Whether your farm receives 10 inches or 10 feet of snow per winter, your most important farm machines (like your ATV, UTV, tractor, etc.) should be ready to handle the conditions. When winter weather gets tough, your farm machines need to keep going.
The key is to be prepared before the first snowstorm strikes. You don’t want to be scrambling to find tire chains and trade out a mower deck for a snow blower attachment when (surprise!) you get 8 inches of snow overnight and it’s difficult to walk to your barn. Nor do you want your tractor struggling to start on a cold morning when there’s much work to be done.
Let’s walk through the steps to prepare your farm machines for maximum winter performance.
Prep From the Inside Out
It’s tempting to focus on outer accoutrements that make machines visibly winter-worthy, but you shouldn’t overlook the basics: the inner adjustments that can’t be seen at a glance but are important at a foundational level.
Even before you turn your attention to winter prep, your farm machines should be up to date on regular maintenance. Do air filters need to be cleaned or replaced? Do any fluids need to be replenished? Even if you’re on top of engine maintenance, your farm machines might appreciate a deep cleaning of accumulated dirt and debris before winter strikes.
Once you’re finished, you can dive into the following winter adjustments.
Modern engine oil is remarkable. Multigrade oils such as 5W-30 stay thin enough in cold temperatures to facilitate engine starting, but thicken up sufficiently to keep the engine running safely at high temperatures. The range of temperatures they can handle is impressive compared to single-grade oils.
Oil grades (also known as weights) are measured by the SAE J300 standard. If a number is followed by a “W,” it’s measuring cold-weather performance; the lower the number, the better the oil can handle cold temperatures. Unmarked numbers measure oil viscosity at 212 degrees Fahrenheit; the higher the number, the better the oil can handle hot ambient temperatures.
In many cases, a multigrade oil works well all year, especially for farm machines kept in a heated garage where they aren’t exposed to extremely cold winter temperatures when starting. But if your workhorse plow tractor lives outside under a lean-to all winter, you may want to switch out its summer oil for one offering better cold-weather performance. Consult the machine’s manual for advice. Chances are there will be recommendations for the type of oil to use based on the ambient temperature.
If your machine lives outdoors and starting in cold weather is problematic even with a winter-grade oil, consider adding a heater to the engine. An engine block heater, an oil pan heater, a heater installed in place of the dipstick, etc. will keep the engine (and the oil) warm and improve cold-weather starting, provided you park close enough to an electrical outlet for the heater to operate.
Diesel Fuel Gelling
At temperatures below 32 degrees, diesel fuel starts to gel. As the temperature drops even lower, the gelled fuel can clog the fuel filter, preventing your engine from running. The critical temperature is known as the cold filter plugging point.
Fuel gelling is less likely to be a concern if your diesel machine parks in a heated garage when not in use; out and about on cold days, the running of the engine will discourage the fuel from gelling. But if you plan on leaving a diesel engine outside when temperatures are below 32 degrees, you’ll want to take steps to prevent fuel gelling.
Mixing diesel No. 1 fuel (which contains kerosene) with diesel No. 2 fuel can lower the temperature at which the mixture starts to gel. The appropriate ratio of diesel No. 1 to diesel No. 2 depends on how cold the weather is expected to be; as a general rule of thumb, every 10 percent addition of diesel No. 1 lowers the cold filter plugging point by approximately 5 degrees, maybe a little less.
Fuel additives can similarly discourage gelling and lower the cold filter plugging point. When cold weather is in the forecast, follow the instructions to mix an appropriate amount of additive into your diesel fuel.
If this all sounds complicated, the good news is, your local gas station likely sells premixed winter-ready diesel fuel suitable for your area. So long as you switch to the winter-ready fuel shortly before problematic temperatures strikes, you should be good to go.
Not every farm machine needs to be prepped for winter duty, because some will spend the winter slumbering away until spring. But it doesn’t take long for gasoline and diesel fuel to start degrading inside farm machines unused during winter, which can hurt the engines.
What’s the solution? You could drain the fuel tanks, but that takes time and allows water to condensate inside the fuel tank, which can corrode the fuel system. Instead, use a fuel stabilizer to slow down the degrading of fuel. Follow the instructions to mix the right amount of stabilizer into the fuel system, and your farm machines can be safely stored—fuel and all—during the winter off season.
