GRUNDY CENTER --- It's spring. For many farmers, it's time to save fuel.

As planting season rapidly approaches, energy and maintenance experts say now is the perfect time to get equipment in tip-top shape and save big money. Fuel is second only to fertilizer when it comes to crop input costs, and it's on the rise.

Diesel fuel --- predominantly used by farmers --- has more than tripled in price since 2003. On Tuesday, red or farm-use diesel sold for $3.56 per gallon at East Central Iowa Cooperative based in Hudson.

Strong demand for oil, turmoil in the Middle East and political uncertainty all indicate fuel prices aren't likely to retreat any time soon. It's made the quest to save fuel that much more important.

Area equipment dealers are feverishly working to tune up tractors, and Iowa State University Extension recently released energy-saving tips for farmers. Reports on tractor maintenance and driving suggestions are available free at ISU's Farm Energy Initiative website, http://farmenergy.exnet.iastate.edu.

Dana Petersen, program director, said perusing the site is well worth a producer's time.

"It's information to prepare for what's coming in the future. Fuel prices may in fact remain high," Petersen said. "Fuel savings can be really significant."

Engine maintenance is the key. According to ISU, machinery test data indicates replacing air and fuel filters and other general maintenance can make a measurable difference.

Horsepower increases by 3.5 percent and fuel flow is decreased by 3.5 percent. For a 140-horsepower tractor, ISU said that could save 105 gallons a year. At today's diesel price, that's nearly $375.

It takes five gallons of diesel fuel to raise and harvest an acre of corn using conventional tillage, ISU said. Only two gallons are required for no-till.

At Titan Machinery in Grundy Center, the Case-IH dealer will perform more than 200 preventive maintenance inspections and subsequent service on equipment between harvest and planting.

Service Manager Misty Wells said customers are very concerned about getting more horse power for less. Titan equipment experts often give advice, she said, like making sure tractors have the right amount of ballast for a specific task.

"We try to educate farmers, as well," Wells said. "Too much weight will work the tractor too hard and it will burn more fuel."

Farmers could make a little more than $2 to $4 per bushel profit on grain coming out of the field in November, according to futures prices and ISU Extension cost of production estimates. Part of the reason the ISU Energy Initiative was born a year ago was to help farmers stay in the black.

Operators play an important role in saving fuel as well, Petersen said. For older tractors that don't shift automatically to find the most efficient gear, drivers need to do that manually. The concept is called "shifting up and throttle back."

"That can very easily save 10 percent," Petersen said. "Whether you work 500 to 2,500 acres, that adds up quickly."

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