Seems like the benign Midwest winters we’ve experienced over the recent past might have lulled us into a sense of a new normal — a kinder, more-temperate winter. But this recent arctic blast serves as a cruel reminder that Mother Nature can still deliver a frigid punch in the gut — one that exacts a toll on humans, livestock and machines.

So, herewith, some timely pointers on keeping your tractor chugging during the deep winter chill.

“Our phones have been ringing like crazy,” said Greg Vandike, service manager at Crown Power, the Case IH/Kubota dealer in Macon, Mo. “Customers are having lots of fuel problems during this cold snap.”

With two more months of winter ahead, Vandike has a couple recommendations to help nip potential fuel issues.

“The two most important things a tractor owner can do is make sure they are running the right fuel (winterized diesel blend) and make sure they are using some type of anti-gel diesel additive,” said Vandike.

While diesel has many strong attributes, it does have one significant downside — it has a low cloud point. At colder temps it “clouds up” and begins to develop solid wax particles. And as the fuel waxes and thickens, it clogs up engine fuel filters and injectors, starving the engine of fuel and causing it to run poorly, or worse, not start at all.

Winter diesel is blended to help reduce gelling and the havoc it can cause to the engine’s fuel system, and that is why it’s important to switch to the blend during the winter (preferably before).

“We’ve had a lot of service calls during this extraordinary cold … a lot of gelled up tractors that won’t start. Nothing seems to want to work,” said Chris Stafford, service manager at the Deere dealership in Waverly, Iowa, part of P&K Midwest.

Located in arguably the icebox of Iowa, Stafford sees his fair share of tractor issues during the winter. One of the best ways to prevent cold-weather downtime is making sure you’re filling up with “good-quality diesel.” In his view, the higher-quality diesel tends to come from the local co-ops, rather than distant distributors.

“They know what works in the local area,” Stafford said.

Stafford is also a strong advocate of fuel additives and says his dealership’s favorite is a product called 911 offered by Power Services Products, Inc. He recommends the white bottle (anti-gel plus Cetaine) as a winter pre-treatment, and the red bottle which serves as a “rescue treatment” for fuel systems which have already gelled.

And if you’re running biodiesel, which can gel at temps as low as 40 degrees Fahrenheit, it’s even more important to consider adding some type of anti-gel, fuel flow additive. In addition to the 911 brand recommend by Stafford, some of the more popular aftermarket diesel fuel treatments include Howe’s, Hot Shot, Stanadyne and Amsoil.

Stafford also suggests that even tractors that have been stored for the season ought to be started occasionally during the winter.

“Keep the batteries tended with a trickle charge and start up the machines, get all the fluids moving, just to make sure everything’s running OK,” he said.

It’s a habit that can pay off when spring rolls around.

Also, if you’re running tractors that don’t have engine block heaters, you might want to consider installing them on your machines, Vandike said.

“An engine block heater is easier on the battery and a lot easier on the starter,” he said.

Ask anyone from North Dakota, and they’ll tell you an engine block heater is essential equipment for winter survival. Plug them in overnight and your engine will be ready to crank. Don’t have an engine block heater on your older tractors? No problem — you might be surprised to learn that you can add a block heater for under $200. That’s cheap cold weather starting insurance.

Running your block heater, however, can eat up the kilowatts, so you might consider plugging into a thermostatically controlled outlet, like a low-cost Thermocube (around $20). It plugs in to a 110-volt receptacle, turns on when the ambient drops to 35 degrees and shuts off when ambient temperature is around 45 degrees.

Or better yet, for even more convenience and control, invest in one of the new high-efficiency automatic engine block heater controllers like the Power Badger, offered by Bostic Motors, Inc., Bostic, North Carolina. It lets you set a “ready time,” and the unit senses the ambient temperature and adjusts the heater automatically, so the tractor is ready to start at the preset time.

The arctic weather can also take a toll on batteries, which is why it’s important to load test prior to winter to ensure they can consistently deliver the cold-cranking amps needed during those periods of sub-zero temps. Still others suggest running a trickle charger to boost the battery and ensure you’ve got the starting power you need.

Finally, how about engine oil? Both service managers we spoke to suggested running a lighter-weight engine oil — like a 15W40 — during the winter.

“Many of our farmers are running 15W40 engine oil year-round,” Vandike said. “The 40-weight oil provides excellent protection at both ends of temperature extremes.”

Your modern tractor was designed to operate in a wide range of temperature extremes. Still, you might be surprised at the number of pages in your operator’s manual devoted to cold weather conditions, and a quick read might reduce headaches in the cold months ahead.