Batteries don’t like cold weather. To make sure a battery is ready to fire up an engine in cold weather, take good care of them. If a machine is going to be stored in the cold and used infrequently, considering disconnecting and even removing the battery when not in use. Store the battery in a warmer location for best results.
Aim to keep the battery fully charged as well. Starting a cold engine requires a lot of power, so letting the battery run down (whether from lack of use or too many starts in short order) can be problematic in winter.
Properly Inflated Tires
Cold weather can mess with the air pressure inside your tires, causing the psi (pound-force per square inch) to drop lower than ideal. Before winter strikes, make sure the tires on your vehicles are inflated to the proper psi, and don’t forget to check them again when temperatures drop.
Maintaining the proper psi is important. While some folks subscribe to the theory that mildly underinflated tires offer better winter traction (because more of the tread comes in contact with the ground), this can damage tires and wheels, negatively affect steering and reduce driving safety. There are better ways to improve traction, which is an important point, because when conditions get tough, peak performance is all about traction.
When the ground is snowy and/or icy, maintaining suitable traction between tires and the ground can be difficult, especially for lightweight machines and those without four-wheel drive or aggressive tire treads. Those turf tires that are so kind on your lawn aren’t designed for getting a good grip in slushy snow.
There are several ways to improve tire traction. If you’re preparing a vehicle for clearing snow or navigating particularly challenging winter terrain, you may want to combine two or more of the following add-ons to boost traction and performance.
Suitable snow tires might not be available for every farm machine you own, but for certain farm machines (such as a farm truck equipped with a snowplow), you may want to switch out your regular tires for snow tires during winter.
Snow tires are designed to improve traction on snow and ice. They feature deep, aggressive treads, and they’re better able to handle cold temperatures. If you opt for snow tires, install them on every wheel; don’t mix and match them with regular tires.
An effective traction boost can be gained by installing tire chains, which wrap around tires to firmly grip snow and ice. While not infallible, they’re pretty much a must-have accessory if you’re going to use an ATV, UTV or even a tractor to clear snow. If your vehicle has four-wheel drive, you’ll want chains for all four tires. If you’re working with two-wheel drive, chains on the drive wheels should be sufficient. Follow the instructions to install the chains, tightening them as best you can. You may have to drive forward a short distance to check if any more slack develops; if so, tighten the chains again.
Tire chains are awesome in many winter situations, but they shouldn’t be used at speeds over 30 miles per hour. Nor should tire chains be used on dry roads; if there isn’t a cushion of snow and ice, you’ll wear out the chains and possibly damage the road as well.
To purchase the right size chains for your vehicle, you’ll need to know the width of each tire from sidewall to sidewall, the diameter of the tire and the tire height aspect ratio—all of which are likely inscribed on the sides of your tires. Many chains fit more than one size of tire, so you have a bit of wiggle room. In addition, the manufacturer may provide instructions for purchasing the right size.
Ballast comes in many forms and has a couple of purposes. For lightweight vehicles, ballast improves traction by increasing the weight pressing down on the tires. For vehicles operating with heavy attachments on the front or rear end (such as a snow blower or snowplow), ballast carried at the opposite end counterbalances the implement weight to prevent vehicle damage and maintain proper traction for steering and drive power.
Common types of ballast include:
- suitcase weights: Square or rectangular weights with handles, designed to be quickly and conveniently installed at the front or rear of a vehicle. They come in varying sizes and can be perfect for counterbalancing heavy implements.
- ballast box: A ballast box installs on the three-point hitch of a tractor and can be filled with heavy items (dirt, rocks, concrete blocks, etc.) to counterbalance a heavy load on the front end.
- tube sandbags: Stacking sandbags in the back of a farm truck puts weight over the drive wheels (assuming it has rear-wheel drive), increasing traction for plowing snow and gripping slippery terrain.
- concrete block or cylinder: If you want to take a DIY approach, some people fuse three-point hitch pins inside a large concrete block or cylinder, which can then be picked up by the three-point hitch and used as an effective counterweight.
- wheel weights: Installing weights directly on wheel rims or axles places a focus on increasing traction rather than counterbalancing a load (though they can help with that, too). As an added benefit, this approach takes weight off the frame of the tractor.
