With the price of diesel more than doubling in less than two years, farmers are feeling the fuel-cost pinch. And forage producers may be squeezed the hardest.

“Considering what goes into seedbed preparation and the fact that harvesting requires several trips across the field for each cutting, forage production is a fuel-intensive business,” says Oklahoma State University extension economist Clem Ward.

Soaring fuel costs are bound to carry serious consequences for an industry with such a narrow profit margin, Ward adds.

But before you panic and buy a draft horse, Ward recommends proceeding with caution.

“Some fuel-conserving strategies will work in one application but not in another,” he says. “Don't make major decisions until all implications are considered.”

Any attempt to save fuel should be tempered with practicality, says Ward. For a hay grower whose operation doesn't justify buying new equipment, or a rancher who sells small bales to the hobby-farm trade, staying with older, less fuel-efficient technology makes sense.

This also applies to other fuel reduction strategies, says Ward. A Penn State University study shows that an alfalfa grower can reduce tractor fuel consumption by as much as 5 gallons/acre by replacing conventional seedbed preparation with no-till.

Ward also notes that stand establishment and weed control are two important factors in the production of quality alfalfa.

“If either of those are compromised in a no-till environment, then your fuel savings might end up being an added cost.”

The best way to find what fuel-saving strategy will work for you is to formulate a plan that includes market and production considerations. The first step is to determine how much fuel you're using and what you're using it on.

Online bulletins on how to estimate annual fuel costs are available from Colorado State University (www.colostate.edu, click on Cooperative Extension, then Farm Management, then Equipment) and Iowa State University (www.ae.iastate.edu/pm-709.htm). For a printed copy, contact their extension offices. Once you know your major fuel expenditures, examine the feasibility of reducing them.

Here are a few fuel-saving options for you to consider:

  • Buy smart. Fuel prices are cyclical, so consider forward contracting or increasing your on-farm storage when prices drop. As they rise again, reduce your long-term purchases, buying just enough to keep operating.

  • When possible, move to production systems that require less fuel. A shift from annual to perennial forages avoids annual tillage — a major user of fuel. Growing legumes may let you reduce fertilizer passes, and pasturing instead of cutting shifts the fuel burden from horsepower to hoof power.

  • For farmers growing feeder hay, Ward recommends stretching out the periods between cuttings.

    “This way you can save yourself one cutting per season without giving up yield,” he says. But you'll give up some quality as a tradeoff, he adds.

  • Pay close attention to equipment maintenance, says Lloyd Morrison, a Eureka, NV, grower.

    “This means basic stuff like keeping your filters clean and flushing your radiator when you need to,” says Morrison. “Anything that helps your engines run more efficiently will improve your fuel consumption.”

  • Match your tractor to your load, says Leonard Bashford of the Nebraska Tractor Test Laboratory. When a larger tractor is used to haul a lighter load, shift the transmission into a higher gear and reduce rpms by throttling back. The tractor should still be able to pull the load, and fuel efficiency will improve dramatically, says Ward.

  • Watch your tires. Properly ballasted tires play an important role in any on-farm fuel strategy, says Bashford. They should slip 8-12% when pulling a load on firm surfaces and 10-16% on soft ground. Too much ballast impairs fuel economy as much as having too little.

    “When you're too heavy, you pay a big penalty in motion resistance,” he says. “The penalty is a lot more for being overweight than underweight.”

Test Tractor Tire Traction

When starting tillage operations, make sure your tires are properly ballasted for the job, advises Leonard Bashford of the Nebraska Tractor Test Laboratory.

To check slippage in the field, mark a drive tire, place a flag where it makes contact with the soil, then pull a tillage load — implement in the ground — 10 wheel revolutions before placing another flag. Measure the distance and repeat the process without the load.

“Then you can see how many wheel revolutions it takes to transverse the same distance without a tillage load,” says Bashford.

Subtract loaded distance from unloaded distance, then multiply by 10 to get the percentage of slip. For example, if the difference between loaded and unloaded distances is 1.5', slip is 15%.

Consult your operator's manual for proper tire inflation.