Diesel fuel prices have more than doubled over the last 10 years, and recent average prices now rival post-Hurricane Katrina highs (315.7 cents/gal.). With fuel costs again cutting deep into profitability, farmers can't afford to burn any more diesel than necessary to bring in this year's crop and to prepare fields for next season.

“The goal should be to maximize the bushels harvested per gallon of diesel fuel used,” says Randall Reeder, Ohio State University Extension agricultural engineer.

To help farmers reduce diesel fuel costs and reap more profit this fall, Reeder and Paul Jasa, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension engineer, provide the following nine tips:

  1. Skip fall tillage

    “If you switch to no-till, you'll likely save more fuel than by adopting all other fuel-saving tips combined,” says Reeder. “You can potentially drop your tractor hours and your trips through the field per year in half.”

    Keep in mind that fuel use actually represents a relatively small amount of the total cost of operating machinery, advises Reeder. Anything farmers can do to cut their total hours of machinery use will reap three to four times the amount they could save from reducing fuel use alone, he points out.

    “No-till typically saves 1-1½ to 2 gal./acre, compared to conventional tillage systems,” Jasa says, “and strip-till will save about half that amount.”

  2. Tune up the combine

    A good combine tune-up prior to harvest will save about 10-15% in fuel, or about ¼ gal./acre, says Jasa. He adds that prior to harvest, the engine should be in top shape, oil should be changed, air and fuel filters should be replaced and fuel injectors cleaned.

  3. Inspect, adjust and replace parts

    Operating a combine at the wrong setting or with worn internal parts could reduce corn yields as much as 10 bu./acre, and will likely also result in a slower harvest and more fuel used, says Reeder. A well-maintained and adjusted combine will harvest 98% of the corn in a field, he adds.

    Just like worn tires, worn parts inside the combine cause inefficiencies at harvest, agrees Jasa. He advises paying special attention to the thresher, separator and augers to minimize energy costs and maximize the amount of crop harvested.

    For more recommendations on proper combine maintenance, Jasa recommends farmers consult their combine owner's manual. Combine operators can also read “10 Tips to Cut Combine Breakdowns,” on page 6 of The Corn And Soybean Digest, September 2005 issue.

  4. Haul shorter distances

    Pay attention to hauling distances for storage and marketing unless there is a large basis that pays for the extra, advises Jasa. “It might also make sense to build more on-farm storage so that trucks can haul grain to elevators after harvest, when there is less waiting time to unload,” he says.

  5. Stay on schedule

    Farmers should schedule harvest in a logical order to save the most fuel, advises Jasa. “Keep machinery moving,” he says, “and try to find ways to reduce as much waiting and idling time as possible.”

    If the combine runs at optimal efficiency in every field with no waiting, harvest might only take 10 rather than 15 days, says Reeder. “Eliminating bottlenecks at harvest may be much more important than some of the small things you can do to save on fuel use,” he adds.

    For more tips on eliminating delays during harvest, read “Cures For Harvest Headaches,” on page 34, of The Corn And Soybean Digest, August 2006 issue.

  6. Gear up, throttle down

    “The range in fuel use is actually much greater among machinery operators than it is among the various models available for purchase,” says Jasa.

    The combine should typically be operated wide open at harvest, points out Jasa. However, “tractor operators should gear up and throttle down,” he says. “That burns less fuel than operating at a low gear and high throttle.”

  7. Use the combine to manage residue

    Typically, crop residue decomposes well enough on its own, and stalk shredding is therefore an unnecessary, fuel-burning trip across the field, says Jasa. “Older combines might need a straw chopper and a chaff spreader,” he adds, “but newer combines have these features so that you can process and spread your residue with the combine.”

    However, combine operators should ensure the corn head is in proper condition to manage heavy residue, he points out. “You should process the stalk down through the corn head onto the ground, not through the combine and out the back,” Jasa says. “Any stalk that goes through the combine wastes energy.”

    Reeder agrees. “If you're no-tilling next year, make sure that the combine really is spreading the crop residue uniformly through the field, particularly with soybeans,” he says. “Windrows of soybean residue out in a field will create non-uniform soil moisture and seedbed conditions at planting. With corn harvest, it's not quite as likely to be a problem, because the crop residue doesn't normally go through the combine.”

  8. Consider controlled-traffic patterns

    The use of auto-steering technology now makes controlled traffic patterns an affordable option for many farmers, says Reeder. With controlled-traffic patterns, traffic lanes typically have firm ground conditions, with less chance of slippage than on non-trafficked parts of the field, he says.

    “With controlled traffic, your field work can be timelier because you can still operate in conditions that might be too wet to enter otherwise,” he adds. “With controlled traffic, you have a greater chance to get into the field when you need to, with less chance of getting stuck.”

  9. Maintain tires at proper inflation levels

    “With tractor tires, the main thing is to make sure the traction is as good as you can get to minimize slippage,” says Reeder. “Over-inflation causes excess slippage. Keeping tires at the correct pressure improves traction, flotation and wear.”

In addition, consider purchasing radial rather than bias tires. Although costlier, radial tires outperform bias tires, says Reeder.

On the combine, however, concerns with compaction should take precedence over concerns over slippage. “Anything you can do to lower the inflation pressure on the combine, such as adding duals, will help to stop compaction,” says Reeder. “But, be careful to inflate tires to the correct pressure to minimize tire damage and be able to safely carry the load.”