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Extend The Life Of Your Farm Machinery | Spring 2011 Out Here Magazine

Timely preventive maintenance and inspection not only helps reduce major problems and downtime, it also helps identify problems when they can be corrected with relatively minor cost.

5 strategies can improve reliability and profits

By Robert Grisso and Robert Pitman
Photography by iStock

Your farm machinery is a major investment that can either increase or drain your bottom line. Take these five simple steps to reduce your costs, improve machine reliability for years, and increase profit margins.

1. Machinery Maintenance

Farmers could reduce machinery repair costs 25 percent with improved routine maintenance, a study revealed. Timely preventive maintenance and inspection not only helps reduce major problems and downtime, it also helps identify problems when they can be corrected with relatively minor cost.

An effective maintenance program should not be based on your feelings or memory; it must be based on fact as determined by an accurate service record for each piece of equipment as recommended by the operator's manual and adjusted to individual conditions.

To aid record keeping, mount a service record chart in a prominent area of the farm shop or in a service record book. Identify hour maintenance intervals such as 10, 50, 100, 250, and 500 so it is convenient to identify, perform, and record the services needed.

Follow a maintenance schedule recommended in the operator's manual, and carry a small notepad in each cab to record problems and observations as they arise.

2. Oil Analysis

Oil analysis monitors wear and oil contamination. When conducted regularly, it establishes a baseline of normal wear and can identify a potential problem before a major repair is necessary.

Obtain a sample when the oil is being drained for an oil change. Samples also can be obtained by suctioning it out through plastic tubing routed down into the oil reservoir.

Cost varies with the laboratory and extent of the analysis, but expect to pay $10-$30. Your local fuel and oil supplier or machinery dealer may do the analysis, or can refer you to a laboratory. Lab results may note an abnormal condition and issue a caution or recommendation.

Oil change intervals for both engines and transmissions are decided by the average need. No two pieces of equipment have the same preventive maintenance needs; each has imperfections and is used under different conditions. When using oil analysis to determine maintenance intervals, however, there is little guesswork.

Oil analysis records show that some equipment can safely run two or three times longer than recommended intervals. The oil analysis may show that you are changing the oil more often than necessary — or not often enough. By eliminating unneeded oil changes, you reduce the cost for oil and servicing.

3. Machinery Storage

The farmer who keeps the most valuable and vulnerable machinery out of the weather can save a lot of money. Equipment stored inside has a significantly higher trade-in value compared to the same equipment stored outside.

For example, keeping $300,000 worth of tractors, combines, and planters inside, and assuming a 50 percent trade-in value after five years would make this equipment's value approximately $20,250 more.

Inside storage of a small tractor will increase the trade-in value by $400 to $500 per year. Proper storage of a 4-wheel-drive tractor should add $1,000 to $4,000 per year to the resale value.

Storage also saves money by reducing repairs and time in the shop. Machinery stored inside had 7.6 percent downtime, while unhoused equipment was down 14.3 percent of the time it should have been working. Parts such as belts, tires, and hoses deteriorate rapidly when unprotected.

4. Engine Tune-Ups

Diesel and gas engines require periodic tune-ups. As engines operate, they lose power and fuel efficiency. To obtain the optimum performance from an engine, the power produced and the fuel consumed should be checked and compared to the University of Nebraska Tractor Test data. Test reports can be obtained from the Nebraska Tractor Testing Laboratory, Biological Systems Engineering Department, 35th & East Campus Loop, P.O. Box 830832, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, NE, 68583-0832 or by visiting

Your tractor should be tested on a certified PTO dynamometer found at most equipment dealers. If tractor power is down by more than 5 percent, adjustments or a tune-up is needed. A tune-up may include changing air and fuel filters, cleaning and adjusting injector nozzles, and adjusting engine timing.

5. Avoid Modifying Tractor Engines

A tractor engine may be "modified" to get more power. Frequent claims about pulling bigger loads, getting new "life" from older models, and more power from new models are true. Sounds tempting when you're faced with covering more acres in less time. But are the consequences worth it?

The first problem is warranty. Most manufacturers do not allow any changes from standard specifications without voiding the warranty. The second problem is an almost sure reduction in service life. Every machine design is a compromise. The designer must compromise between strength, reliability, and cost to come up with a tractor rugged enough to do a job, but still meet an affordable price.

If power is increased 20 percent on a tractor, you're assuming the manufacturer built the engine parts, clutch, transmission, and final drive 20 percent stronger than originally needed. Operating the tractor this way will overload all parts, and service life will suffer. In the end, the tractor probably will end up in the repair shop long before it should.

If more power is needed, it is better, financially, to trade for a bigger tractor. Larger tractors are built for higher power from the radiator to the wheels and should give good service. Trying to get more power by modifying a tractor may prove to be extremely expensive.

Robert Grisso and Robert Pitman are extension professionals at Virginia Tech University.