Skyrocketing diesel fuel prices have touched off a scramble among custom operators to find strategies that will help hold expenses in check.

Brothers Bill and Dick Kraus of Kraus Custom Forage Harvesting, Elkhart Lake, WI, laid the groundwork for their strategy during a similar time several years back.

“Prices got really high then and we got burned,” Bill recalls. “After that, we decided to put a fuel surcharge clause into our contracts with customers. We haven't had to use it since. This year, though, it looks like we might be forced to.”

Their contract calls for the surcharge to kick in when diesel prices top a certain price ($1/gallon for off-road fuel). The Krauses, who charge for their services on an hourly basis, pay for fuel until it goes above that price. Then customers pay the difference.

“That way the customers don't go back to zero and absorb the whole cost,” says Bill. “It splits the exposure between them and us. It's something the trucking industry has been doing for a long time.”

As part of their preseason meetings with customers this year, the Krauses made a point of reminding clients about the surcharge clause.

“We wanted to double-check to make sure they're aware of it,” says Bill. “People don't always read the fine print in contracts. For the most part, everybody understands that this is something we have to do.”

The current price situation has also altered the brothers' approach to forward contracting for fuel. Typically, they try to lock in prices for most of the year in January and February. This year, they've opted to hold off and buy later.

“We use a big percentage of our fuel later in the season during the corn silage harvest,” says Dick. “So we figured we'd wait to see how the Iraqi war situation plays out. If things settle down and prices start to drop, we'll look at locking in. Or it might be that prices will drop slowly. In that case, we might be better off just buying off the open market as we go.”

Keeping equipment well-maintained is the third leg of the Kraus brothers' strategy for holding a lid on fuel costs. Their inventory includes four self-propelled choppers, 12 trucks and five big tractors. In a typical season, they use 65,000 gallons of fuel.

“We spend a lot of time on maintenance,” says Bill. His checklist includes regular oil changes, checking/cleaning air filters, flushing radiators and keeping screens clean.

“One of the biggest things you can do is make sure you have a good set of knives on the chopper and keep them sharp. That will go a long way in improving fuel efficiency.”

Less downtime is the other payback from a strict maintenance schedule, Bill points out.

“If we have to stop to do repairs on a chopper, all our other equipment has to shut down, too, until we get it fixed,” he says.

Along with keeping knives sharp, University of Wisconsin ag engineer Kevin Shinners recommends checking clearances between knives and shear bars and between paddles and the band in the blower.

“Making sure those clearances are tight will help reduce power requirements and decrease fuel use per ton harvested,” says Shinners.

Like Kraus, Shinners says there's more at stake than just fuel cost savings.

“You don't want to pay attention to maintenance only when fuel costs go up,” he says. “It's something you should be doing whether fuel is $1 or $2 per gallon. Fuel costs aside, a good maintenance program will help you keep repair and replacement costs in check.”

Other steps you can take to improve fuel efficiency and reduce the sting of high energy prices:

  • Reduce chopper blower speed. Some harvesters have an option that lets you reduce the speed at which the crop is blown into the wagon or truck.

    “The blower can be a major power sink on a harvester,” says Shinners. “If you can reduce its speed in easy-to-throw conditions, you save power and fuel.”

  • Match tractors with specific tasks. You don't necessarily need a 150-hp tractor to pull a rake or merger. If it's not feasible to scale down to a smaller tractor for a light load, try shifting up and throttling down.

    “That can save considerable fuel,” says Shinners.

  • Properly inflate tires. Over- or underinflated tires are a drain on efficiency when you're pulling implements through a field.

Check the manufacturer's recommendations for proper tire inflation levels.