Electrification is generating a lot of buzz. 

As concerns over climate change fuel a global energy transition, researchers, investors and manufacturers are looking at situations where electric motors can replace internal-combustion engines. And with the ag sector identified as a heavy greenhouse gas emitter, it’s natural that innovators will look at electrifying food production.

This includes ongoing research into battery-electric farm machinery, including electric tractors.

But before we go too far down that road, Alastair Hayfield says we should examine other methods of reducing farm emissions. The effectiveness and the cost-efficiency of electric farm machinery don’t add up.

Hayfield is senior research director for commercial vehicles at Interact Analysis, an international company that provides research and analysis on technological innovations and emerging trends. 

While there are some practical and cost-effective applications for battery-electric farm vehicles—particularly small machinery under 100 horsepower—Hayfield says there are better ways to power larger machines and still reduce GHG emissions.

“It depends what type of farm you run and your appetite for investing in something that’s kind of new,” he said. Crop farms, dairy operations and cattle ranches have different needs, and electric power isn’t a suitable solution for all of them.

“If you have extreme winters, this technology is not going to be a good fit by comparison to a vineyard out in California, for example.

“Some of the appetite for this is going to come down to how well funded the producer is and are they willing to invest in new technology. To be honest, I think a lot of farmers would probably not be in that position right now,” he said.

The cost of the machinery notwithstanding, it’s doubtful there is much to be gained by moving to electric-powered tractors. Of all of the GHG emissions attributed to agriculture, only a small fraction come from farm machinery.

“When you look at agriculture’s sources of emissions, machinery is not in the top five. It probably doesn’t even make it to the top ten,” Hayfield said.

Leading sources include enteric fermentation (“cow burps”), manure left on pastures, synthetic fertilizers, and paddy rice. 

According to Hayfield, “there’s lots you can do in agriculture to change the way you manage the land, rear animals and things like that before you get around to actually changing the machinery.”

If there are improvements to be found through changing the way we power farm machines, he suggests there may be more promise in biofuels than in electrification. Bio-methane from animal waste and fuels derived from crops may be part of a more eco-sustainable future for agriculture.

But aside from the economics, are electric tractors even any good? 

The power is there, according to Hayfield. “You could build an electric tractor that would be able to plow a field or work for multiple hours in a day. But the problem we have there is that you need a very large battery pack; and then you get into soil compaction. 

“And you can’t really sidestep the economic situation. It’s all very, very costly,” he said.

If the alternative to “a very large battery pack” is a smaller one, the need to recharge becomes a problem—especially at critical times like harvest. Even if the machine is equipped for battery-swapping, where a spare battery can be charging while you’re working, there is time lost in returning from the field to the yard every four to six hours to make the switch. 

And it adds significantly to the cost.

“If you’re going to buy two or three battery packs with your tractor, you’re not doubling the cost, you’re maybe tripling or quadrupling the cost of the actual solution. And again, there may not be many small producers who are able to afford that,” Hayfield said.

Despite the expense and impracticality of electrifying heavy-duty farm machinery, manufacturers are still investing in research and development. John Deere, for example, has developed prototypes of large tractors and electric-powered autonomous farm machines.

What is driving the investment? What is the prospect of it yielding a return?

Hayfield says a large vertically-integrated company like John Deere can realize a return from its R&D across its various divisions, and at the same time can develop applications within its farm machinery operations.

For example. John Deere has acquired the Austrian battery company Kreisel, whose factory builds battery technology for commercial highway vehicles.

“It’s entirely possible that those battery packs can be used for construction equipment or agricultural equipment,” Hayfield said. “But I don’t think we will see them in John Deere’s large tractors or large combines. They might be used for compact tractors or for utility applications, or might be used for light yard work.”

Hayfield says it’s the lighter-duty applications where the investment is most likely to pay off. Electric machinery is well-suited for certain work.

“There are some applications where it makes sense,” he said. “For example, a utility tractor might be used for light duty field work or yard work—things like mowing tractors or tractors being used on feedlots. 

“I think there is probably a cost advantage there, and there are also some benefits if you’re working around animals. It’s better to have a quieter machine that’s not producing pollution in a barn or in a feedlot.”

He said vineyards and organic production, where sustainability is a big part of the brand, are also well-suited to using electric machinery under that 100-horsepower threshold. It’s these specific applications that in his opinion are driving a lot of the investment.

Beyond that, he says, the future of low-emission heavy duty machinery is more likely to be in biofuels or hydrogen.

“If you look at what the engine manufacturers are doing to supply off-highway, and specifically supplying to the agricultural market, most of those are developing biofuels solutions,” Hayfield said. These technologies include hydro-treated vegetable oil or “bio-diesel,” bio-methane, ethanol, and other fuels.

“It’s pretty clear they see that the future of agriculture is going to be around biofuels as opposed to battery electric. Battery electric solutions are being developed, but it is typically for smaller tractors,” he said.

For large-scale agriculture operations, like harvest, Hayfield says the cost and the technical limitations pretty much disqualify battery electric as a practical replacement for fossil fuels.

“Harvest is basically a 24/7 operation for a couple of weeks. I just think it would be very expensive. It would not meet the requirements to do that,” he said. 

This article originally appeared in the November 2023 issue of  Beef Business magazine, published by the Saskatchewan Stock Growers Association.

The future of heavier farm tractors is probably biodiesel or hydrogen, according to analyst Alstair Hayfield. FILE PHOTO
Red combine harvester in barley field. Agriculture and farming