Fuel economy is a topic at the top on most people’s minds these days, and farmers are no different. Taking some time to make sure that a tractor is set up properly and using fuel-saving practices can help producers keep money in their pockets, according to Michigan State University (MSU) Extension.

“One estimate that I’ve seen is that U.S. farmers could potentially save up to 150 million gallons of fuel each year,” says Mike Staton, MSU Extension agriculture and natural resources educator based in Van Buren County. “The strategies we suggest aren’t expensive, but do take a little time – like making sure the tractor is set up properly.”

This set-up involves making sure the tractor is carrying the proper amount of weight or ballast on each axle. Carrying either too much or too little weight wastes fuel.

Once the weight is adjusted, Staton recommends checking the inflation pressure in the tractor’s tires and making sure they are inflated properly for the weight of the axle. Weigh each tractor axle at an elevator or other location to ensure maximum accuracy.

“It’s also important to operate the tractor properly,” Staton says. “One tractor may be used for multiple tasks. On some of those tasks, the tractor will have more horsepower than the job needs, so make sure you’re gearing up and throttling down to find the optimum gear.”

Shifting to a higher gear while reducing the throttle setting can improve a tractor’s fuel use and enable it to get the most work done for the least amount of fuel consumed. When working at anything less than 70% of the tractor’s maximum load capacity, this can be a valuable practice for reducing fuel consumption.

To test if the tractor is operating in what Staton calls the “sweet spot” and the engine is not being overloaded, give the throttle a quick increase while under the load. If the engine revs and responds, you aren’t overloading it. If it does not respond, gear down and try again. Another telltale sign of lugging or overloading is excessive black smoke from the exhaust of diesel engines.

How a tractor is put to use can also affect fuel economy. Farmers who reduce or eliminate tillage operations can realize major fuel conservation.

“Moving from a chisel plow system to no-till can save nearly 2 gal./acre of diesel fuel,” Staton says. “Any chances you have to reduce or eliminate tillage can produce your biggest fuel savings.”

Using some type of guidance system is also useful in conserving fuel, whether it’s a manual guidance system, called a lightbar, or a more advanced auto guidance system using a differential-corrected global positioning system (DGPS) or real-time kinematic (RTK). These systems prevent overlap in field operations so the operator can get the most work done on the tractor in the fewest passes across a field.

The lightbar system is relatively inexpensive and easy to move from one tractor to another. The driver still needs to steer, but the light shows the proper direction of travel. The automated systems don’t require steering, but they are also more expensive. Staton points out that a farm not using any guidance technology can realize its biggest fuel savings simply by adding a lightbar system.

“In an ideal world, all your tillage equipment would have the same draft requirement,” Staton says. “But sometimes you’re pulling a high-draft implement like a subsoiler, and other times the same tractor is pulling a finishing tool having a significantly lower draft requirement.

“The easiest way to match draft requirements of various tillage tools is to determine the draft required per foot of operating width for each implement and use this information when sizing your implements,” he says. “Matching the draft requirements of your implements will eliminate the need to reconfigure your tractor for each operation. Otherwise, to get optimum performance, you have to shift weight for each one.”

To learn more, download “Improving Tractor Performance and Fuel Efficiency” from the MSU Extension Web site.