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Tractor Tracks vs. Tires – What You Need to Know

When looking to purchase tracks vs. tires for your tractor, it is essential to consider the pros and cons to both depending on your specific equipment, your desired payload and the soil you are working. Using these factors, and sometimes personal preference, you can make the right decision for your farm and equipment.

What are Tracks?

To understand the differences between the tracks and tires, we'll start with understanding tracks. Tracks are a continuous track or tread that is part of a self-propelled vehicle where the lugs are working to propel or push the tractor forward instead of being pulled ahead in the manner used by standard wheels. Because of this push vs. pull impact, there is a misconception that tracks cause less soil impaction and have better flotation. Firestone tracks aren’t just one big piece of rubber. With self-centering technology, they cut down significantly on guide lug wear — the most common cause of track failure. And thanks to the tapered inner surfaces of Firestone tracks, the lugs naturally stay centered.

What are Tracks Used For?

While you may be more familiar with seeing steel plates used as tracks, lighter agricultural rubber tracks look like a larger version of rubber treads reinforced with steel wires. When you ride on tracks, you get much more surface area than you do with tires. The weight of your equipment gets distributed more evenly, potentially resulting in less compaction.

Whether you require row cropping, tilling, plowing, or harvesting with combines, there are 2-track, 4-track and hybrid track options.

What is the Difference Between Tracks and Tires?

Both systems have pros and cons, so it is important to understand the facts and benefits about each system and determine which is best for your operation. In many operations, it could be a combination of both systems depending on your soil needs, overall cost and individual farming needs. Learn more about the different influential factors below.

Soil Compaction

The primary selling point, or bragging point if you ask a farmer who drives on tracks, is that tracks are known to cause less soil compaction. The points given are that the larger footprint provides better flotation and creates less of a rut in the soil. Tracks push through with a larger footprint in the ground instead of creating a wave of soil upfront where a tire is pulling to gain traction. 

The idea of better flotation becomes even more relevant when working in very wet or muddy soil conditions. However, both tires and tracks will indeed create compaction and ruts in muddy soil. All of this is dependent on the inflation of the tires you are comparing them to and the soil conditions, so in most studies, the tracks and tires are comparable. 

Firestone Ag has conducted studies on soil contact pressures on two and four-track systems and wheeled tractors and has published technical papers with the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers (ASABE). The results show:

● If the tires' inflation pressure is less than 20 psi, tires transmit less contact pressure to the soil compared to tracks. 

● From 20 to 35 psi, the tracks and wheel systems were comparable.

● If the tires' inflation pressure is above 35 psi, the track system had lower contact pressure than the tires, a valuable investment.

Fuel Efficiency

Comparisons have also been made for fuel efficiency, stating that the ability to keep from being mired in the soil also helps keep fuel consumption down. However, in studies done on the slip rates between tracks and tires, there has been no significant difference in fuel consumption. Anecdotally, some track manufacturers will still say that they have saved fuel, especially if they are working in wet or muddy terrain. 

When looking at traction, track systems are most efficient at 0 - 3% slip, while wheeled systems are most efficient at 5 - 9% slip. The lower slip range of the track system does give users more traction in the field, but that does not result in less fuel used. A track system takes more horsepower to rotate the track, which can result in higher fuel consumption in certain situations. When comparing a tracked tractor to a comparable wheeled tractor with the proper inflation pressure, they will use similar amounts of fuel to complete a task. If the tires on the wheeled tractor are overinflated, that tractor will not develop the proper footprint, which results in less traction. Proper tire inflation can impact fuel economy for any type of tractor depending on the usage.

Cost of Ownership

The last item a customer should consider would be the total cost of ownership. Typically, a tracked tractor will cost more to purchase versus a similarly equipped wheeled tractor. Both systems require regular maintenance during the life of the tractor. For a tracked machine, it is important to make sure the track tension is set correctly, and boggy wheels are greased or oil levels are maintained.

On wheeled tractors, the inflation pressure must be set based on the axle load and maintained when operating the tractor. If the tractors are driven over abrasive stubble (corn or cotton), both tracks and tires will experience stubble damage. The track system has the advantage of not going flat because of punctures but exposing the steel in the tracks still requires replacing the tracks, just like seeing the cords in a tire.

Other cost factors also need to be considered. Cost of ownership is always the ultimate deciding factor, yet it comes down to where you want to spend your money and what is important to you. Tracked tractors will cost more to purchase versus a similarly equipped wheeled tractor. However, both tractors will require regular maintenance during the tractor’s life and will provide cost efficiencies if they are well maintained. 

Maintenance and Wear

Tracked tractors require attention to detail to ensure that you set the track tension correctly, grease the drive wheels and maintain proper oil levels. When gauging how long your tracks will last, know that rubber tracks can log an average of 1200 working hours. 

Wheeled tractors will require that the tire inflation pressure be set on the axle load and maintained when in operation. Inflation and use include working ballasting if needed. 

When wear and tear are considered, know that if either tractor is driven over abrasive stubble (corn or cotton) or on poorly maintained roads, both tracks and tires will experience tread damage. When it comes to "flats," only tires can go flat if punctured, but a track system will show wear and when the steel in the track is exposed, they will still require replacement in the same way you would replace a threadbare tire. 

Why Use Tracks vs. Tires?

Through all these comparisons of pros vs. cons, it becomes clear that ultimately this is an individual decision for each farmer and what system works for a farm. There is no one size fits all recommendation to be made for one over the other.

If a farm is width-restricted or needs to operate in wet soil conditions, a track system may be the best fit. If an operation wants to minimize upfront costs and can match axle load to inflation pressures, the wheeled system may be the best fit. Remember that compaction will occur in wet soils regardless of what kind of system is running.

So, when making these decisions consider all the factors. The cost of the vehicle, the cost to maintain the vehicle, what type of soil you are working on and the weather conditions in your geographical area.

Because all of these decisions are costly when it comes to purchasing tractors tires or tracks, it can be helpful to talk with your nearby Firestone Dealer to help you understand your options and make the right decision for you.