Tractors require extra caution in winter

SOURCE: This article was written by Angie Johnson, farm and ranch safety coordinator for North Dakota State University Extension. In addition to her Extension duties, Angie is a cattle and sheep farmer who fully understands the challenges of agricultural work in cold conditions. We thank Angie and NDSU for allowing us to share this great information!

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Snow, ice and cold make operating a tractor more difficult and more dangerous, according to Angie Johnson, North Dakota State University Extension farm and ranch safety coordinator.

“Tractor operators should adjust their tractor maintenance and driving practices for winter conditions from start to finish,” says Johnson. “Problems and hazards are amplified by ice, snow and cold temperatures.”

Fueling up

Diesel tractors require special care in the winter, as the diesel fuel needed in the wintertime must be rated for cold temperatures. Summer blended diesel fuel (#2 diesel) contains paraffin wax. Paraffin wax will become solid once temperatures reach around 32 degrees Fahrenheit. As the wax solidifies due to cold temperatures, the wax solids can become large enough to clog filters, causing the tractor to ”gel up.”

Be prepared for winter conditions by using the following tips:

  • Use winter grade diesel, such as #1 diesel, to prevent your tractor from gelling up.
  • Keep emergency diesel fuel additives on hand, as well as replacement fuel filters, in case your tractor becomes gelled during a winter storm or cold temperatures. Emergency additives can be found at your local auto parts store or farm store.
  • Always maintain at least half a tank of fuel in your tractor to prevent fuel line freezing and gelling.
  • In preparing for a winter storm, fill tractor fuel tanks full in case of power outages. Most fuel tanks on farms have electric pumps, meaning you will not be able to fill your tractor’s fuel tank during a power outage.

Plug-in, warm-up

“In winter conditions, using a 110-volt block heater can be critical to whether or not your tractor will start in cold conditions,” says Johnson.

A block heater warms the engine block of the tractor during cold temperatures so that the tractor’s engine will start. The tractor’s age, make and model will dictate how long to plug in the tractor’s block heater in order for the tractor to start. Newer model tractors may also have glow plugs, a heating device that aids in starting the tractor’s engine.

  • Talk to your local implement dealer or mechanic to determine how long your tractor’s block heater should be plugged in before starting the tractor.
  • Read your tractor’s operator manual to understand your tractor’s glow plug requirements, as some tractors may have a switch or a wait-to-start light.
  • Consider having a spare block heater cord on hand, as cords can easily burn out or become damaged if improperly pulled when unplugging.
  • Once started, allow the tractor to warm up before driving it. Warming up the tractor allows the engine and fluids to function properly and helps with overall longevity of your tractor.
  • In the event of a power outage, you may need to plug your tractor’s block heater into a fuel-powered generator before starting.

Checking antifreeze is also important. You should test your antifreeze using an antifreeze tester to determine it can withstand subzero temperatures and if any antifreeze fluid needs to be added. Check your tractor’s operators manual to determine what type of antifreeze you should use in your tractor.

Winter conditions will also challenge your tractor’s batteries. If you notice your tractor’s batteries are becoming weak when starting your tractor, replace the batteries. Trying to jump start or boost your tractor’s batteries multiple times, especially in winter conditions, can be dangerous and result in serious injury from a potential battery explosion.

Tire tread, traction and air pressure

Cold temperatures can cause lower air pressures in tractor tires.

  • Make sure your tires are properly inflated for winter use by reading the psi ratings listed on the sidewall of the tire or in your tractor’s operators manual.
  • Make sure tractor tire treads are not worn or heavily cracked, as winter conditions can reduce your tractor’s traction ability.
  • If using a two-wheel drive tractor, consider using tire chains on the rear wheels, to allow more traction for your tractor in slippery conditions.
  • When using a loader bucket with grapple forks or bale spear to carry feed, such as a round bale, or the loader bucket for moving heavy snow, always keep the load and speed low when traction is poor. Slippery conditions increase the hazard of maneuvering elevated loads on a loader tractor.

Climbing into the cab

Depending on the make, model and year of your tractor, tractor steps can be very hazardous, especially with ice and snow buildup on each step. Slips, trips and falls are common farm and ranch injuries that can be prevented. Build these habits before climbing each step:

  • Remove any snow and ice buildup from the steps.
  • Use the handrail to maintain three points of contact at all times when climbing.
  • Wear adequate shoes that have good tread to prevent your foot from slipping, especially if the steps are worn down or icy.
  • When dismounting the tractor, never jump down. Always go down the steps facing the equipment, using three points of contact and the handrails for support.

Check your surroundings

Before driving the tractor, always check your surroundings. Watch out for bystanders, such as children, workers, livestock and pets, when preparing to operate your tractor to prevent a runover. The tractor’s ability to brake in the wintertime can be challenged by compacted snow and ice, causing slippery conditions that prevent the operator from making a fast stop. Reduced visibility can also occur when a loader tractor carrying a round bale of hay obstructs the operator’s view moving forward.

Human reaction time can be significantly affected by cold temperatures and poor visibility. Plan work activities ahead of time, allow additional time to get work done, and set realistic goals for daily work in the winter.

Dress appropriately for the weather

Always wear or bring clothing and winter gear that is appropriate for the weather outside, not the climate inside the cab. If the tractor gels up, you may need to walk back and will need the right outerwear for the weather.

For more information on preparing for winter weather, visit

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NDSU Agriculture Communication – Dec. 13, 2022

Source: Angie Johnson, 701-231- 1873,

Editor: Elizabeth Cronin, 701-231-5391,

CLICK HERE to view this article at North Dakota State University Extension and Ag Research News.

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