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Reducing Cereal Energy Costs

4 October 2022

For cereal farmers, energy costs can represent a sizeable proportion of the cost of production whether it is in the field, haulage to drying and storing. Improving efficiency therefore becomes paramount to try and reduce the effects on margins and cashflow in the months ahead. Red diesel prices are around double those of a year ago and electricity and gas prices have rapidly escalated in recent months. But there are areas arable farmers can look to trim their fuel and energy costs. With that in mind, here’s a checklist of things to do in some key areas:

Machinery and Equipment

1. Make sure tractors and machinery are serviced and maintained

Consider putting schedules in place to ensure these tasks are done at the correct times. Modern engines need plentiful clean fuel and clean air. Be prepared to change fuel filters or clean air filters more regularly with an airline when working in dusty conditions.

2. Use the right tractor for the job

Light work may be more economically undertaken with a smaller tractor whereas heavy work is better undertaken by a larger tractor which will be under less strain.

3. Are machines set up properly and ready for the job in hand?

Make sure you are using machinery to it’s full potential and that operators know how to set up and prepare machines for work. This should also include checking that blades are sharpened and soil moving parts are fit for purpose. Tines and soil working surfaces etc should be changed where necessary.

4. Investigate and avoid black smoke!

This suggests the engine is under excessive strain, perhaps too high a gear or not powerful enough. It may also suggest an undiagnosed underlying fault- causing it to burn excess fuel.

5. Take advantage of existing technologies

Headland management can ensure efficient turning, engine management systems and variable transmissions helps the tractor run more economically by selecting the highest gear possible to allow the engine to run at a lower, more efficient speed. Gear Up and Throttle Down should always be the mantra and the use of the 540E setting for PTO work also helps in this by keeping engine speed lower.


In The Field

1. Count your passes

While important not to compromise spray or fertiliser timings, ask whether some operations can be combined or whether they are actually necessary. For example:

· Can a weed spray be tank mixed with a fungicide as opposed to separate passes?

· Could using a press when ploughing save a cultivation pass?

· Could fertiliser be applied “down the spout” as opposed to applying separately?

· Are all passes with soil working machinery necessary to create a good tilth? Can some passes be omitted or restricted to part of the field. A nice, tidy job make look good and impress the neighbours but if wasn’t needed it has been an expensive exercise.

2. How deep do you really need to go?

This particularly applies to secondary cultivations. Remember the deeper the cultivation the greater the power requirement.

3. Choose carefully when you work soil

If soils are too wet, not only does this have an impact on the following crop but the increased load forced on engines and machinery or increased wheel slippage to try and complete the task uses much more power and subsequently fuel.

One size does not fit all.

As conditions change, there is the opportunity to adapt cultivations, equipment used and their settings to be more fuel efficient.

· As soil dries out and becomes more workable can you move from a cultivator to a paddle roller or even miss out a pass.

· A variable width plough can be opened and closed to ensure the tractor is at full capacity- allowing maximum working width when conditions allow and narrowed when conditions are more challenging to reduce power requirement.

· Forward speed can also be adjusted in some cases allowing a greater area to be covered for the same amount of fuel.

4. Review your machinery

How easy is to increase tramline width or can you manage with trailed as opposed to powered cultivation equipment?


Tyres and Weights

1. Match pressures to the job in hand

Higher pressures for road work, lower pressures with a larger footprint for field work. The introduction of Very-high Flexion (VF) tyres, with a larger footprint than standard tyres and Central Tyre Inflation Systems (CTIS) which allows pressures to be changed from the driver’s seat have been found to offer fuel savings and reduce compaction.

2. Take care to avoid sinkage

Not only does this cause compaction but uses more fuel as the tyres cut through the soil as opposed to passing over.

3. Use ballast for better traction 

Correct amounts of ballast are vital to ensure the tractor transmits power to ground with maximum efficiency – not enough and there is too much tyre slippage, meaning tasks take longer therefore leading to increased fuel usage. Be careful though, as too much weight will not only unnecessarily load the engine leading to increased fuel consumption, but also lead to not enough tyre slippage, causing soil structure damage. Wheel slippage should be in the range of 10-15%.

4. Make sure you use all four wheels properly

It’s also important to ensure that weight is distributed effectively to avoid “power hop” or bouncing- this is caused by front tyres struggling to gain sufficient traction and can be corrected by ensuring weight is distributed over the front of the tractor.


Drying and Storage

1. Keep driers and storage equipment serviced and up-to-date

Driers and storage equipment are key pieces of machinery and as such should be serviced prior to use, particularly older burners. In the case of the latter it may be cheaper in the long run to replace with more efficient, modern alternative. Equipment should also be calibrated e.g. moisture meters.

2. Use technology where possible

Automated controls on grain driers can save fuel by only drying down to the necessary moisture content required. The use of automated fans and ventilation systems ensure operation only occurs when conditions are ideal, achieving long term storage temperatures quicker with less energy used than manually controlled systems.


People and Management

1. Get the most out of the machine AND the operator

Operators should be fully trained and a happy operator is an efficient operator- make sure their vehicle is comfortable so they can operate in optimum conditions.

2. Record fuel use

While some machinery can do this even a simple brim to brim recording system at the fuel tank to allow measurement of use between operation, operator and even machinery can help identify areas for improvement from extra operator training to undiagnosed problems in machines.

3. Get your staff’s buy-in on fuel efficiency

Share fuel information with staff, from costs and usage data and show how they can help make savings by involving them in the process, for example encouraging them to monitor use between activities etc.

4. Consider alternative power sources

For tractors and vehicles, this could be by the installation of hydrolysers and the use of wind or solar could be used to offset electricity used for drying, handling and storage.

5. Look at your logistics

Can journeys be cut out or where farms are spread out over considerable distance, is the use of a lorry a more viable option compared to tractors and trailers?

6. Complete an energy audit

This will look at where energy used and make suggestions for improvement.

Saving fuel is something that all cereal farmers can benefit from, particularly in light of rising costs. In many cases the savings can achieved by very small and inexpensive changes through being a better operator or ensuring a machine is operating at its peak. Its also important to remember that what is best for fuel efficiency, from machinery and tyre settings to timings, generally is what is best for the soil, therefore not only saving money but ensuring the next crop gets the best possible start.

For more information, contact the Farm Advisory Service Advice line:



Phone: 0300 323 0161

A Case tractor ploughing a field at Bielgrange, the East Lothian Soil & Nutrient Network host farm

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