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Management, technology: Farmers work to offset fuel costs

Farmers are looking to reduce their 2004 fuel costs by adopting agricultural strategies including new herbicides, transgenic cotton and reduced tillage methods.

Will McCarty, state program leader for agriculture and natural resources with Mississippi State University's Extension Service, said many farmers are using management and technology in place of labor and machinery. One area that benefits greatly is the reduction in fuel needs.

“Researchers were evaluating low-till and no-till practices in the 1980s, but what really enabled growers to convert were new herbicides, new pricing strategies and transgenic cotton,” McCarty said. “Modern technology helps reduce trips across the field, and the implements needed require less power and therefore less fuel.”

Herb Willcutt, an energy specialist with Mississippi State University's Extension Service, said farmers are facing another planting season with increased fuel costs. As of the first of April, farm fuel prices were running around $1.15 per gallon, compared to prices in the upper-70-cent range a year ago.

“Fuel is a relatively small portion of the overall production costs, but farmers are still looking for ways to reduce the number of trips across each field,” Willcutt said. “Global Positioning Systems guidance units will promote fuel savings because there is less swath overlap. GPS units are becoming more affordable as well as more accurate and reliable.”

Walton Gresham of Gresham Petroleum in Indianola, Miss., said modern farmers have gotten smarter in their agricultural methods. He said he believes growers have reduced their fuel consumption 30 to 40 percent in the last five years.

“No-till and low-till methods as well as selecting seeds that are resistant to insects or won't be harmed by herbicides are some of the ways growers have reduced the number of trips across the fields,” Gresham said. “Newer tractors are also more fuel efficient.”

The need for irrigation is one of the biggest factors in fuel use during a year. Irrigation systems run on diesel, propane or electricity.

Jack Sherard, a grower in Coahoma County, said irrigation expenses are largely out of his control. “In a dry season, you have to spend more to run irrigation. We save a lot of money just with timely rains,” Sherard said. “Our farm has been increasingly no-till in recent years as we avoid tillage as much as possible. Another thing we do to reduce fuel costs is to run the tractors at the appropriate levels and not wide open.”

Willcutt said matching implements to the tractor horsepower as much as possible will help reduce fuel needs.

“When pulling lighter loads, drivers should change to a higher gear and throttle back. At the same time, most engines do not need to operate slower than 1,600 rpm or they will become less efficient,” Willcutt said. “They also need to pay attention to machinery maintenance since well maintained equipment operates more efficiently.”

Linda Breazeale writes for MSU Ag Communications.

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