Machinery ownership and operation is a major crop and livestock production cost.

Several strategies when combined can significantly affect costs, improve machine reliability and improve profit margins.

How to get maximum machinery life

This article discusses five strategies to achieve maximum farm machinery life:

  1. machinery maintenance
  2. oil analysis
  3. machinery storage
  4. engine tune-ups
  5. avoiding modification of tractor engines

Machinery maintenance

A Midwest study showed that many farmers could reduce machinery repair costs 25 percent by improving routine maintenance procedures. With a yard full of machinery, that savings can be significant. As an example, an $80,000 tractor will typically require about $24,000 in repair costs during 5,000 hours of operation when receiving average maintenance. This cost can be decreased to approximately $18,000 with excellent service management.

Timely preventative maintenance and inspection will not only help reduce major problems and downtime, it will also help identify problems when they can be corrected with relatively minor repairs.


The maintenance program 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 for each vehicle and implement 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. Be sure to follow the “Preventative Maintenance Guide” in the operator’s manual for each particular piece of equipment.

Oil analysis

A detailed look at a sample of engine, transmission or hydraulic oil is a valuable preventative maintenance tool. In many cases, it enables identification of a potential problem before a major repair is necessary and downtime during critical operations can be avoided. Oil analysis is a means of monitoring wear and oil contamination. When conducted on a regular basis, it establishes a baseline of normal wear and can indicate when abnormal wear or contamination occurs.

Taking an oil sample
It is important to get an oil sample that is representative of all of the oil in the machine. Remember, your analysis will be based only on the sample that you send in for analysis. Always have the oil hot and thoroughly mixed before sampling. The easiest way to obtain a sample may be when the oil is being drained for an oil change. Sampling at this time usually involves letting some of the oil drain and then catching a sample in an appropriate container. In any case, it is important to have an appropriate container and follow sampling directions thoroughly.

Cost and convenience
Cost of oil analysis will vary according to the laboratory and extent of the analysis. The expense can be justified if it alerts the owner to a major problem that can be corrected in the off-season and prevents downtime when the machine is needed.

Locating a source
Your local fuel and oil supplier or machinery dealer may be the most convenient and economical source for oil analysis, although not all fuel and oil suppliers or machinery dealers are involved with oil analysis. Independent laboratories are another source and probably can best be located by looking in the yellow pages.

Results of the laboratory analysis are typically returned in two to four days after the lab receives the sample. The laboratory may note when the analysis shows an abnormal condition and issue a caution or recommendation accordingly.

Most maintenance experts realize the 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 machine has different imperfections and is used under different conditions. Operators doing smaller or lighter jobs can cause different conditions on engines and transmission wear than those that occur during more extended use.

When using oil analysis to determine maintenance intervals, there is little guesswork. 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 and also reduce the amount of used oil to deal with. This is an important pollution prevention method – reducing the source. Oil sample analysis saves you repair and maintenance dollars, has the potential to reduce used oil and increases resale value of equipment.

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. Parts such as belts, tires and hoses deteriorate rapidly when unprotected.

To determine the value of stored machinery, add the increase in trade-in value and value of fewer repair costs and subtract the downtime. Now with these values determine the value for storge as a percentage of initial price.

Machines, including tractors, combines, planters, drills, forage choppers, trucks and pickups, should be kept inside. Tillage implements should be the last to be placed inside. They take up a lot of space and decline in value only slightly faster when left outside. After five years, tillage equipment kept inside is worth only about 5 percent more than if left outside. Usually, the deterioration that occurs to the tires and bearings is less than the cost of providing building space.

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 results include several ratings for each tractor.

The tractor should be tested on a certified PTO dynamometer found at most equipment dealers. Attach the tractor’s power take-off to a dynamometer, warm the engine up and check to see if it produces rated PTO horsepower. 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.

Another important part of tractor operation is checking fuel efficiency. This can be done at the time the tractor is operating on the PTO dynamometer. After the tractor is warmed to operating temperatures, stop the tractor and fill the fuel tank completely full. Operate the tractor at rated speed and load for 30 minutes (longer for more accurate results), then stop the tractor and refill the tank to the previous level, keeping track of the gallons needed. Fuel efficiency will give an idea of the engine’s condition.

Avoid modification of 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. Engine modification can be done by several means. The most common is overfueling, while others include adding alcohol or LP gas injection, and turbo-charging naturally aspirated engines.

These all sound tempting when an operator is faced with covering more acres in less time. But are the consequences of boosting engine horsepower beyond original ratings worth it? The first problem is warranty. Most manufacturers do not allow any changes from standard specifications without voiding the warranty, so you’re on your own with the changes.

The second problem with engine modifications 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.

Changing the injector pump can be the simplest, cheapest and easiest engine modification. By pumping in more fuel (overfueling), the power of the engine will probably go up, but another problem arises. At the factory, most tractors are set to their most efficient operational level. If the engine is overfueled, the fuel efficiency will decrease. This means the power output for the fuel poured into the engine will be less, so in the long run, the extra fuel will cost money.

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.


This article has discussed five strategies to achieve maximum life from farm machinery. These practices included machinery maintenance, oil analysis, machinery storage, engine tune-ups and avoiding modifying tractor engines. No single item will have a large effect, but a combination of practices can have a large impact on costs, improve machine reliability for many years to come, and improve profit margins. PD

References omitted due to space but are available upon request by emailing

Excerpts from Virginia Tech Extension website

Robert Grisso is an extension engineer withVirginia Tech. Email Robert Grisso.