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October 24, 2018

Volume 3 Issue 3

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Transparency Sought for Tractor Fluids

PALM DESERT, California – Lubricant suppliers and regulators may debate the merits of 303 tractor hydraulic fluids, but speakers at a recent industry conference here agreed that the market needs greater transparency about product performance.

A panel discussed the topic during the Independent Lubricant Manufacturers Association’s annual meeting earlier this month.

Photo: Jonathan Weiss/Shutterstock

A line of John Deere tractors in Indianapolis, Indiana. Panelists at ILMA's annual meeting in Palm Desert, California earlier this month said transparency is the biggest issue facing tractor hydraulic fluid marketers.

“It’s a two-way issue of transparency,” said panelist Luc Girard, president of Sanjuro Consulting. “If you wanted to be diligent and meet all the specs that have been out there, you’d be hard pressed to find them. It’s just difficult to dig your way to those 30- to 50-year-old specs.”

“Conversely, if you’re going to market against them, you’re going to get stuck doing judgment calls. Am I making this claim versus that claim? And we’re seeing some repercussions of that,” he stated, referring to recent stop sell orders in three American states on lubricants known as “yellow bucket” or 303 tractor hydraulic fluids.

“The number one stock keeping unit in every farm store in the country is the yellow pail,” said panelist Doug Towns, who is senior vice president of Cross Oil and vice president of Martin Lubricants.

During the question-and-answer session, attendee Terry Noland of Old World Industries, which sells Shield 303 Tractor Fluid, estimated that economy lubes account for 80 percent of tractor hydraulic fluid sales. The other 20 percent is mainly premium products going into equipment under warranty.

Both Towns and panel moderator Greg Julian of Advanced Lubrication Specialties noted that 303 products are not expected to meet the obsolete John Deere specification. Instead, 303 has become a generic term for an economy fluid.

State weights and measures divisions began to take an interest in tractor hydraulic fluids about two years ago, noted Jeffrey Leiter, ILMA’s general counsel. The topic “picked up steam” in Missouri, where the Department of Agriculture’s Weights, Measures and Consumer Protection Division Director Ron Hayes has also been involved with obsolete engine oils. “Other state weights and measures officials are looking at joining the bandwagon on this,” Leiter said.

A class action lawsuit, Hornbeck et al v. Tractor Supply Co. et al, was filed in Missouri alleging that buckets of 303 tractor hydraulic fluid caused harm to the plaintiffs’ equipment. The suit moved in early July to the same federal court that is handling the class action litigation against Dollar General for selling obsolete motor oil, Leiter observed, though different judges are presiding over the cases. If not resolved through mediation or settlement, the lawsuit is scheduled to go to trial in January 2020. Subpoenas will likely be issued when discovery begins in January 2019.

North Carolina’s Standards Division views John Deere J20C or J20D as a minimum specification for the fluids. These specifications are backward compatible, so the products could also claim to meet older specifications such as JD 303, J20-A or J14-B. If products do not claim to meet the minimum specifications, Leiter said, officials will look for a cautionary statement on the label that warns consumers not to use the product in equipment made after the year the specification became obsolete – 1974 for JD 303 or 1989 for J20A, for example.

The National Conference on Weights and Measures, Fuels and Lubricants Subcommittee is reviewing draft language submitted by an additive company for the cautionary statement. Leiter anticipates that the process will take a year or more to complete. A focus group should meet before the NCWM’s meeting in January. ILMA has a copy of the language and is considering how to respond.

Leiter noted that states are mostly concerned about products with 303 in the brand name. He suggested that marketers remove the term from their brands and print cautionary statements on their labels.

It’s reasonable to assume that obsolete fluids will make it into modern equipment, stated panelist John Huron, tractor hydraulic fluid OEM liaison for Chevron Oronite. Mixed fleet owners running both older and newer equipment may find difficulty segregating lubricants, and many pieces of equipment may share implements, leading to cross contamination.

Trends for new tractors include higher horsepower, higher unit loading on clutches and gears and smaller parts, said Huron. Appropriate lubricants must perform in smaller hydraulic system reservoirs with faster turnover for the lubricant as it circulates. Quality fluids must function as gear oil to protect the drivetrain and clutches in the transmission and independent power takeoff; have good wet brake, friction and hydraulic performance; and good air handling and seal compatibility, explained Huron.

Towns, whose company’s business is based mostly on tractor hydraulic fluid, agreed with other panelists that consumers must have a choice. “What I tried to tell Ron [Hayes of Missouri’s Weights and Measures] is that he’s protecting the person that doesn’t need protecting and harming the person that does need protecting. The guy that has a $150,000 tractor is not the guy that is normally buying our product. The guy that is buying our product is the guy that’s trying to keep his business afloat. He’s got a 25-year-old Timberjack, and he’s going by a farm supply store every morning and picking up a couple pails of product.”

“What’s the point of trying to get fluid longevity if you’re putting it in every day?” he continued. “That’s our core customer.”

Further, most of Martin Lubricants’ THF is sold in non-agricultural applications such as timber and construction equipment, Towns noted. The company includes language on the back of each pail warning consumers against using the fluid in modern equipment, and Towns said the company has never heard a complaint from a consumer.

He also noted that the Missouri weights and measures division has never received a complaint about a mechanical problem stemming from use of economy tractor hydraulic fluids. “At the end of the day, what the states want is that, if somebody lodges a complaint about a product, they can go test it and they know what the standard to test against is,” said Towns.

This could be a challenge, as several panelists noted that tractor hydraulic fluid, much like automatic transmission fluid, has nearly as many performance standards as there are OEMs. John Deere has made its specifications publicly available, but most other tractor OEMs have not. And of course, many tests for obsolete specifications are no longer available.

One attendee expressed concern that creating a minimum specification for tractor hydraulic fluids would increase costs for formulators already making quality, on-spec products, while dishonest companies would continue making inferior fluids to meet demand for an economy option.

“Some people will take liberties with the yellow pail, and it’s a place where the industry needs to clean itself up a little bit, and I think this is a good opportunity to do so,” said Towns. “But at the end of the day, there’s a clientele that needs that product.

“I think the state of Missouri is being rational and reasonable about where we’re going with this, and I think we’re going to come to a solution that’s going to be meaningful for all those involved.”