Harvest time: Time for farmers, motorists to work together and keep roads safe

Carol Spaeth-Bauer
Wisconsin State Farmer

WAUKESHA - For Bob Stigler, who has been farming for 50 years in Waukesha County, the goal at the end of each day is for everyone to get home safely. With his 1,300 acre farm scattered among four different townships, it's not always easy, traveling with farm equipment between numerous fields in a fairly well-populated county.

Waukesha County farmer Bob Stigler wants everyone home safe at the end of the day driving between fields and the farm.

Last fall he was waiting for oncoming traffic before making a left-hand turn when four cars passed him despite having the tractor's turn signal on, indicating the left turn. 

"If I hadn't been playing defensive driver, so to speak, somebody would have gotten hurt," Bob said. 

His son, Tom, also had a close call while trying to make a left turn with a tractor and fertilizer wagon. Tom put the blinker on and looked in his rearview mirror where he saw a truck that was "far enough back that he would have seen me turning," but as Tom started making the turn, the truck nearly t-boned the tractor and at the last minute ducked behind the equipment shaking his fist at Tom. 

Both instances point to the importance of road safety for farmers and motorists, especially with the start of fall harvest just beginning. Tractors and other implements of husbandry (IOH) are often large, sometimes on narrow country roads, and slow-moving, which can cause confusion for motorists sharing the road.

That's why Bob Stigler hosted a Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation (WFBF) media day on Aug. 31 to highlight the importance of road safety and illustrate common scenarios encountered when motorists come upon farm equipment on the road.

Farmers and motorists should know how to handle several situations - passing an IOH, left-hand turns and braking distance needed at controlled intersections.


According to the WFBF, in 2014, it became illegal to pass an IOH, which include farm tractors and machinery in a no passing zone. When going around a slow-moving vehicle, motorists should wait until they enter a passing zone. 

Passing farm equipment in a no-passing zone is illegal. Motorists should wait for a passing zone before attempting to go around slow moving vehicles.

Farmers should not pull over in a no passing zone to allow vehicles to pass, unless the shoulder of the road allows for the machinery to completely move onto the shoulder, according to a WFBF news release. 

Cheryl Skjolaas, a UW-Extension agricultural safety specialist, said it's the responsibility of the motorist to make a decision regarding passing farm equipment on the road. Lighting and marking of the equipment help define the key edge points and the shape of the equipment for motorists to make that determination. Farmers are not encouraged to wave drivers forward to pass them because then they are sharing the responsibility for the decision to pass the equipment. 

In a passing zone, or if shoulder width permits, farmers are obligated to yield the roadway to the overtaking vehicle so they do not impede the normal movement of traffic, according to the WFBF.

Left-hand turn

As Bob and Tom indicated, left-hand turns can be dangerous. Most newer farm machinery comes equipped with flashers, Bob said. For the Stiglers, safety on the road was worth investing about $2,500 in lights for their tractors.

"It's a costly thing, but it's well worth it," said Bob. "If we can light up the road better and people can see us better, that's the goal, to be seen."

Drivers need to be aware of farm equipment making left turns.

Farm equipment will likely have two flashing amber or yellow lights when its on the road. When a farmer signals to turn, the light will continue to flash in the direction the farmer is turning, while the other light will go solid, a WFBF new release stated. 

Waukesha County Sheriff's Deputy John Lappley said the most common accident involving farm equipment is failure to yield right of way. 

"Farmers around here have to travel distances to get to their fields," Lappley explained. "Slow down. Give them a lot of room."

As Tom Stigler drove their John Deere self-propelled forage harvester down the narrow country road, there was little space for a vehicle to pass, even if it had been a passing zone. 

"Country roads are hard. They are hard without farm equipment," said Lappley. "They (roads) are usually very narrow. Implements take up a lot of space."

Cheryl Skjolaas, UW-Extension agriculture safety specialist, talks about proper marking of equipment during a road safety demonstration on Aug. 31.

Braking at controlled intersections

When a motorist legally passes large farm equipment within a very short distance of a controlled intersection, this can dramatically impact the reaction time and braking distance for the farm equipment operator. Farm equipment is much heavier than a normal passenger vehicle which makes having adequate braking distance critical for the operator, the WFBF news release said.

Motorists should slow down whenever they see the slow-moving vehicle emblem on the back of a tractor or piece of equipment. This orange and red reflective triangle means the vehicle is typically traveling less than 25 miles per hour, Skjolaas explained. 

Farmers are asked to comply to the proper lighting and marking requirements to draw attention to the size, shape and speed of agricultural vehicles. Requirements can change and farmers can visit to learn what are the latest lighting and marking requirements.

Skjolaas suggests checking equipment as seasonal machines are pulled out and checking the most recent lighting and marking fact sheet to see if their equipment meets the requirements.  

Farmers should also know local weight restrictions, the WFBF release stated. Generally, agricultural weight limits are 23,000 pounds per axle or 92,000 pounds gross vehicle weight, dependent on number of axles and axle spacing, and subject to seasonal or special postings. More information on weight limits is available from Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection and Wisconsin Department of Transportation.

More information on agricultural vehicles on the road is available through the UW-Extension.