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Change the ways you burn diesel

11/06/2013 @ 1:00pm

You can’t change the price, but maybe you can change some practices and habits to reduce pressure on your diesel budget.

It’s always a good time to consider a few tactics that could shave some diesel dollars.

The price of retail diesel fuel has increased every year in the past 12 years between March and May, according to the U.S. Energy Administration (the only exceptions were 2012, 2005, and 2003). 

Looking at likely price increases, Iowa State University Extension agricultural engineer Mark Hanna and ISU Farm Energy Initiative program coordinator Dana Petersen offer some suggestions. 

Fuel prices have gone on the upswing each spring since 2005 (except in 2012). If you’re confident about what’s ahead, it may be a good strategy to buy spring diesel late this winter. 

“Before buying fuel ahead of time, look at your management strategy and see what you need,” Petersen says. “For instance, you might want to check with people who do commodity marketing to estimate where fuel prices are heading.” 

Also, it’s a good time to take a fresh look at field operations in the coming growing season. 

“It sounds trite, but leaving the equipment parked in the shed saves 100%, and it can be a good decision for some folks,” says Hanna. “Think about what the benefit is to being in the field. Is it profitable for your operation? If you can leave equipment parked in the shed, that’s a direct savings.”

According to Hanna, most farms have four approaches for reducing diesel fuel consumption: tillage operations, tractor operation, wheel slippage, and tire inflation. A fifth opportunity may be open if a tractor trade or purchase is on the planning board. 

On a typical Iowa farm, Hanna says, about half the energy bills are for diesel fuel and gasoline. If total fuel use is about 5 gallons per acre, approximately half the fuel goes into planting, spraying, and harvesting operations for corn and soybeans. The other half goes into tillage. Similarly, farms using minimum-tillage or no-till may use 2 gallons (or less) total fuel per acre. 

Carefully calculate how that tillage will affect profit, Hanna says. The deeper the tillage, the more fuel it takes. At approximately 2 to 4 inches of soil disturbance, the fuel consumed will be pretty constant. Going deeper, however, is costly. Doubling the working depth from 6 to 12 inches, for example, will nearly double the fuel consumption.  

These efforts need to be considered in light of the crop response. Will the corn or soybeans respond to the deeper soil disturbance?

“When you compare chisel plowing to deeper tillage of subsoil,” Hanna says, “we don’t find any yield difference for corn in our research plots. You need a valid reason for doing tillage, such as soil compaction.

“Here in the western Corn Belt, we don’t see soybeans responding to tillage, either,” he continues. “When we compare soybeans in a no-till system vs. a full-width tillage system over three or four years, it’s hard to see any yield advantage for the tillage side.” 

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