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Honey, your cell phone’s ringing ... it’s your tractor calling

Allen Schaeffer Published on 11 June 2014

tractor in a field

Really? Could it be possible that your tractor would be calling your cell phone?



Yes. In today’s new information-rich and connected world, new farm tractors and machines can be online and connected. To understand why all this is not just possible but an integral part of the future of farming, you can thank, at least in part, the EPA.

For at least the last five years, if you’ve gotten anywhere close to an equipment dealer, you could not escape hearing about Tier 4 (aka the new EPA emissions requirements for new tractors). First it was about the “interim” – and now (thankfully), it’s “final.”

Designing new engines to meet the EPA requirements has been a challenge. Changes to lower emissions to satisfy the EPA also tend to increase fuel consumption and reduce available power.

But what we’re seeing in the Tier 4 final products is: Not only have manufacturers figured out this whack-a-mole problem and improved efficiency while lowering emissions, a lot more has been changed as well.

It reminds me of my favorite sign behind the parts counter at my local tractor dealer. It reads “The part you need costs only $5 ... but it is welded to a part that costs $100.” The integration and investments in these new tractors makes it easy to see how a change in the engine emissions regulations could lead to other changes in the tractor – good ones because they have enabled a major focus on saving fuel and productivity.


Fuel saving still begins with the engine, where emissions changes have driven a more complete combustion process at every point in the duty cycle. Fuel is now burned more efficiently – consumption is balanced with improvements in power and performance and low emissions.

Directing all this is the most powerful electronic engine control computer to date. In today’s terms, if an old three-wheel row crop tractor was a hand-crank wall phone, the new tractors are like smartphones on steroids.

Adjusting engine performance toward efficiency and more power particularly on larger tractors is made possible largely by one of the new emissions control technologies called selective catalytic reduction (SCR). SCR systems enable the engine to be tuned at any moment more toward performance and efficiency while the SCR system treats the exhaust coming out of the engine.

These SCR systems are very efficient but do require the use of a new fluid on the tractor – aqueous urea, otherwise known as diesel exhaust fluid or DEF. This must be refilled at a rate that is dependent on the power demands and fuel consumption of the tractor – somewhere in the range of about 1 to 4 percent (for every 100 gallons of diesel fuel consumed, 1 gallon of DEF will be consumed).

Combining diesel fuel consumption with DEF consumption yields a new measure – fluid economy – a new measure of efficiency to compare different tractor performance as well as to monitor your own operating costs.

John Deere, Case IH and AGCO all offer a choice of solutions for meeting the new emissions requirements based on tractor and machine size. For example, John Deere 8000 Series tractors utilize an SCR technology and cooled EGR and are seeing 1 to 4 percent reductions in fuel consumption while consuming a low 1 to 3 percent diesel exhaust fluid, depending on the tractor.


Case IH Magnum tractors in the 180 to 380 hp range use SCR as part of their IH Efficient Power mated to a continuously variable transmission (CVT) and are able to achieve 100 percent mechanical efficiency while maximizing available power.

AGCO/Massey Ferguson uses an SCR known as e3 clean air technology. No matter which brand you’re looking at, you’ll find that it is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Small compact utility tractors are also included in the emissions requirements and here even different approaches are used including diesel particulate filters, such as those by Yanmar.

Driving more efficiency and productivity in the total machine gets back to the engine control module (ECM) – the computer – which is not only thinking about optimizing emissions and power demands at this very moment, but now the electronics are also thinking about how the machine is being operated and where it is being operated, all with an eye on doing more work in less time and at a lower cost.

Farming has benefitted from crop science that has made more disease- and drought-resistant seeds, resulting in higher yields. The “tractor version” of crop science is where some of the greatest potential for productivity gains lies in the future.

It all starts with a mountain of data – information generated and collected in the new connected tractor, linking and constantly analyzing machine operation, engine performance and spatial orientation. Using satellites to precision guide a machine that is on cruise control is proven to reduce fuel costs and fertilizer and other inputs.

It’s not just a far cry from the manual approach of eyeballing and tweaking the steering wheel to overlap tire tracks but has been shown to increase efficiency by more than 20 percent for some operations. As one California farmer was recently quoted as saying, “That’s the difference in making a profit and losing money.”

Larger farms have been early adopters of GPS systems and geospatial information systems (GIS) out of necessity. Now these tools are increasingly being integrated into new tractors and can provide efficiency benefits for all farming operations. GIS systems provide a connection with the land and soil condition and terrain and can optimize planting depths, watering and other key inputs, or simply avoiding problem terrain.

Thinking productivity and integration well beyond just the machine – and now into the entire farming operation – is increasingly the norm. Through systems like John Deere’s Farmsight to Case IH’s AFS Advanced Farming Systems or AGCO’s Fuse precision farming, crop yields, weather and equipment utilization and maintenance reminders are just a touchscreen away. Amazing.

Sometimes it takes just this kind of fancy technology to raise a simple awareness. Have you ever let the tractor idle or not lowered the throttle for “just for a minute or two” while you ran back in the tool shed or stopped and took a call?

New integrated engine control systems will keep you honest about idle time, and you may not like what you find. One manufacturer found that average idle times were 30 percent of total machine operation.

Generally, idling is burning fuel with no benefits, and new tractors can be programmed for automatic shut downs under some conditions, all to save fuel and lower operating costs.

Productivity is also coming from transmission improvements, again related to engine designs and emissions. For example, John Deere’s newest line of Tier 4 tractors produces 35 more hp for PTO and hydraulics. A new transmission has been designed to better utilize the power and performance of the new clean diesel engine, which allows for using larger implements and handling more acres in less time while using less fuel.

Now about that cell phone call from the tractor – productivity is also about keeping a machine’s uptime at 100 percent.

For this we go back to our smartphones, and many tractors now have the ability to communicate about their condition to not only the operator but also through wireless data and cellular links back to dealers, who could flag impending problems, order parts and make repairs in record time, avoiding costly delays and downtime.

So in these days of trying to make tractors and farming more efficient and us more productive, yes, your tractor just might be calling you. And you’d better answer it. It might be sending the daily efficiency and maintenance report. PD

The integration and investments in these new tractors makes it easy to see how a change in the engine emissions regulations could lead to other changes in the tractor – good ones because they have enabled a major focus on saving fuel and productivity. Photo courtesy of Allen Schaeffer.

allen schaefer

Allen Schaeffer
Executive Director
Diesel Technology Forum