AF Changemaker: fuelling changes in farming practices

“My name is Rob Alexander. We are a family farming operation based in South Norfolk, growing a whole range of crops from wheat and barley to parsley and vining peas. We’re also contractors working airside at Norwich airport.

“Fuel consumption is one of our biggest costs. It’s frightening when you work out liters per kilometre (miles per gallon in old money) tractors use on the road.”


What changes have you made?

“In our business, fuel makes up about 16% of our variable costs. We plan fuel use and try to buy when it’s cheapest. In 2021 we had a wet harvest, “the driest wet harvest ever” as the local farmers called it. We used another 40k litres of diesel for drying so I decided to look at our fuel consumption.

“We’ve invested in a new style of drier. It’s saved us money by using approximately a third less fuel than the old continuous drier that has been here for 25 years.

“As a lecturer once said to me, “you can’t change anything unless you measure it first.” Over the past few years we’ve tried everything from a notebook in the fuel tank that everyone fills up, to telematrix to understand what we’re using and where we’re using it.

“To get reliable data we’ve installed telematrix monitoring on all main equipment. We use ‘JD Link’ in our John Deere tractors, JCB Fastrac and Agrifac sprayers, to gather fuel usage data as we work.

“We’ve had to think about why we’re using fuel. Can we use different techniques? Different types of vehicles that will affect our fuel usage? And what is the effect of that? Are we going to decrease yield?  Are we going to take longer to do a job?

“In mid-2021 we switched from traditional EN590 to GTL. We were struggling with filters blocking and understood the FAME element of EN590 was the cause. It meant added expense of changing filters (they can cost £100 a pair) and cleaning the fuel tank on our Challenger. It was expensive and not something I want to repeat. We pay a few pennies per litre extra for GTL but it’s worth it!”


What are the results of the changes that you’ve made?

“We can see exactly how much fuel we use per hectare and per hour. Moving from a cultivation-based system to a strip till system means we are saving 12.5 litres per hectare. Added to that is a significant time saving and so far yield isn’t compromised.

“The nature of our business means invoicing customers for work done. Our data goes into my master spreadsheet of fuel consumption per piece of machinery and each job has a cost factor built in for actual fuel consumption and fuel price paid. 

“We’ve made the biggest savings by changing how we farm. A traditional plough and combination establishment technique used 55 litres per hectare. Through the early 2000’s we used different drills but still ploughed and there was a noticeable change in fuel use. As we’ve gone to non-inversion we’ve reduced the amount of fuel used per hectare to establish a crop. It’s helped the bank balance at no cost to yield.”


How does AF help?

“With high fuel prices, the right time to buy and forward market pricing are important. Working with suppliers to fill our tanks at the right price is crucial and AF’s Helen Thurtle has done us proud!”


What next?

“I want to work on taking full tanker loads as it’s better value. We’ve got capacity for 58,000 litres but it’s working out how to manage cash flow to fill them.

“I want to look at how we can save fuel when moving heavy loads. The difference between a 150 horsepower tractor hauling 14 tonnes of grain, and a 250 horsepower tractor hauling 18 tonnes, cuts fuel use by nearly 20% per tonne.

“We’ve used HGVs running on white diesel. This reduced fuel usage by another 50% but the challenge is tachographs and the cost of buying and taxing our own lorry.”