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Tractor Test Labturns 100

Amy Hadachek
for The Fence Post

An important contribution to agriculture and a landmark anniversary commemorated the 100th anniversary on April 9, 2020, of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Nebraska Tractor Test Lab. The labs first tractor test was completed on April 9, 1920, and now, after 100 years of service it currently has had 2,216 tractors submitted for testing.

An open house celebration is planned for Saturday, July 11, 2020, at the Nebraska Tractor Test Lab in Lincoln, Neb., (dependent upon the status of COVID-19).

The grand celebration is being wrapped around the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers Annual Meeting in Omaha, Neb., on Saturday, July 11, with the 100th anniversary commemoration to be held in Lincoln at the UNL Tractor Test Lab, about 50 miles from Omaha.

“That was sort of the dangled carrot to ASABE, if you come to Omaha, we’ll also celebrate the Tractor Test Lab. It only comes along once a century,” said Roger M. Hoy, Ph.D., director of the Nebraska Tractor Test Laboratory and professor in the Biological Systems Engineering Department, and faculty adviser for UNL’s Quarter Scale Tractor Team.

If coronavirus makes it impractical to celebrate July 11, they’ll postpone the date.

Meanwhile the Open House is in full throttle at this point, and is set for 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Tractor Lab, inviting collectors going back a century. John Deere is planning to bring a Waterboy model ‘N’ tractor, the first model tested at the NTTL in 1920. “I expect they will also display a modern row crop tractor,” Hoy said. The Tractor Lab will have several presenters to explain how tractor tests are conducted.

TRACTOR TESTING

In an average year, the NTTL schedules about 20 tractor tests, which are usually conducted during spring and fall, although official tests have been conducted all 12 months of the year.

The basic test program consists of five sections: power take off, drawbar power tests, sound measurements, hydraulic flow performance and three point lift performance.

The weather plays a big role on the PTO tests, they try to maintain 73 degrees in the lab, and they don’t conduct drawbar testing if the temperature is above 80 degrees.

“With regards to PTO testing, we try to maintain 73 degrees for the entire test, however, this isn’t always possible so we make sure the maximum power tests (where the PTO claim is made) are completed at 73 degrees,” Hoy said. “Drawbar testing can occur between 40 and 80 degrees.” They also don’t run tractors if there’s rain or snow on the track which is about 100-feet from the lab building. The limitation on the sound test is the wind speed.

“These tests are generally done over a five-day period with a running time of about 20 hours. This number has a large variance from 10 to sometimes over 40 if there’s a problem with weather or the tractor isn’t performing to expectations. Sometimes we need to come in during the pre-dawn hours (which is weather dependent),” said Brent Sampson, who retired three years ago, after 41 years as a test engineer in the Tractor Lab, but recently came out of retirement.

“For any official tests, there is a company representative who operates the tractor. The exception is the in cab sound tests. Here, a test engineer from the lab — primarily me — drives the tractor around our 4/10ths mile concrete track and records the sound an operator is subjected to,” Sampson said.

Following World War II, the pace of mechanization of agriculture in the U.S. greatly increased with tractors almost fully displacing animal power.

When tractor testing started in 1920, there were only two performance tests, belt power and drawbar performance. The belt testing was changed to PTO testing in 1958. Sound tests and hydraulic performance tests were added later.

There was also support for growing concern for farmers losing hearing ability due to overly loud tractors that outweighed necessary sound levels. Sound levels were added to the reports in 1971.

“When the lab was started, we felt we’d get the disreputable tractor companies out of business, and not have a tractor test lab any longer. What happened instead was that the marketing departments of the credible tractor companies started using the results found during tractor testing as advertising,” Hoy said. “With regards to sound testing, the first tractor tested measured 94 decibels. OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration) says if you have 85 decibels or more, that you need a noise monitoring program.” The marketing department saw sound numbers, and it became a competitive trend to develop quieter tractors.

“I don’t think we can claim full credit for this, but noise reduction was quicker than it might’ve been,” Hoy said. This ultimately helped save farmers’ hearing going forward.

