By Ray Massey, University of Missouri-Columbia

Crop producers and associated agricultural businesses join together with agricultural specialists for the MU Crop Management Conference once a year in December to discuss the latest technology, the most recent special problems, and methods to improve profitability while protecting our natural resources and improving the lives of the people involved in agriculture.

This year, the cost of energy has been the subject of many discussions. It's a line item in our budgets that has grown significantly and become a cause for concern and debate. Participants of the 2005 conference took home information they can use to improve energy efficiency and competitive advantage.

Energy efficiency is best achieved if we make it a part of our state of mind. Conservation, efficiency, and profitability are not at all mutually exclusive objectives.

Fuel efficient management and crop production practices typically improve business performance and profitability. Less energy-intensive production strategies reduce expenses as well as financial risk. The following are some specific tips for answering the call to improve fuel efficiency.

Perform regular and timely tractor/engine maintenance and tune-ups. Replace oil and fuel filters at least as often as recommended. The results of a University of Missouri tractor clinic (Schumacher et al) revealed that fuel efficiency could be improved significantly even when replaced before the regularly scheduled maintenance interval. In the study, the average increase was 3.5 percent. The potential increase in efficiency by changing extremely dirty filters can be 10 percent, 20 percent or more, depending on the situation.

Don't forget tune-ups. Other basic adjustments such as adjusting throttle linkages, adjusting no-load high idle and timing the injection pump can also improve performance, especially for older tractors.

Use the right tractor, gear and throttle settings. Use the tractor that is best matched to the load. A larger than necessary tractor operating at partial load is less efficient than the right-sized tractor. When this is not possible, then use the "Gear Up and Throttle Back" strategy. A larger than necessary tractor uses as much as 30 percent more fuel, but when operated at partial throttle, that fuel efficiency can be largely reclaimed.

Fine tune weights and tire pressure to maximize performance. Tractors can be heavier than necessary to the point that it costs real money, and it doesn't take a lot of extra weight to cause serious reductions in fuel efficiency.

The explanation is simple. A tractor must have enough weight to pull the load with maximum tractive efficiency. The weight of the tractor causes tracks; and the tractor is constantly crawling out of those tracks. This constant tracking through the field requires extra fuel and explains a larger part of the power lost in the field. A tractor that is too heavy is constantly crawling out of even deeper tracks.

Refer to MU publication G1235 Tractor Tire and Ballast Management for details.

Tire pressure should be adequate to support the load on the tractor, but no more. Today's radial tires are designed to be operated at pressures of as little as 6 or 7 psi, but only when tractors are equipped with large enough tires to do so or when the tractor is light enough to do so. A larger tire naturally has a longer footprint, so it delivers power to the ground more efficiently and that improves fuel efficiency. The only side effect is reduced compaction, and we can certainly live with that.

Reduce trips across the field. Combine field operations, and consider using no-till. It's that simple.

Implement energy efficient strategies to dry grain. Dry grain naturally or increase both fuel efficiency and drying efficiency with techniques such as combination drying. Remove the first several points of moisture with heat and then remove the rest with natural air and/or during the cooling process.

For a propane price of $1.50 and electricity at 8 cents, the difference between drying in a high temperature dryer compared to waiting for a lower moisture content and using natural air drying can amount to more than $30 per acre.

Avoid over-drying grain. An over-dried bin is doubly inefficient. You pay extra for the over-drying; then you receive less for the over-dried grain.

Look for more detailed information about energy efficiency for all aspects of crop production as it becomes available on our Web site.

SOURCE: Integrated Pest & Crop Management Newsletter
University of Missouri-Columbia.