- liquid tire ballast: By filling your tires with a heavy liquid, you can increase traction without straining other tractor components. You’ll need a liquid that can tolerate subfreezing temperatures, so plain water is out.
Calcium chloride has long been an option, but it’s corrosive and known for damaging wheel rims. Windshield washer fluid and antifreeze (the latter when mixed with water) are other possibilities, but both are toxic. Beet juice is more expensive, but it’s nontoxic and resists freezing to negative 35 degrees.
Of course, improving traction won’t get you very far if your farm is buried under 3 feet of snow. Removing snow from your driveway and major pathways is critical to keep your farm in action when heavy snowstorms strike.
Fortunately, your tractor, farm truck, UTV and even your ATV can assist in clearing snow using one of three common attachments.
A front-end loader is an effective means of shifting snow around to clear a driveway or regain walking/driving access to farm buildings. The advantages are compelling: there’s a good chance you already own a front-end loader, and it’s easy to take it off road compared to maneuvering a 7-foot snow blower attachment.
There are some downsides, however. Clearing snow with a front-end loader can be time-consuming and a bit messy. A typical bucket is oriented straight ahead and can’t be angled, which isn’t the best for plowing snow. You may have to frequently raise the bucket, turn and dump snow off the path you’re clearing.
If you don’t receive more than a few inches of snow in any given snowstorm, and if you need to clear only a short driveway and a couple of walking paths, a front-end loader can be a great choice. But for handling larger volumes of snow, a snowplow or snow blower may prove more suitable.
Snowplows come in many styles and sizes. Gaining control over the blade angle makes them fast and effective for clearing long driveways and pathways. They’re good at scraping snow down close to the ground, and they’re less expensive than snow blowers of similar size.
Where snowplows can struggle is in deep snow. If you get 2 feet of wet, heavy snow, your vehicle may struggle to push the plow through the snow, especially if you’re using a lightweight machine such as an ATV or UTV. Tight spaces can also be tricky for snowplows, and care must be taken to ensure that the snow piles you create are positioned where they won’t become problematic as winter drags on (and the piles get bigger).
A snow blower attachment is highly effective in areas where snowstorms regularly produce a foot or more of snow. They’re not as fast to operate as a snowplow, but they can cleanly and methodically remove large volumes of snow. And because a snow blower discharges snow in a user-controlled direction as it operates, you won’t accumulate the large snow piles that can result from snowplow usage.
The main downside to a snow blower is the cost; they’re more complex than snowplows and pricier as a result. And in some cases, they’re less suitable for scraping snow all the way down to the ground; even if your snow blower features a scraping blade, you’ll have to be careful over some surfaces (such as gravel) to avoid scraping down and picking up debris that could damage the blades or discharge chute.
Snow blowers come in many sizes. A 7-foot snow blower will clear more snow in a single pass than a 4-foot snow blower, but narrower snow blowers are more maneuverable. You should also consider the number of stages; a single-stage snow blower handles a foot or less of light snow, while a two-stage snow blower is well-suited to most jobs and a three-stage snow blower aims to clear as much as 2 feet of heavy snow and ice.
Consider a Cab
Clearing snow on cold winter days can be unpleasant, especially if it’s windy and snow is blowing back in your face. Installing a cab on your vehicle can help protect you from the elements. It doesn’t have to be a full-fledged hard cab with a heater, though you’ll certainly enjoy that setup.
Soft cabs provide helpful protection from snow and wind and can be a relatively inexpensive choice for small, lightweight vehicles. See if there are cab options available from your machine’s manufacturer; if not, there may be suitable third-party cabs available.
Once your machines are decked out for winter, you may feel invincible, like there’s no task you can’t handle. But that feeling quickly goes away when your tractor-mounted snow blower is buried in a snowdrift and your tractor is helplessly spinning its wheels (chains and all) in slushy, muddy snow.
Common sense goes a long way when dealing with winter conditions. Start slow, and don’t push your machines beyond their means. Stay on top of snow clearing, and don’t let too much accumulate before you dig in. Keep up with regular maintenance and remember, the coming of spring is inevitable, and before you know it you’ll be performing all these steps in reverse to celebrate the end of winter.
This article originally appeared in the Nov./Dec. 2023 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.