“It’s kind of like the current coronavirus, if we don’t social distance we won’t know how safe we are. If we didn’t take the necessary steps then to lower the decibels, there would be more people with hearing loss than there are today. But, if you prevent the accident and injuries in the first place, it’s just better for everyone,” Hoy said.

Testing for three point lift capacity was added in 1984 and tests for remote hydraulic flow were added in 1989.

SAFETY FIRST

Even with all the testing, Hoy still cautions farmers to keep safety No. 1.

“Tractors can still tip over,” Hoy said. “Half of all fatalities in agriculture involve a tractor, and half of the tractor accidents involve an overturned tractor. If you wear your seat belt, and you have a rollover protective structure integrated, typically it prevents someone from becoming crushed. Not a 100 percent guarantee, but a high likelihood you’d have a good outcome.”

Hoy said that a front end loader with a load being transported high, makes the machine less stable. Operating on slopes is always something to avoid, if possible.

The Nebraska Tractor Test Lab quickly developed a highly-sought reputation among college-bound students interested in the unique program. That stems from its prestigious international reputation, and the people making a difference in propelling the program.

Regarding whether UNL’s Tractor Test Lab is one of a kind, or just one of a few, Hoy said it is impressively participating in the worldwide Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, an intergovernmental economic organization with 36 member countries, founded in 1961 to stimulate economic progress and world trade.

The most recent OECD meeting was in Paris during the last week of February 2020. China did not attend due to travel restrictions with COVID-19. “China remains a member country though.”Hoy said. “I did represent the U.S. at that meeting.”

“In the OECD, there are about 28 to 30 test stations worldwide, they accept our results, and we accept theirs. This allows manufacturers more freedom to test their tractors in the country of production. Right now, we are the only OECD test station in the western hemisphere, and the only test station associated with a major university. That is unique and provides great benefits for our students,” Hoy said.

In fact, that is a big draw for students.

“We have 17 and 18 year olds who weren’t sure, at some point, what they wanted to do with their lives, but we have many students in ag engineering who end up working in the test lab,” Hoy said. “Students with those experiences are in very high demand.” Hoy’s research and skills are in ROPS (roll-over protective structure), FOPS (falling object protective structure), sound level, drawbar, PTO, hydraulic flow and hydraulic hitch lift testing. “Prior to joining UNL, I worked for John Deere in Waterloo, Iowa, at the Product Engineering Center,” he said. “They’re a wonderful employer besides having good products.” Since joining the NTTL 14 years ago, Hoy has been involved in 333 tractor tests and earned over 10 awards and honors from UNL and ASABE.

Working with the engineering students in the Tractor Test Lab has been gratifying, however, teaching wasn’t part of the original job description.

“The challenges in life keep increasing, and challenges change,” Hoy said. “I found that these kids really wanted to hear what I had to say, and that I had much to give back. The kids come in at 18 years old, and when they leave at 22 years old, you see an adult ready to go into the world. It’s very rewarding.”

Sampson compared some of his work to getting a Christmas gift.

“What I consider a Christmas gift, is getting a test report from any of the 20 stations around the world, to use as certification data for sales,” he said. “I spent 40 years of my life doing our test reports, so I’m always thrilled to receive those from other stations around the world.”

RETIRING FROM RETIREMENT

Sampson actually began employment with UNL in 1972, then joined the Tractor Test Lab in 1976. One of his primary duties as a test engineer was to make certain all the numbers on the reports were correct, a staggering career which Sampson has handled for nearly half the years the Tractor Lab has existed.

“During this time I was directly involved with the testing of 978 tractors,” he said.

Sampson retired in 2017, but missed it too much to stay away.

“My retirement did not last long — two weeks,” he said. “Roger (Hoy) left the door wide open on the job. Although I don’t travel on equipment anymore, I went back to my desk and have since had a hand in compiling another 38 tests.” ❖

— Hadachek is a freelance writer who lives on a farm with her husband in north central Kansas and is also a meteorologist and storm chaser. She can be reached at rotatingstorm2004@yahoo.com.


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