AKRON-They're coming: metal behemoths rumbling through North American fields-not on tires-but rubber tracks. These tractors are riding on tracks made by tire manufacturers, but sold and maintained-at least for now-by tractor makers and their dealers.
But tire dealers shouldn't be too alarmed at the prospects of lost business, according to officials at Goodyear and Firestone Agricultural Tire Co., who said the recent introduction of rubber tracks will displace only a small number of tires from ag wheel positions in the near future.
Despite the advantages rubber tracks have over dual and triple wheels in soggy fields, their expense will relegate them to small niche markets, said Louis Agocs, project manager at Firestone Agricultural Tire, the division of Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. that makes FireTrax rubber tracks.
``(Tracks) may not be cost-efficient (for the user); it's more for a person who has a very specific need,'' Mr. Agocs said.
Metal tracks have been used in agricultural, construction and military applications for years. But tractor makers recently began putting rubber tracks on some of their largest tractors.
Caterpillar Inc. led the way with its Challenger rubber-tracked tractor. John Deere Corp. has made tracks an option on its 8000 series.
Case Corp.'s 360-horsepower Quadtrac, which rides on four Goodyear Trackman rubber tracks, will be available for lease next spring. Case said the Quadtrac is its first ``fully integrated, four-wheel-drive, track-type tractor.''
Already, the manufacturers' battle has entered the courts as the three vie for market share. Caterpillar filed suit in U.S. District Court in Chicago stating John Deere violated its patent.
But the market the three tractor makers are culling remains a small portion of tire dealers' agricultural customers, according to Rob Andrew, senior marketing specialist at Goodyear's Engineered Products division.
The market for large four-wheel-drive tractors, which tracked vehicles are competing against, amounts only to 5 percent of the total market.
Rubber tracks offer some farmers a number of advantages over tires. Their lengthy footprint can reduce soil compaction like triples without taking up as much space.
Rubber tracks also decrease slippage and have fewer maintenance requirements than pneumatic tires, Mr. Andrew said.
But fitting a tractor with rubber tracks and the necessary undercarriage can add 20 to 25 percent to the standard cost, Mr. Agocs estimated.
That can be a hefty price for farmers who can just as effectively use duals, triples or flotation tires.
Because of the cost, Mr. Agocs said he believes rubber tracked tractors primarily will be used in sandy or wet soil, or hillside operations.
Still, the number of applications will broaden slightly as both Goodyear and Firestone work to reduce the cost of their track products, Messrs. Andrew and Agocs said.