Not every piece of ag equipment is going into hibernation over the winter. Utility tractors, scrapers, snow blowers, skid steers and trucks are called upon nearly every day, moving feed for animals, clearing driveways, and handling a variety of other chores around the farm.

What do we need to do to prepare equipment, especially diesel engine-powered machines, to handle the coming cold weather?

I checked out recommendations from John Deere, Kubota, Case IH, All States Parts out of Iowa, and even suggestions for diesel trucks which I would say can apply to most any off-road equipment, as well.

Recommendations from these sources can be rather brand-specific. Still, they all covered three basic areas of concern, especially diesel engines: batteries; fluids including fuel, oils, and DEF; and tires.

Batteries

A high cranking amp battery, at least 800 to 1,000 cold cranking amps (CCA), is best for cold weather.

Contrary to what you might think, cold temperature doesn’t significantly impact the service life of a battery. However, it does induce a stress test, amplifying the effects of time, heat, vibration and performance of the charging system.

So, batteries must go into the season with a full charge, otherwise, they could struggle to crank a cold engine. An under-charged battery can perform well at 80 degrees, but its true condition becomes evident at 0 degrees when starting current demands can increase by 200%, and the battery, even in great condition, is reduced to 40% of its summer cranking current. Generally, batteries that are below a 70% state of charge will tend to have difficulties starting a cold engine.

Check that the battery electrolyte is up to the full indicator ring and over the top of the plates. Plates that have dried will never perform satisfactorily again. It’s also good practice to check the rated current output of the alternator and load test current output of the battery.

You should clean any dirt and debris from the top of the battery, as it can create a conductive path and slowly drain energy. If there’s any corrosion around the posts, clean them using a little baking soda and a terminal brush. Make sure the terminal posts and cables have clean and secure contact for the most consistent current supply from the batteries to the machine.

Fuel and other fluids

When temperatures fall below 32 degrees, use winter-grade fuel (No. 1-D in North America) for cold-weather operation. Winter-grade fuel has a lower cloud point, the temperature at which wax will begin to form and cause fuel filters to plug. It also has a lower pour point, the lowest temperature at which a fuel moves.

You can treat non-winter-grade fuel (No. 2-D in North America) with a diesel fuel conditioner when temperatures drop below 32. Fuel additives contain anti-gel chemistry, which decreases the fuel cloud point by 18 degrees. For best results, use with untreated fuel.

If the machine uses diesel exhaust fluid, or DEF, it’s important to understand that it can freeze and thaw without hurting its ability to function properly. DEF has a shelf life of about one year, depending on storage conditions. Make sure to store DEF in an HTPE plastic or stainless steel container, as it is mildly corrosive. DEF can be filled up prior to storage, however, make sure to leave room for expansion. DEF can expand in the winter up to 7% and potentially crack the reservoir.

When it comes to engine oil, consider synthetic oil. It can help your engine turn easier on those really cold days. Synthetic oil doesn’t thicken as quickly as conventional oil when cold. In addition, use an engine heater to warm oil and maintain proper oil viscosity.

Tires and other rubber

Rubber becomes harder and more brittle in cold temperatures, making it more prone to cracking and breaking apart in cold weather. Look over your rubber tires, tracks, hoses and belts for cracking and dry rot.

Tire pressures are important, as well. When the temperature drops, tire pressure may change, meaning you’ll want to be sure they’re adequately filled before your next operation.

Proper warm-up of the equipment is also important. Warming up the machine reduces shock to components caused by cold fluids or hydraulic systems. The potential for blown hoses or O-rings increases with colder weather. By providing sufficient warm-up time, you’ll get a more productive machine, increase safe operation, and enjoy a more comfortable operating environment.

Yes, winter weather is just around the corner and can be brutal. You can be ready with proper equipment inspection and maintenance.


Michael Gustafson has written for and about farm equipment companies, their products and dealerships for more than 40 years, including 25 years with John Deere. He lives on a small acreage in Dennison, Ill.