Tractor sitting in the cold of winter

Heading into winter, precautions are needed to make sure your farm equipment runs efficiently and safely. If your utility tractor or front-end loader is down for repair, chores may lag behind and cattle and other livestock hungry for hay and supplemental feed may see a performance downturn.

Bob Schultheis, University of Missouri Extension natural resource engineering specialist, says spending time with winterizing farm equipment can pay big dividends. “The care provided to farm equipment, such as proper cleaning, maintenance and storage not only increases equipment reliability and performance, it can also improve resale value and save valuable time later on,” he says.

With many university ag engineering departments seeing budget cuts, guidelines for new hi-tech equipment during winter are likely more handily available from equipment manufacturers. However, tractor and equipment operation tips from the late Dr. Von H. Jarrett, known as “The Tractor Doctor” during his 37 years as a Utah State University ag engineer, still provide timely information for cold weather usage of farm equipment.

Jarrett’s recommendations for tractors and other farm equipment in the winter should help farmers and ranchers in even the coldest climates keep their machines running steadily. Here is a list of Jarrett’s recommendations:

  • Keep your tractor engine tuned up for a quick, easy start the first turn. Keep it protected by a shed or barn. Throw a canvas or other cover over the hood to retain more of the warmth provided by the block heater. In colder climates, invest in an electric plug-in block heater that screws into the side of the engine. Keep it plugged in at night or on a time device for several hours of use before starting the tractor.
  • Diesel fuel will not fire until air in the combustion chamber hits about 800 degrees. Oil that has been kept warm overnight is less sluggish in moving to the bearings, rings, rocker arm shaft and the vital parts of the engine. Switch to a lighter weight or multiple viscosity engine oil for cold weather operation.
  • Keep a good battery fully charged. For tractors used sparingly, use a trickle charger to help keep a battery up. A battery at 32 degrees has only three quarters the starting power it has at 80 degrees.
  • When everything else fails in starting a tractor, use ether sparingly. Make sure the engine is turning over before you inject the fluid. No matter how frustrated you get, never operate the starter more than 30 seconds at a time. Allow a two-minute starter cool down between tries. When the tractor starts, idle the engine under 1,000 rpm for several minutes. If you open the throttle on a turbo-charged engine, the lack of lubrication could cause serious damage.
  • A diesel engine temperature is as important as oil pressure. Unburned diesel fuel will dilute oil, which can cause failure of bearings, rings, sleeves and other components.
  • Proper operating temperature for most all tractors is about 180 degrees.
    Check your thermostats in a pan of hot water with a good known temperature thermometer. A 180-degree thermostat should partially open at 180 degrees, not at 160 or 200 degrees.
  • No matter how cold it is, once you get a tractor started and warmed up, you’re in business. Cold weather itself offers little challenge to a good basic preventive maintenance program year round.

Schultheis stresses the need for equipment operators to study the operator’s manuals to review maintenance recommendations. He offers these additional tips for winter usage:

  • Change the oil in vehicles, tractors and small engines. Clean engine oil of the proper grade will reduce internal engine corrosion during storage. Clean or replace air filters, replace fuel filters and lubricate bearings and joints to maximize the life and efficiency of the machinery.
  • Check antifreeze for the correct freezing temperature. Remember that antifreeze, like engine oil, has a limited lifespan. Merely adding more antifreeze may not be enough to fully protect your investment.
  • Add fuel stabilizer to fresh fuel in any gas tanks that will not be emptied within 30 days. Otherwise, ethanol-based fuels will take on moisture and go through phase separation, making the engine hard to start.
  • Confirm proper fluid levels in brake, power steering, hydraulic and transmission reservoirs. Make sure lights and windshield wipers work.

Schultheis encourages equipment operators to use proper oils in cold and hot weather. The American Petroleum Institute’s most recent recommendations for oil use in diesel engines are as follows:

“API CK-4 describes oils for use in high-speed four-stroke cycle diesel engines designed to meet 2017 model year on-highway and Tier 4 non-road exhaust emission standards as well as for previous model year diesel engines. These oils are formulated for use in all applications with diesel fuels ranging in sulfur content up to 500 ppm (0.05% by weight). However, the use of these oils with greater than 15 ppm (0.0015% by weight) sulfur fuel may impact exhaust aftertreatment system durability and/or oil drain interval. These oils are especially effective at sustaining emission control system durability where particulate filters and other advanced aftertreatment systems are used. API CK-4 oils are designed to provide enhanced protection against oil oxidation, viscosity loss due to shear, and oil aeration as well as protection against catalyst poisoning, particulate filter blocking, engine wear, piston deposits, degradation of low- and high-temperature properties, and soot-related viscosity increase. API CK-4 oils exceed the performance criteria of API CJ-4, CI-4 with CI-4 PLUS, CI-4, and CH-4 and can effectively lubricate engines calling for those API Service Categories. When using CK-4 oil with higher than 15 ppm sulfur fuel, consult the engine manufacturer for service interval recommendations.”

Read more on diesel and engine oil usage