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Electrification is not expected to hit Midwest fields in the foreseeable future.

Kevin Schulz, Editor

February 29, 2024

4 Min Read
Agricultural machinery service repair concept image
FUTURISTIC THINKING: Electric vehicles can be found on U.S. streets and highways, and some farm equipment runs on battery power, but as of yet, the technology is not powering large tractors or combines across the Midwest.sefa ozel/Getty Images

Despite the push to eliminate fossil fuels from the landscape, don’t expect to be plugging in your tractor or combine before hitting the fields for full days or numerous days in a row just yet.

While many farm equipment manufacturers have released all-electric equipment, those introductions have mainly been reserved for utility tractor lineups and smaller equipment such as yard tractors, lawn mowers, all-terrain vehicles and utility vehicles.

“Starting with what the technology can deliver — the main issue being power density — today’s technology does not allow the hours of operation when you start talking about open field machines like large tractors or combines that are working 24/7 during the season,” says Mario De Amicis, vice president of electrification portfolio management at CNH, parent company of Case IH. “Then, there is the issue of charging when working in the open fields where maybe a charging point is not easily accessible. … So, for that type of machine, this technology today cannot be a solution. Definitely for the large machine, we see still the combustion engine as the primary source of power, potentially utilizing a hybrid electric system.”

Last year, Case IH released the Farmall 75C, an all-electric 74-hp tractor that fits in the utility category.

“We have seen the machine work in real application, from heavy tillage to loader work, and the feedback we have received so far is really, really good,” De Amicis says. “What customers like is that the tractor is quieter. It’s really smooth in terms of driving. The experience from the drivability point of view is superior because it’s faster, and full torque is available from start off, making the machine smoother and less jerky.”

Without a combustion engine, De Amicis says, operating noise in the 75C is decreased by more than 60%. Less noise and no emissions from the 75C are big selling points, and De Amicis sees the tractor as a solution for working with livestock, in greenhouses and on hobby farms.

“You can provide significant added value to the customer with the tractor being quieter, no CO2 and no pollutant emissions in an enclosed environment, so for the livestock and greenhouse, it’s a huge benefit,” he says.

Hybrid option

While plug-in tractors and combines won’t be lumbering across the vast acreages of Midwest farms in the near future, De Amicis says hybridization combined with alternative fuels, such as biomethane, may find its way to large U.S. operators to aid with sustainability.

“Hybridization can provide a transition period to reduce engine displacement using a generator in order to cover the transition period, until battery technology enables full BEV [battery electric vehicle] machines. So, from a sustainability perspective, a combustion engine combined with electrification is definitely a technology that can work,” he says.

In addition to the battery life per charge and the need for charging stations for tractors and combines, weight and cost are also deterrents to adopting electric equipment.

“We should see a solution from a battery perspective that can deliver a better energy density, so that they are able to deliver the same volume in the same way, 50% more, in three, four years,” De Amicis says. “So that means that I can keep the same runtime, and I can reduce dramatically the volume and then the weight,” so soil compaction may not be as much of a concern.

Don’t weigh me down

According to a published John Deere report, using the 620-hp 9R tractor as an example, fuel capacity is 400 gallons, adding nearly 2,800 pounds. Changing to full electrification would mean adding almost 60 batteries at a weight of nearly 67,000 pounds — more than 20,000 pounds heavier than the tractor itself.

De Amicis adds that batteries to power large acreage equipment add 30% to 50% to the cost of the tractor or combine.

Access to charging infrastructure and length of machine operation also continue to be significant challenges with electrification, given current technology, the John Deere report stated.

The key phrase is “current technology,” as the trend is to improve technology to meet producers’ demands. As for now, John Deere states: “We continue to invest in and advocate for the development and expansion of renewable fuel options for industries like ours, and we believe biofuels (including ethanol, renewable diesel and biodiesel) are promising solutions for our larger products. With current technology, a full battery-electric version of these products would not deliver the outcomes desired by our customers.”

De Amicis says another level of concern is the maintenance of all-electric equipment. While he believes the maintenance won’t be as much as with a combustion engine, there will still be a learning curve for mechanics.

“This is a very crucial point when we talk about high-voltage equipment,” he says. “There is a need of handling specific testing procedures, specific tools and expertise in skills that dealers and farmers don’t have today. There is definitely a need to continue to learn and grow in order to be able to handle this technology.”

About the Author(s)

Kevin Schulz

Editor, The Farmer

Kevin Schulz joined The Farmer as editor in January of 2023, after spending two years as senior staff writer for Dakota Farmer and Nebraska Farmer magazines. Prior to joining these two magazines, he spent six years in a similar capacity with National Hog Farmer. Prior to joining National Hog Farmer, Schulz spent a long career as the editor of The Land magazine, an agricultural-rural life publication based in Mankato, Minn.

During his tenure at The Land, the publication grew from covering 55 Minnesota counties to encompassing the entire state, as well as 30 counties in northern Iowa. Covering all facets of Minnesota and Iowa agriculture, Schulz was able to stay close to his roots as a southern Minnesota farm boy raised on a corn, soybean and hog finishing farm.

One particular area where he stayed close to his roots is working with the FFA organization.

Covering the FFA programs stayed near and dear to his heart, and he has been recognized for such coverage over the years. He has received the Minnesota FFA Communicator of the Year award, was honored with the Minnesota Honorary FFA Degree in 2014 and inducted into the Minnesota FFA Hall of Fame in 2018.

Schulz attended South Dakota State University, majoring in agricultural journalism. He was also a member of Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity and now belongs to its alumni organization.

His family continues to live on a southern Minnesota farm near where he grew up. He and his wife, Carol, have raised two daughters: Kristi, a 2014 University of Minnesota graduate who is married to Eric Van Otterloo and teaches at Mankato (Minn.) East High School, and Haley, a 2018 graduate of University of Wisconsin-River Falls. She is married to John Peake and teaches in Hayward, Wis. 

When not covering the agriculture industry on behalf of The Farmer's readers, Schulz enjoys spending time traveling with family, making it a quest to reach all 50 states — 47 so far — and three countries. He also enjoys reading, music, photography, playing basketball, and enjoying nature and campfires with friends and family.

[email protected]

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