Lincoln, Neb. —The University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Tractor Test Laboratory has accelerateed into its second century. The tractor test laboratory – the first testing center of its kind in the world – serves as the official designated tractor testing station for the United States.
Since 1920, the tractor test lab has provided unbiased test results for tractor manufacturers and a one-of-a-kind experiential learning opportunity for Nebraska students in biological systems engineering department. Tractor performance is measured according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development code, adhered to by
34 countries. The tractor test lab has had significant contributions to writing the codes and updating them.
Today the tractor test lab employs 25-30 part-time student workers, most majoring in agricultural engineering or mechanized systems management through the university’s biological systems engineering department.
Many students are members of the Quarter-Scale Tractor Team, and design a tractor in an annual event sponsored by the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers. Last year, after competing in a variety of performance events, a design report and an oral presentation at the competition in Peoria, Ill., Nebraska’s team was crowned international champions. The Husker team title will reign another year, as this year’s competition in Peoria was cancelled due to COVID-19.
Shifting back into the turn of the 20th century
In the early 1900’s Nebraska farmer Leon Chase participated in the Winnipeg, Canada tractor plowing contests. He was interested in evaluating machinery and presenting his unbiased findings to farmers.
Chase crossed paths with a Polk county farmer in 1916 named Wilmont F. Crozier who had owned a Ford model B tractor that did not perform as advertised. After Crozier became elected to the bicamerial Nebraska Legislature, he teamed up with a state representative from Waverly, Charles J. Warner to draft the Nebraska Tractor Test Law along with Chase. Chase was enlisted to provide technical assistance and in July of 1919 the Nebraska Tractor Test Law was passed.
“In those days there were about 300 tractor manufacturers. The real competition for the tractor wasn’t another manufacturer of tractor – it was the horse,” said Roger Hoy, director of the tractor test lab.
Eventually, Chase was named the first department head of newly formed agricultural engineering department at the UNL, and today Chase Hall on East Campus carries his name.
While Chase was in the role, the department took on the role of proving that tractors performed as advertised and that there was a source for parts and service within each state they were available.
The expectation, Hoy said, was that the lab would function for a few years, weed disreputable manufacturers out of the business, and that there would no longer be a need for the lab. Instead, the tractor test lab started publishing its testing results and the marketing departments of manufacturers began a fierce competition to score the highest performance results from Nebraska.
“We’ve always been unbiased. We’re just putting out our test results. It has created a very level playing field for tractor manufacturers worldwide,” Hoy said.
Smoking the competition
While tractors were revolutionizing agriculture production, the tractor test lab was revolutionizing the tractor manufacturing.
In 1970, the lab started performing noise tests to find out how loud the tractor was for both the operator and bystander ear – and did so before there were any noise standards.
“Nebraska was a catalyst, and after we started publishing these numbers, marketing departments started demanding quieter tractors than competitors,” Howy said. “Our initiative percolated through the agriculture and construction industries in a matter of a few years, and it resulted in a great deal of good for so many farmers,”
The Lester F. Larsen Tractor Test and Power Museum is housed in the original tractor test facility on Nebraska’s East Campus, a building erected in 1919. On April 9, 1920, the lab completed its first test on a John Deere Waterloo Boy Model N.
In 1980, the building was declared a historic landmark by the American Society of Agricultural Engineers. On May 2, 1998, the museum was officially named to honor Lester F. Larsen, the chief engineer for the tractor test lab from 1946-1975. Larsen was instrumental in initiating the collection of historic test equipment and tractors representing the evolution of agricultural machines.
In addition to the long, oval test track that has been around since 1920, new testing facilities were built in 1980 to accommodate larger tractors.
As the ninth leader of the test lab in 100 years, Hoy also serves as a professor in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering. He supervises the students, and by his estimation they do 80% of the work at the lab.
During the spring and fall testing seasons, students (typically agricultural engineering or mechanized systems management) help unload test tractors upon arrival and are heavily involved in the testing. They help install instrumentation to test each tractor and even sit in the driver’s seat of the loading car, controlling the computer applications and entire test.
“Between our curriculum and the practical experience they get with the tractor test lab, it really prepares student to go out in the real world. I’ve been at Nebraska for 14 years, and every one of my students has gotten a darn good job in the industry after they’ve left the university,” Hoy said.
The Tractor Restoration Club at Nebraska also provides a hands-on experience for students in the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources. Tractors are donated to club, which is made up of about twenty students who work throughout the year to restore tractors to be sold at auction or go into the Larsen Tractor Museum collection.
Marydith Donnelly, a senior agribusiness and supply chain management double major from Katy, Texas, joined the club as a freshman. “I’d never been around tractors or driven one either,” she said.
When she first began, she was paired with another club member to work through the mechanics together. In her final year, she now serves as the club treasurer. “Organization is key. We will have three tractors pulled apart at the same time so everything must be labeled,” she said.
Looking to the next 100 years of agriculture and the tractor test lab, Hoy sees great possibility.
“The technology will change, and the test will change with it to adapt and remain relevant I think just like we have for the last century,” Hoy said.
The NTTL results can be found online at https://tractortestlab.unl.edu, under the test reports tab.
By Natalie Jones | IANR Media