About three years ago, the day before the predicted first frost of the season, Bledsoe County farmer and retired agriculture teacher Bobby Loyd was baling late-fall hay with plans to wrap it for silage. On this day, he mowed until around dinner when he shut the tractor off for a short meal break. As he settled back into his seat to pick up where he had left off, the tractor wouldn’t start. “I thought that was odd,” he says. But, looking to get back to work, he jumped it off with his pickup truck, hooked it to the baler and started baling.
The oddity still in the back of his mind, he decided to check and see if the tractor would start if he turned it back off. “I baled maybe 15 bales and shut it off,” he says. “This time, when I jumped it off the battery was so low that I couldn’t even get the power takeoff to engage,” he says.
Thinking it was an issue with the battery, he went into town and purchased a new one. Then, after replacing the battery, he was able to operate another 30 minutes after which he pulled up, stopped and got on another tractor so that he could begin bunching hay, readying it for wrapping at daylight the next morning.
By this time, it was dark, and Loyd was at the opposite end of the field finishing up for the day. He looked up and saw the other tractor that he’d parked in the middle of the field with a light under it that clearly shouldn’t be there. Reaching for the fire extinguisher on the tractor he was stacking with and driving across the field at the maximum speed that he could still stay on, Loyd raced across the field.
As he drew near, he saw that the flames were already blazing up under the windshield at the very end of the motor of his parked tractor. “I sprayed the fire extinguisher empty up under the tractor,” he says. At one point, Loyd believed that he had succeeded in saving the tractor. “But then it puffed back up,” he says. Grabbing the fire extinguisher out of the tractor that was on fire, Loyd tried again.
He was unable to make any headway this time.
A passerby arrived on the scene, asking how he might help. Loyd sent him to retrieve another fire extinguisher that he kept stored in his pickup truck which was also parked in the field. While he was away, Loyd attempted to unhook the baler. Unfortunately, his would-be helper, having been unable to locate the extinguisher, returned empty-handed. So instead, Loyd asked for his help in unhooking the baler. He hoped to take a chain and drag the two apart. Sadly, the tractor and baler were connected with a homemade pin and the tractor was parked in a bit of a bind. “I had the jack down and the pressure up,” he says. “I couldn’t get them apart.”
The tractor fire progressed quickly. Even though Loyd had also called 911, by the time fire responders arrived only a short time later, the equipment was lost. “The fenders were melting and were dropping on two big tires full of fluid,” he says. “I told [the passerby] that it wasn’t worth getting killed over. Let’s just back up and let it burn.” The tractor and baler were total losses.
Though he’ll never know for sure, looking back at the events as they occurred, Loyd believes that the tractor fire was caused by a short in the battery cable. In the brand of tractor he was driving, the main battery cable comes on the right side of the motor and crosses over the top of it going to the starter. “The only thing that makes sense to me is that I somehow got a short [in the cable] and that was what was draining the battery,” he says.
Loyd considers himself fortunate. “I never park a baler in the field,” he says. “But because I was looking for those other bales, I hadn’t pulled this tractor back in the shed yet.”
Had it not been for this slight change to his routine, there very likely would have been a barn fire as well. Loyd also considers himself blessed that, as is sometimes the case with tractor and equipment fires, little of his crop was lost to the fire as it was confined to the area around his tractor and baler.
Causes of Equipment Fires
While not necessarily foreseeable, Loyd’s story illustrates the importance of fire safety and prevention. Mike Mathews, field service manager with TriGreen Equipment, says that while he doesn’t see a lot of tractor and equipment fires, those that he does see are memorable. TriGreen, a John Deere dealership with stores in McMinnville, Winchester, Manchester, Mt. Juliet and Cookeville, Tennessee, as well as in Alabama, serves many farmers in the Sequatchie Valley area and beyond.
In Mathews’s experience, while fires can also be caused by electrical fires such as the tractor fire experienced by Loyd, lightning strikes and static electricity, most of those fires that he sees are thermal events.
“We have some seasonal farmers, like your hay and cattle farmers, that put certain equipment in the shed and it sits for months at a time waiting for the next hay crop to be ready to harvest,” Mathews says.
In some of these instances, birds will build a nest on top of the engine and as the exhaust heats up when the tractor goes to the field, the nest ignites. Other times, he says, bearings can go down and the customer doesn’t catch it in time. “It will heat to create a thermal event from crop dust or chafe,” Mathews says.
