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Winterizing dairy vehicles and equipment

Michael J. Thomas Published on 06 November 2015
Oil change

It’s that time again. The days are growing shorter, black clouds loom overhead, the mornings are brisk, and harvest is done or winding down.

The next few weeks present a good time to evaluate your equipment and vehicles and make sure they are prepared for winter. A good pre-winter checkup will help prevent downtime, regardless of whether it is a piece of equipment or truck you use every day to provide feed for your cattle or don’t use again until next spring to farm and harvest.




When winterizing motorized equipment and trucks for winter, begin by cleaning old oil and debris away from the motor with a steam cleaner, power washer or a few cans of engine degreaser and a garden hose. This will allow you to determine whether or not you have any system leaks that need attention as you proceed through the process.

It is a good idea to change the motor oil to prevent particulate sedimentation and remove moisture that has collected over the course of the summer. Over winter, the solids in motor oil fall out of suspension and collect in the bottom of the oil pan.

Once on the bottom of the pan, this sediment is not easily removed with subsequent oil changes but can be dislodged under stressful operating conditions later – fouling filters and causing unnecessary wear. Moisture left in the system over winter will cause internal parts to rust and pit. After changing the motor oil and filter, start the engine and check for leaks.


Check the engine coolant level and concentration. Use a coolant concentration tester to make sure that your engine is protected to the coldest temperature you anticipate during the winter. A 50-50 ratio will protect your engine to -34ºF and will also raise the boiling point and protect your engine under extreme hot temperature operation. In areas of extended periods of extreme subzero, say -70ºF, a 70-30 coolant-to-water ratio is recommended, but note that this ratio will decrease the boiling point and is not recommended for conditions of extreme heat.

In addition to maintaining the proper levels and mixtures concerning equipment and trucks that sit for extended periods of time, it is important to drain and replace coolant periodically. Just as with engine oil, coolant particulates will precipitate over extended periods of non-use and can occur after new coolant has been added to old coolant.


Another important point regarding engine coolant is to make sure to use a high-quality fleet coolant with an anti-electrolysis additive. In the case of heavy trucks, change the coolant filter. And last, because most tap water contains minerals, whenever possible blend your coolant with distilled water to retard particulate formation and coolant breakdown.

When you have completed this process, start the engine and allow it to come to operating temperature. This will ensure that any coolant you have added to the system is well blended, preventing unmixed coolant freezing in the engine block. Because you have already cleaned the engine, you will now be able to see any coolant leaks in hoses or at hose connection points. 

Bearings, belts and filters

After verifying that you have no leaks, or you have remedied them, check the engine fan for any wobble in the bearing. In engines where the fan is mounted off of the water pump, this play will indicate the onset of bearing and seal failure. You may also see a bit of coolant leaking around the output shaft of the water pump. By catching this early, you might save yourself the headache of changing the water pump on a -20ºF morning while the cows wait to be fed.

Before leaving the coolant system, check all the drive belts for the fan, alternator, etc., for damage and wear. This is a good time to get a jump on next season and replace these items.

Clean or replace air filters. Over the course of the winter, moisture can collect in the solids within the air filter, causing the dirt to solidify. Once the dirt has caked, it is very difficult to effectively clean the air filter in the spring without damaging the filter.

Batteries and air brakes

A commonly overlooked component is the battery or batteries. If the battery cells are not sealed, make sure the fluid levels are correct. If they are down, refill with distilled water. Next, check for and remove any corrosion between the cable ends and the terminals. Use a terminal brush and a good terminal cleaner to neutralize and remove the corrosion.


If you do not have a can of terminal cleaner, you can mix a quart of warm water with a couple teaspoons of baking soda to neutralize the acid buildup on the battery and terminals. After wiping the terminals and the cable ends and allowing them to dry, apply a couple coats of corrosion sealant to the terminals and cable ends.

In cases where trucks and equipment sit unused over winter, it is not uncommon to find the batteries dead in the spring. This can be caused by an electrical short in the system or the slow drain of electronic components, such as digital clocks. The easiest way to ensure the truck or piece of equipment will start in the spring is to leave the battery cables disconnected until the first time you need the truck or equipment.

In the case of trucks and trailers with air brakes, this is a good time to check for air leaks and fix them. Drain air storage tanks to remove any moisture. If the truck has an air dryer system, change the element to prevent problems later. 

Hydraulics and lubrication

After winterizing the engine and its components, check the hydraulic system. While changing the hydraulic filters, pay attention to the appearance of the fluid. If the fluid is cloudy or milky, this indicates the presence of moisture. Water in the system will dramatically shorten the life of pumps and seals, leading to costly repairs. Although hydraulic fluid is expensive, changing the fluid will save much more money in the long run. Check for leaks and damage to hoses.

After servicing the engine and hydraulic system, use water or air to clean crop waste, chafe, dirt and oil or grease from the body and frame. While doing this, check for damage such as cracks or rust. This will give you an opportunity to repair damage before next session.

Next, fully grease all fittings. This will push any water or dirt out of the component and fill the void so that moisture cannot enter over winter.

In areas of high humidity, it is a good idea to fill the fuel tanks to capacity to prevent excess condensation. If you need to use a trailer with air brakes in the winter that has previously sat idle in the yard, pour a bottle of airline dryer in the air supply line before you hook it to the supply on the tractor.

Tire pressure

Last, check the air pressure in the tires to make sure they are properly inflated. Periods of extended under-inflation can damage tires or at least cause added labor in the spring when you find the tire flat.

Diligently applying the previously described process of thoroughly cleaning, checking for wear and damage, and greasing the non-motorized equipment in your program before winter will greatly reduce downtime, allowing you to focus your time and energy toward the day-to-day operation of your dairy.  PD

Michael J. Thomas is a freelancer based in Idaho.