My rural house backs up to a county highway, the other side of which is one of many cornfields.
The highway is frequently used by a local farmer to access his fields with his tractor and many implements. Whenever a tractor roars past hauling a tank filled with manure, my wife and I laughingly declare, “Here comes the s**t spreader!”
This scene is a common one in Wisconsin – especially this time of year when it is harvest season.
When one of our insured attorneys recently called with a concern, he described a personal injury action that stemmed from a horrific motor vehicle accident involving a farmer driving his tractor on a 55 mph highway.
Without delving into the details of that matter, this led me to do some research on which vehicles farmers can legally operate on highways.
Wis. Stat. chapters 340-348 govern the operation of agricultural equipment on public roadways. Generally, tractors and other implements of husbandry (IOH) are allowed to operate on Wisconsin roadways.
Wisconsin’s Implements of Husbandry Law
Wisconsin Act 377 was passed in 2014, and gives farmers the ability to operate equipment legally on roadways throughout the state.
This Act represents a compromise between the agricultural community and local officials to balance the need to operate farm equipment on roadways against the need to preserve local infrastructure. The Act was intended to give a clearer definition of what qualifies as an implement of husbandry.
According to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (DOT) an IOH is defined as:
A self-propelled or towed vehicle that is manufactured, designed, or reconstructed to be used and that is exclusively used in the conduct of agricultural operations. An implement of husbandry may include any of the following:
Farm tractors. (Category A)
A self-propelled combine; a self-propelled forage harvester; self-propelled fertilizer or pesticide application equipment but not including manure application equipment; towed tillage, planting and cultivation equipment and its towing power unit; or another self-propelled vehicle that directly engages in harvesting farm products, directly applies fertilizer, spray, or seeds but not manure, or distributes feed to livestock. (Category B)
A farm wagon, farm trailer, manure trailer, or trailer adapted to be towed by, or to tow or pull, another implement of husbandry. (Category C)
A combination of vehicles in which each vehicle in the vehicle combination is an implement of husbandry or in which an implement of husbandry is towed by a farm truck, farm truck tractor or motor truck.
In addition to IOHs, the act defines an Agricultural Commercial Motor Vehicle (Ag-CMV) as a commercial vehicle to which all of the following applies:
The vehicle is substantially designed or equipped for the purpose of agricultural use.
The vehicle was designed and manufactured primarily for highway use and manufactured to Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard Certification.
The vehicle is used exclusively in the conduct of agricultural operations.
The vehicle directly engages in harvesting farm products, applying fertilizer, spray or seeds to a farm field or distributes feed to livestock.
Act 377 establishes height, length, weight, and width parameters to better represent the size and use of modern machinery that at times needs to be operated on roadways. A no-fee permit may be required if gross vehicle weight or axle weight is greater than the DOT's IOH weight table.
In April 2019, the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation reported that, since 2011, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation has recorded more than 1,300 crashes involving agricultural equipment that resulted in 678 injuries and 26 deaths.
In addition to the height, length, width, and weight requirements, all IOH must meet DOT lighting and marking requirements to ensure safety. Specific lighting and marking requirements apply to IOH that are 15 feet or wider or that extend over the center of the roadway.
On behalf of those of us who are not operating IOHs, Wisconsin State Farmer recently provided a list of safety tips to follow during the fall harvest season:
Look for lighting and marking on the farm implements. Farm machinery that usually travels less than 25 miles per hour (mph) is required to display a “slow moving vehicle” or SMV emblem on the back. It is an orange and red triangle visible to the rear on either the left side of the tractor or towing implement or the rear most towed vehicle.
Keep a safe distance. The farm vehicle operator may not be able to see around the equipment, so don’t assume that the operator knows you are approaching.
Don’t pass in a no-passing zone (It’s illegal).
Check for turn signals. On farm tractors or self-propelled machines like combines, the flashing lights are also turn signals.
During hours of darkness and low-light situations when visibility is less than 500 feet, turn your headlights on.
Watch for a yellow and black road sign with the symbol of a farmer driving a tractor. These signs are within 500 feet of a driveway to alert motorists of a farm or field drive with an obstructed view such as on a hill or around a curve.
Conclusion: We All Share the Roads
It’s not likely that my wife and I will get as much of a kick out of saying, “Here comes a Class A farm tractor towing a Class C manure spreader, which together make an implement of husbandry,” as we see and hear the manure spreader roar past. But, it’s good to know that the farmer is legally using the public roadway.
And, more seriously, as Wisconsin Farm Bureau President Jim Holte recently said, “At the end of the day farmers and motorists alike want to return home to their families. Safety has to be a top priority for everyone sharing the road.”
This article was originally published on the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Agriculture Law and Rural Practice Blog of the Solo/Small Firm & General Practice Section. Visit the State Bar sections or the Solo/Small Firm & General Practice Section web pages to learn more about the benefits of section membership.