As for balers, whether round or square, to prevent mold producers bale their hay when it has a low moisture content. “Typically, a bearing will run probably around the 130- to 150-degree range,” Mathews says. “Under normal conditions, when it [the bearing] gets a lot of wear or starts to fail, you can see that get up into the 250-plus-degree range.”
At that temperature, the dry crop residue, not the hay itself, will get into certain areas against those bearings and heat up and ignite.
To prevent these types of fires, Mathews recommends pre- and/or post-season inspections performed by a dealership. “We have a winter service special,” he says. “We encourage our customers to do an end-of-season or preseason inspection. We do it at a discounted rate. Typically, we do these in our slow season where we can offer a better value for the customer.”
As part of the inspection process, belts and chains are removed, shafts are turned, bearings are checked, and they listen with experienced ears for noise to determine how rough bearings are in play with the intention to catch them before they go bad. As well, bearings are packed and other types of preventative maintenance are performed. While these types of inspections can seem expensive, they’re well worth the investment in terms of fire prevention and downtime during the harvest season.
Mathews uses the example of the dealership’s hay customers. “They don’t get to schedule when they harvest,” he says. “It depends so much on the weather and their work schedule. A lot of times, our hay producers and smaller cattle farmers are in a position where they have to do it when they get off work during the week or on the weekends. They’ve got a tight window because of the weather and other factors they have no control over.”
It’s not just the danger of fire that the dealership promotes inspections. “It’s the advantage of having the machine ready to go to the field when you need it,” Mathews says. However, thermal events are a problem. “If you don’t maintain your machine and the bearing fails and it catches the baler on fire, then that’s going to carry over to your crop,” he says.
The Operator’s Role
Inspections and maintenance aside, operators with open station tractors can also play a role in fire prevention by listening and watching for signs of equipment failure. However, because of their amenities and the very fact that they are enclosed within a cab, operators of cab tractors can be at a slight disadvantage. These operators may not hear the machine run so they don’t catch that slight squeal or feel that little bit of vibration that could indicate some type of equipment failure.
To this end, TriGreen encourages owners that may be new to equipment or owners or operators who may be stepping up from older to newer equipment to attend the many customer events and clinics the dealership offers. During these events, customers are encouraged to take proactive measures like taking a leaf blower to blow crop residue off the machines every time they finish using them.
“There have been times where a bearing might be in the process of failing, they [the producer] finish for the afternoon and get into their truck and drive away. Then two hours later they get a call that their equipment is on fire,” Mathews says.
Performing this type of precautionary measure could help prevent this from happening.
The Manufacturer’s Role
Mathews explained that as a preventative measure, most manufacturers do a good job before they release a product to market to check for premature failures or any defects in material or workmanship. They also closely monitor any fire events to make certain that it had nothing to do with the manufacturing process of the equipment.
As well, balers and some other types of equipment often come with water fire extinguishers that can be refilled and repressurized by the owner. It is less common for tractors to come equipped with these, so it is always a good idea to get one of your own.
A Costly Occurrence
While a high percentage of equipment fires are not a total loss, thanks to diligent operators, they can prove costly. “The cleaner you keep the machine, the less chance you have of an event,” Mathews says. “Typically, of those that we see that are a total loss, I hear comments indicating, for example, a hydraulic leak that the operator was aware of and didn’t take the time to fix. The leak allowed the crop residue to become saturated with hydraulic oil and ,if they get a hotspot from a bearing, it lights up.”
Thankfully, most producers have insurance, and Mathews advises that if you don’t currently have it, invest in some. But, while insurance may cover most of your loss in terms of equipment, it doesn’t cover the resulting downtime. Mathews’ biggest piece of advice in terms of fire prevention and safety is to keep your equipment clean and be meticulous about maintenance. And, in the end, saving yourself should always be your top priority.
Though Loyd did have insurance coverage on his equipment valued at what he thought it was worth, he did have trouble replacing it. For example, his tractor, though used, was only a few years old and in good working order. He struggled to find something comparable to replace both it and his baler with the available insurance funds.
He continues to practice fire safety and prevention measures learned from his experiences as an educator and a farmer and hopes never again to experience another equipment fire.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2023 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.