these tips will help lower your fuel costs. Every little bit helps.

GRAIN DRYING

SCOTT SANFORD, senior outreach specialist for the Wisconsin Focus on Energy, University of Wisconsin-Madison/Extension, gives some advice on ways to save energy with your existing grain dryer:

Add heat recovery

This basically preheats intake air for the dryer, saving 10 to 15% in energy use.

Do a tune-up

Maintenance such as cleaning screens and aeration floors, checking belt drives, and cleaning fan housing and blades increases your dryer's efficiency.

Check the moisture sensor or moisture tester

Getting your tester calibrated annually helps you know whether you're under- or overdrying.

Clean the bin floor between each batch

Debris on the bin floor restricts airflow, leading to slower drying.

Invest in a stirring device

This saves 20 to 30% in drying costs by loosening grain, increasing airflow and drying rate. It prevents overdrying on the bottom while moving wetter grains toward the floor. Stirring grain two or three times provides optimal benefits.

Remove fines before the grain enters the dryer

This increases dryer efficiency by not expending heat to dry something you're not using. It also prevents restricted airflow.

Turn up the heat

As temperature increases, drying efficiency increases. Running plenum temperatures as high as possible without burning or overheating the corn, less than 150° F, uses less fuel by drying the grain faster.

New equipment

If you're thinking about buying a new dryer, Scott suggests mix-flow dryers. These are column dryers that have airflow in both counter and concurrent directions. They can use higher temperatures with no crop damage because all grain kernels are exposed to the same air temperatures. The dryers are usually self-cleaning and have energy efficiencies similar to those of counterflow dryers, using 40% less energy than a cross-flow dryer without heat recovery.