Expert opinion

Changing how you view electric tractors

Electric motors are not new, but they have yet to make inroads when it comes to heavy-duty farm work.

Indeed, battery power (specifically related to torque) and charging challenges continue to limit the scalability of electrically-driven farm equipment – despite exponential increases in the technology’s overall effectiveness.

This is a reality, and a major reason why many of us, at least in my part of the world, remain skeptical of electric technology’s ability to usurp diesel in the field. The scalability just doesn’t seem there.

As I was recently reminded by experts working for my provincial agriculture ministry, though, pulling big iron isn’t the only job on the farm – there are plenty of others, and it’s in those tasks electric motors can make a major difference.

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Battery power and charging challenges continue to limit the scalability of electrically-driven farm equipment. - Photo: Fendt
Battery power and charging challenges continue to limit the scalability of electrically-driven farm equipment. - Photo: Fendt

Look to smaller jobs

Picturing electric-drive technology solely in the guise of large machines hauling tillage equipment is a limiting perspective. As the two aforementioned experts mentioned to me, electric motors are perfectly suited for low-duty tasks, such as operating manure pumps and shuttling implements around the farmyard.

This makes sense in a few ways.

First, it’s easy to picture an electric tractor, or even a stationary electric motor in some cases, replacing a typical fossil-fuel tractor in these jobs. Really, tractors are not even needed for many of these tasks (e.g. scraping barn alleyways, operating a power take-off driven mill, etc.), though as often happens, whatever piece of equipment is available is generally assigned the task.

Not burning fuel means not burning money for ever hour of work as well as idle time

Second, they don’t burn fuel. Environmental considerations aside, that means they’re not burning money for ever hour of work as well as idle time. That’s cash in my pocket, and certainly something to consider in determining the return-on-investment of such machines.

Emergence of smaller and autonomous machines

Third – it’s not a given that large-scale equipment itself will always be dominant. The trend towards larger equipment might be something experienced now and in the past, but what about the emergence of smaller and autonomous machines (the DOT Power Platform or Fendt’s Xaver ”swarm farming” units come to mind). On this scale, and in this style, in-field tasks requiring long hours seems like a much more attainable thing.

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The DOT Power Platform has been listed at $300,000 per unit. How much diesel fuel would you have to save to make such an investment worthwhile?
The DOT Power Platform has been listed at $300,000 per unit. How much diesel fuel would you have to save to make such an investment worthwhile?

Electric motors are also already replacing equipment components like traditional hydraulic systems. This is a very low-scale example, but it highlights how the technology can be used in non-tractor form.

Again, stationary electric motors shouldn’t be discounted in this sense. Pound for pound, as my ministry associated pointed-out, more can be done with electric power on this scale.

Cost-effectiveness and harder to quantify factors

I write to you from a small corner of North America. Here, electric motors have steadily been incorporated into many industries (e.g. automotive), as a replacement for labour and fossil-fuels for decades – but not so much on the farm.

Cost surely has something to do with it. The DOT Power Platform, for example, has been listed at $ 300,000 per unit. The technology might be incredible, but can my family, as comparatively small field crop farmers, really justify that cost? How much diesel fuel would we have to save to make it worthwhile? What would the maintenance costs be generally, not to mention when something inevitably breaks?
No technology works well all the time, after all.

In order to really take-off, electric motors need to afford the right amount of power (60 to 100 horse power range) while being cost effective.

Granted, fossil-fuel driven machinery isn’t exactly cheap, so many of these cost-efficacy issues already apply. But in this case, at least we know the horse-power and how consistently the machine will run. Again, to quote my ministry associates, “I don’t want to buy something that can’t handle [the job].” In order to really take-off, electric motors need to afford the right amount of power (60 to 100 horse power range) while being cost effective.

I’m not an expert on this subject (as should be quite evident by now), but I’m prepared to believe this. And I can say, personally, if the technology does reach the right level of cost and job-effectiveness, I would love to stop burning cash in the form of diesel.

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