DEKALB, Ill.—As long as agricultural equipment makers continue to manufacture tractors with high-horsepowered engines, rubber tracks, and not tires, will be the choice fitment for those machines.
At least that's what Caterpillar Corp. predicts will happen, based on current trends, said Doug Petterson, agricultural division manager. The company is one of the leading ag equipment and rubber tracks makers in North America.
That means tire dealers will need to sell tracks and know how to service them in order to adapt to the changing needs of farmers.
Mr. Petterson said that last year 45 percent of all new 350 horsepower tractors ran on tracks. One-third of new tractors in the 220 to 350 horsepower range came with tracks, while only 7 percent of new tractors below 220 horsepower sported them.
Caterpillar projects that by 2010, 80 percent of tractors in the 220 to 400 horsepower range will run on tracks, while 90 percent of 400-horsepower tractors (a technology still in development) will have tracks, Mr. Petterson said.
He cited a couple of reasons for the move toward using tracks for higher horsepowered equipment. No. 1 is the fact that tractors with rubber tracks have more power in soft soil conditions than their counterparts with tires, he said.
Tractors with heavier weights and higher horsepowers also have a tendency to experience power hop when fitted with traditional tires, Mr. Petterson said. This tire characteristic happens when the power load in the sidewall of a radial tire springs back causing the tractor to jump.
"A track tractor doesn't have that," he said.
High-horsepowered vehicles shod with tires also have wider footprints and are heavier than tracked tractors—a problem that can cause more soil compaction and fewer crop yields.
"A lot of farmers are looking at the overall weight of the tractor and saying `Is this the right thing to put on wheels?"' Mr. Petterson said. "I think some of those people...for pure reason of compaction, are looking at that (heavy) tractor being on tracks."
Not a stranger to track equipment, Caterpillar introduced the Challenger 65 tractor equipped with rubber tracks in 1986. At that time, the only farmers willing to experiment with the new technology lived in irrigated areas of the Southwest—such as California's San Joaquin Valley—or in Washington state, Mr. Petterson said.
Now, farmers in the traditional wheat and corn belts of the U.S. gradually are using track equipment in their fields. However, because the technology is still new, he said many farmers in the Midwest are unfamiliar with track products.
Another disadvantage to tractors with tracks is that they primarily are field tractors and not good utility vehicles, he acknowledged.
Still, track usage is growing. Goodyear, Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. and Chemoplast in Canada all compete with Caterpillar in manufacturing rubber tracks—a fact that means dealers will need to become more knowledgeable about replacing tracks, Mr. Petterson said.
"I think...you'll start to see tire dealers become track dealers," he said. "They will be providers of the rubber components on a drive system."
He urged dealers to learn a tracked tractor's mechanical technology as well as how to troubleshoot problems.
"It's like anything—you need to know what you're doing," he said. "You need the right equipment. There are some things that would go wrong with a track that would not go wrong with a tire. Alignment of the belt from front to rear is extremely important. If the alignment's wrong, you can cause premature wear on the track."