Business Farming

Saturday 1 October 2016

Fuel for thought... reduce your fuel bills by thousands

Tractor and tillage system choices along with factors such as tyre pressure can add or cut thousands from annual fuel bills

Derek Casey

Published 15/04/2015 | 02:30

Ploughing uses an average of 21 litres of diesel per hectare ploughed, depending on the soil type.
Ploughing uses an average of 21 litres of diesel per hectare ploughed, depending on the soil type.
A minimum tillage system can potentially yield big fuel savings.

After a dip over winter, I'm sure most of you will have noticed agri-diesel prices creeping back up again ahead of the busiest time on farms. As of the last weekend, you will pay €780 per thousand litres of diesel including VAT. It was never going to last, was it?

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That's the bad news out of the way. The good news is that things are still noticeably cheaper than this time last year, when agri-diesel was priced at €872 per thousand litres including VAT.

Comparing prices now to last year (see table below), the potential is there to reduce the fuel bill this spring - very welcome news for contractors who have had a few tough years of fuel bills.

Silage is the big killer for diesel bills because it's such a power-hungry job. Maintaining some form of cash flow is now more important than ever.

Even a modestly sized contracting outfit can very quickly run up a fuel bill of around €80,000 or €90,000, so you need to have money coming in regularly to offset your biggest input cost.

Offering cheaper rates for upfront payment is one approach to consider for 2015 if you ran into trouble last year.

Of course, we can only improve what we can measure in the first instance.

That's why we need good data on the fuel requirements for some of the more power-hungry jobs such as ploughing and power harrowing.

Subsoiling

Whether you are a big contractor or a part time farmer you should have an idea of what jobs use the most fuel.

Ploughing, for example, uses on average 21 litres of diesel per hectare ploughed, depending on the soil type. At current fuel prices this comes to a fuel cost per hectare ploughed of €19. Equally hard on the pocket is subsoiling, a job that many farmers do to relieve compaction caused either by poaching or machinery damage last backend. Subsoiling uses up about 15 litres of diesel per hectare worked, so that's about €13.50/ha at current diesel prices.

If these figures come as a surprise, you need to look at tightening up on fuel costs. The beginning of spring is a good time to take stock of what your real fuel costs are and to plan to reduce unnecessary fuel use.

Some of the variables that have the most considerable effect on fuel consumption are also the easiest to manage. For example, tyre pressure selection is directly linked to excessive fuel consumption. Unnecessary use of counterweights is another fuel drain. And correct tractor and tillage system selection are two other ways of managing fuel use.

Let's start with the choice of tractor. There are significant differences in fuel consumption rates between tractors, and data from the OECD tractor tests allow valid comparisons to be made.

For these tests an individual tractor's fuel use is usually measured in something called grams per kilowatt hour (g/kWh).

Differences between tractor brands for models of similar power can be significant, so it is worth doing your homework the next time you are on the market for a new tractor.

Obviously there are substantial cost implications for those tractors with poorer g/kWh ratings. Teagasc research has shown that, overall, the choice of tractor could easily account for fuel cost differences of up to €8/ha.

As regards the tillage system used, there are a number of different cultivation systems with various combinations of depth, tillage intensity, inversion and timing of operations.

At one extreme is the plough-based system with intensive secondary cultivation, while at the other is a direct-drill system with a simple minimal disturbance disc coulter.

It is now accepted that minimum tillage (min-till) establishment systems offer considerable scope for fuel saving as the shallower cultivation system requires much less energy input per hectare.

It is estimated that min-till systems have a primary cultivation energy requirement of approximately 37pc of that required by ploughing.

In addition, the overall fuel use of a min-till establishment system is just 50pc of that of conventional systems.

This can result in a fuel saving of between €12 and €15 per hectare, with additional depreciation and repair costs accruing as well.

Is there a downside? Some are still nervous of min till systems because yields can be down compared to a conventional plough-based approach.

But is the barometer for success yields or margin?

It doesn't suit every soil type for sure, but with such attractive potential savings in fuel costs I'm surprised these systems haven't been taken up by more Irish farmers as of yet.

Casey.derek@ gmail.com

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