Gone are the days when a farmer can have a wrench and a screwdriver in their pocket and count on being able to fix nearly anything on a tractor. Today’s machinery has become far more complex, with computers, sensors and safety components that often can only be repaired with proprietary tools.
“Smaller farms that are using simpler equipment and have a tractor that is not as compliant with current emissions have the ability to troubleshoot and repair their tractors with their own labor,” said Bruce Wright, a professor of agricultural engineering technology and John Deere Master Instructor at the State University of New York in Cobbleskill. “Once they buy something that has a number of controllers, problems often become an issue of software instead of hardware, and they’re obligated to use a dealer’s investment in diagnostic equipment. There are some that can be connected remotely to a dealer so they can figure out what’s wrong before sending someone out to do repairs.”
For example, even on medium-sized farms, geographic positioning systems (GPS) in tractors are becoming common, Wright said, and can help farmers increase yields and profitability significantly. These computers not only help steer the tractor to avoid overlap and avoid soil compaction, but they can also store information about soil classifications in different parts of a field and automatically adjust seed or fertilizer applications as the tractor drives through those areas.
For tractors with that level of sophisticated equipment, Wright explained making repairs can range from asking a question on a website and getting a reply about a simple fix to needing to bring it to a dealership that has the proper diagnostic equipment to find and fix the problem. Sometimes software errors can be fixed remotely through a computer hook-up. Wright once had a tractor that wasn’t running well in the New York winter and then learned that it was configured for a more southern climate. He downloaded a software patch on his laptop, plugged it into the tractor, and the tractor ran much better through the winter.
New tractors may have as many as 5,000 diagnostic codes to help pinpoint problems, he explained, and those codes can be downloaded to a computer that can then offer guidance on adjustments to clear the code. The computer also needs to be kept updated when any hardware changes are made, Wright added. For example, if a new nozzle in the fuel line is installed, the operator must enter a corresponding 25-digit code into the controller so the system can properly maintain pressures, otherwise the engine might have higher emissions or run less smoothly.
New models of major attachments, like planters, harvesters, combines and balers, often have on-board computers as well, and those need to be able to communicate properly with the tractor. The advent of all of these computers is why training of the next generation of technicians is so critical to agriculture, Wright said.
The other big change in tractor technology has been changes to emissions systems to meet clean air requirements. Those changes have also added challenges for basic repairs, he said, in part because in order to burn as cleanly as possible fuel pressure through the engines is now as much as 30,000 pounds per square inch (psi), where it was more like 1,500 psi just 30 years ago. So there is little room for error in making repairs. New emissions standards also mean some new consumables on tractors, such as diesel exhaust filter material, a fluid that must be added to the exhaust system regularly.
Farmers can still perform basic maintenance on new tractors, replacing consumable parts like hydraulic hoses and fuel, oil and air filters. Putting off this kind of routine maintenance beyond the manufacturer’s recommended intervals is the No. 1 cause of major breakdowns of farm equipment, said Robert Cross, an agricultural engineering teacher at Morrisville State College. He also noted that tractor owners should be diligent about keeping up with these tasks.
That means keeping track of how old consumable parts are, conducting thorough pre- and post-use inspections every time the tractor is used, and knowing how it feels and sounds during use when it’s running correctly so that at the first sign of a problem steps can be taken to make repairs before the situation worsens. Looking for and repairing leaks, and keeping fluid levels at their proper levels and grease points well lubricated are also important. Accumulation of water and dirt in hydraulic systems and transmissions can be a significant problem and is often overlooked, he said. Knowing the difference between what white and black smoke coming from a tractor’s exhaust means is also important.
The cost of many parts has certainly increased in recent years, Wright said, but the cost of a replacement tractor has increased even more. “As a percentage of farm operating costs, machinery is costing quite a bit more than it used to,” Wright stated, in large part due to safety and emissions controls that are required on every new machine.
The challenge with major repairs for an older tractor, Cross stated, is that fixing one internal problem can lead to a cascade effect where the farmer finds other problems that should be fixed while the engine is taken apart. It can become expensive very quickly.
While new machinery is expensive up front, the reduced annual cost of repairs, and reduced risk of major failure after investing in those repairs, should be taken into account. The favorable tax regulations allowing for more rapid depreciation of equipment are also an incentive to purchase new, or even used, machinery.
Used tractors are a valuable, sometimes necessary, option, particularly for young and beginning farmers, Cross said. He noted that older tractors were built to last a long time, much longer than tractors built today, and if maintained well and used properly they should serve their farmers for many years. There’s still a strong resale market for older model tractors, which tend to hold their value. Prices on older tractors have actually increased in recent years, in part because of demand for machines that farmers are familiar with and feel comfortable repairing.
When buying a used tractor, Cross said to look around farms in nearby communities to see if other farmers have similar makes and models, to get a sense of how easy it will be to find parts and experienced mechanics. When considering a particular tractor, note the condition of the tires and hoses, look for leaks, listen for odd noises when the engine is running, and make sure to drive it to see how the steering, brakes and transmission feel, Wright advised. Raise and lower the hitches and buckets and inspect the pistons to look for deterioration from dirt or debris in the hydraulic system.
There’s no rule of thumb for how much money it’s worth spending on repairs, Cross said. If major work is needed, the farmer has to figure out what the cost of repairs would be, and how much buying a new machine would be. Online tools and software that can help with these calculations include AGMAC$ from Oklahoma State University (http://agmach.okstate.edu). After inputting information about existing or desired equipment and how the farmer plans to use it, the program offers a cost analysis based on depreciation, fixed costs and repair costs, among other variables.
“We’re living in almost the end of an era,” Cross said. “We have tractors out there that are 40 years old and still running. It will be interesting to see if today’s new tractors are still operating in 40 years.”