A farmer and his tractor. Picturing a farmer without one is like picturing a person without a smartphone – you can’t survive without it! Nearly every farmer in the last century (at least in North America) has had one, whether it was a 12 horsepower steam-powered engine of the past or a 620 horsepower diesel-powered monster of today. There is no item more ubiquitous on farms in this part of the world than the venerable tractor.
Tractors, however, are not what they once were. Certainly, the most obvious changes include physical size and operator comfort, but there are other changes, too – changes that are threatening the reliability of our crucial workhorses. As our world becomes ever more fixed on the subject of climate change, the emissions of even our tractors has become a major consideration for policy makers – and that is causing some very real problems for farmers.
Diesel engines, the power behind our tractors for many decades, are now under intense scrutiny. It all started back in 1996, with the first federal standards for non-road diesel engines coming into effect. Tier 1 standards were developed by the Environmental Protection Agency and the California ARB, to be phased in between 1996 and 2000. These regulations were initially pretty mild. More advanced engine design, which was already taking place anyway, was enough to meet these emissions targets, and would be through Tiers 2 and 3 as well.
In 2008, through to 2015, regulations became much stricter with the adoption of Tier 4 standards. Nitrogen oxide (NOx), widely believed to be one of the more severe greenhouse gases, and particulate matter (PM) had to be reduced to 90% below 2008 levels – an ambitious target. The only way to achieve these targets, especially the even more stringent Tier 4 final of today, was to install diesel particulate filters (DPF) to catch and trap NOx and PM before they leave the tailpipe. The other part of the equation is the use of diesel exhaust fluid (DEF), which is injected to cause a more complete burn of the fuel inside the cylinder (read more here and here).
On our farm, we purchased our first Tier 4 tractor in 2012, which was a John Deere high-clearance sprayer. Since then, two of our four-wheel drive tractors, one of our combines, our skidsteer, our sprayer, a semi truck and our pickup trucks are all under Tier 4 regulations.
Last week, we were hauling winter wheat to Kola, Manitoba, a 450 kilometer round trip. We have a few semi trucks on the farm these days, but only one is relatively new – our 2013 Peterbilt. Since it’s the newest (which should mean it’s the most reliable), it’s the best one to make the trip – right?
In fact, it never made a single run. The DEF system failed on it on its way to town one day, which put it into limp mode. What does limp mode mean? Well, it couldn’t even generate enough power to pull an empty trailer to the truck shop in Weyburn, a 40 km drive. Dad’s pickup truck had to tow it most of the way (incidentally, a great advertisement for Dodge trucks). The repair bill? $1,400 just for the parts. All to fix emissions equipment.
The problem with this stuff is that it is extremely fragile and not suited to our type of work. In the instruction manual for that semi, it says that it will occasionally need to “burn” the particulate matter (PM) out of the exhaust system (otherwise it will clog up). When it decides to do a burn, you must “simply drive for 45 minutes and it will complete its cleaning cycle.” All well and good – except we rarely have to haul that far. At least 80% of our grain goes within a half hour radius from home. So, we’re supposed to just drive to Regina for the fun of it? Great use of our time – and our fuel.
Worse, if we don’t get a burn done on a regular basis, the system will clog up and need to be cleaned out; a process that runs thousands and thousands of dollars. And this is all for one of our four semi trucks. Oh, and our 1995 Peterbilts? Yeah, they run just fine.
And that’s just our trucks. One of our combines, a 2013, has a DPF (that’s the filter in the exhaust). One day, near the end of harvest (thank goodness), it decided it needed a burn. It made that call around mid-afternoon, and by the evening it barely made it home. You see, when those systems run a cleaning cycle, the engine has to run extremely hot to burn the PM out. On a combine that runs in hot, dry, flammable chaff all day, it can’t do a burn while it’s operating. So, it has to sit and idle to do one. Our combine sat and roared away at full throttle for 45 minutes that morning to complete its cleaning cycle. Tell me again, this is good for the environment how?
Our tractors, which run both DPF and DEF (exhaust filters and fluid), became so unreliable that we had to keep new DEF filters on standby. They would literally shut down in the middle of the day because the DEF system failed. I do not understand how a $400,000 tractor should ever have to shut down because the emissions system wasn’t working exactly right.
What’s the Solution?
I’m not going to go into a debate about climate change and whether it’s real or not – that’s a discussion for another time and place. But the fact is that emissions equipment is costing us serious money. Not only does new equipment cost more because of the technology investment engine manufacturers have to make, but it has severely compromised the reliability of the machinery we so greatly rely on.
We have a few options to deal with this situation: one, run old equipment and give up the other technology and improved reliability new machinery brings; two, buy all new machinery and hope the newer DEF and DPF systems are better (doubtful); or three, delete the DEF and DPF systems from our equipment and run without (supposedly illegal – but quite likely the best option).
Regulators need to understand how critical the timing of our operations is. We absolutely cannot afford to be shut down for emissions equipment problems. There must be allowances for DEF and DPF failures so that we can run until the problem can be fixed.
If climate change is such a serious issue that we must limit emissions of farm equipment to this degree, governments should be prepared to step up and help us pay the tremendous repair cost of these systems. And until these exhaust filtration systems are built to withstand the rigours of farm labour, they should not be required on our equipment. Feeding the world – and our families – is a higher priority for me than a few extra pounds of nitrous oxide emissions.