Taking Stock Now Saves Energy Dollars

By Edith Munro

With diesel hovering near $4 per gallon this spring, row crop farmers are paying some big fuel bills – a sharp reminder that there’s money to be saved by taking a close look at on-farm energy conservation.

“For much of the Midwest, diesel fuel is the single largest part of a farm’s energy use,” says Mark Hanna, extension ag engineer for Iowa State University’s Farm Energy Initiative. “In Iowa, diesel and gas are about half the energy bill.”

Fuel savings on tractor use alone can add up to thousands of dollars, according to Hanna. Idling a 200-horsepower tractor used 3.67 gallons per hour in tractor tests, or 0.61 gallon for 10 minutes at a cost of $2.45. Over a year, that adds up to more than $124 for just one “long” idle per week.

Proper tractor maintenance can deliver even bigger savings, he says. “That starts with being on time on scheduled fuel filter maintenance and engine oil changes. It’s not a dramatic effect, but it pays off. For example, good filter maintenance can save $400 on a 200-hp tractor that you operate 400 hours per year.”

Correct tire inflation and ballasting can reduce fuel costs from $600 to $2,000 annually. “It’s the same with farm semis (tractor-trailer trucks),” says Hanna. “Engine maintenance and correct tire pressures can save on fuel. With over-the-road trucks, it’s also important to maintain minimum tire pressure so the tires don’t overheat and fail.

“This is about stopping to think how you’re approaching energy management. It’s like counting calories. Ask ‘Is this trip necessary?’ If you can leave the tractor parked, you save 100% of the fuel for that trip.”

Immediately after spring field work is a good time to take stock of energy expenditures, he suggests. “It’s not a bad thing to go back and see how much diesel you bought and how many acres you planted to do a back-of-the-envelope assessment. Too often, we look at the dollars we spent but not at the amount of diesel we used or how we used that energy.

“For example, if you did anything different in your tillage, like chisel-plowing to eight inches in one field and ripping in another, make note of it. Then check in the fall to see if the difference in tillage affected yield,” Hanna recommends.

“We often find little difference in yield but there is a difference in energy use,” he says, noting that raising the tillage depth from 15 to nine inches can save three-fourths of a gallon per acre, or as much as $3,000 on a thousand acres. Eliminating one primary or two secondary passes on 1,000 acres can save $6,000.

Right after spring field work is also a good time to look forward and assess energy decisions for the fall harvest, grain drying, and storage, according to Ken Hellevang, a grain drying expert at North Dakota State University.

“There’s a big difference with dryer design, electronic controls and the sensors in dryers today compared to the traditional cross-flow dryers developed in the 1960s and 1970s,” says Hellevang. “The first step is to do an energy audit on your existing system.  Look at how many bushels you dry and how much fuel you use.

“A ballpark estimate for a traditional crossflow dryer is 2,500 Btus to remove one pound of water. The audit is a benchmark that can tell you, ‘I could be doing better.’”

Randy Dreher, a western Iowa farmer, sees practical benefits from adopting energy conservation practices on his farm. “I try to keep my air filter blown out and cleaned, and I keep my tires inflated to adequate pressures, little things like that. I do rotational grazing, and I’m mostly no-till on my crops.

“I think [some of this] is easy to forget unless you do it seasonally. Am I saving something? Yes. It does benefit me but it’s harder to see on a smaller farm. With a larger operation doing full tillage, the dollars of savings add up quicker.”

For additional information on these and other energy-saving practices, growers can find fact sheets, articles, and “how to” information at Farm Energy Initiative, at NDSU’s Grain Drying and Storage page, and on the extension service’s national initiative website.

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