Growers are finding more and more applications for high horsepower rubber-tracked kit. Doing so extends their versatility and can also help to reduce costs. Geoff Ashcroft talks to users about their experiences.
Making use of high horsepower rubber-tracked machines beyond their traditional primary cultivations role is proving worthwhile for three farming businesses.
For Rob Alexander, of A.J. Alexander and Son, Bush Green Farm, Diss, Norfolk, the flexibility of using his rubber-tracked John Deere on a wide variety of field duties is just too good an opportunity to overlook.
While the 8360RT is frontline horsepower for Mr Alexander, where it handles sub-soiling, cultivating and drilling on the 950-hectare farming operation, the 360hp tractor has also been used to pull trailers during the sugar beet harvest.
Mr Alexander says: “I was intrigued to see just how it might be able to handle a trailer.
Field conditions were extremely challenging for our John Deere 6210Rs, and I thought, why struggle pulling out tractors and trailers when I have a 360hp rubber-tracked machine in the shed doing nothing?
“So we used it on a trailer to haul beet from the harvester and tipping on the headland ready to load lorries.”
The 8360RT’s ability to handle fully laden 18-tonne Bailey Beeteapers with ease, in very soft and sticky conditions, convinced him choosing to use the big Deere was a logical move.
“There’s no doubt it made beet harvesting much easier,” he says. “Though it did show how poor the tractor’s mudguards are. The front steps soon became plastered and the drive wheels flicked more than enough dirt up both sides of the cab, making it difficult to get the cab door open.
“But it was extreme and we didn’t get stuck.”
Away from trailer duties, the 8360RT clocks up about 850 hours each season as a result of a diverse rotation which includes vining peas, sugar beet and barley, in addition to winter wheat and oilseed rape crops.
Equipment for use with the RT includes a six-metre Vaderstad drill, 5m Topdown, five-leg sub-soiler, a Cultipress, Vaderstad Carrier and a Vaderstad NZ-A cultivator. The farm also has a 5+1 reversible plough, which can also be used on-land with the 8360RT if needed, and guided by RTK.
“We mostly plough with a 6210R and if it gets too tricky, we can drop the rear furrow off,” he says. “While the plough is a bit small for the crawler, we can make steady progress using low revs to hold back on power, so there is a useful fuel saving to be made while winter ploughing.”
A John Deere 7310R has recently been ordered to replace one of the farm’s three 6201Rs. It will be able to share some of the 8360RT’s workload and maintains a flexible approach when it comes to tractor choices.
With land spread around Bush Green Farm, road work is an essential part of field access - and the 8360RT’s narrow overall width compared to dual wheels - means there is no need for an escort.
“The tractor has a 40kph road speed, but its ride quality is a little compromised on the road,” he says. “Though when it comes to overall operator comfort, it is a huge improvement over the Challenger tractor we first used when we moved to tracks in 2003.
“It was a brute of a tractor, noisy under load, but would pull like hell and proved to us tracks boosted productivity.
“We swapped to the 8360RT in 2013 simply for operator comfort - there is no comparison. The rubber-tracked Deere offers the same level of comfort and finesse as our wheeled tractors.
“Although tyre technology has closed the gap in recent years, particularly with larger diameter tyres offering a longer footprint, I don’t see a day when we will farm without a rubber-tracked tractor. “Our RT is quite a versatile performer and it is proving a cost-effective tractor to own.
“I’m now looking for a second-hand 6m power harrow to extend the RT’s repertoire, and it may even lead to a toolbar and a front tank so we can have a weather-proof drilling option too.”
Worth Farms, at Holbeach Hurn, Lincolnshire, uses three Challenger MT765 tractors for frontline power. With a mix of B, C and now E generation MT765’s, the farm is focused on using wheeled tractors only for lighter duties and trailer work.
The business is farming about 2,000ha with a mix of cropping which includes 750ha of winter wheat, 250ha of potatoes, 220ha of sugar beet, 220ha of peas, 180ha of maize, 50ha of rye, 35ha of mustard and about 300ha let out to other growers for salad, vegetable crops and environmental stewardship options.
Farm manager Simon Day says: “We have such a diverse rotation there are few months when our Challengers sit idle.”
As a result, the tractors will clock up anything from 1,000-1,500 hours per season, and will be on the fleet for about six to seven years.
“Our tractors have to be versatile and they have to comfortably be on top of the job,” he says. “Timeliness and efficiency is important to ensure success with our rotation.
“Our silt soils do slump, and our cropping means we have to deal with deep ruts too. To restore soil condition and prepare seedbeds, rubber tracks give us the best all-round solution.
“The long footprint from each track means we can cross ruts comfortably with sub-soilers to allow surface water to get away,” he explains.
“And 24 hours later, we can plough and drill. You couldn’t do that quite so effortlessly with wheeled tractors.”
With such a large potato area and one harvester, there is a requirement to lift crop at every available opportunity. It means the Challengers can be used to pull loaded trailers to the headland, using a workshop-built trailer hitch frame carried on the link arms.
“It just gives us another option to keep a smooth flow of crop coming into our grading line,” he says. “In such circumstances, wheeled tractors would be hopeless in the field.”
The biggest drawback with earlier Challengers has been its small fuel tank.
“Our local dealer fitted two 100-litre saddle tanks in the chassis of the MT765C to avoid having to refill with fuel at about 5pm each day,” he says.
“It means an extra four hours or so of uninterrupted work, which is quite a boost to productivity when there’s no need for refuelling.”
It is an issue addressed with Worths’ latest Challenger purchase - a seven-cylinder, twin turbocharged MT765E packing a rated power output of 375hp, and a maximum power of 405hp. Its standard fuel tank offers a more useful 773-litre capacity.
It differs greatly from the other two MT765s and also has a Zuidberg front linkage, allowing a 1,500-litre fertiliser tank to be carried when potato planting.
“We like to combine operations where possible, to improve efficiency,” he says.
Looking for more versatility, Mr Day is also considering a front-mounted topper for the MT765E, though its lack of pto is something of a temporary stumbling block.
“We mow green cover crops ahead of ploughing, which is a two-pass operation,” he says. “If I can successfully carry a 4m topper on the front of the Challenger, and a plough on the rear, we can streamline this to a one-pass operation.”
Mr Day is also considering building a front-mounted toolbar equipped with wheel track eradicator tines to scratch the surface where the tracks run, to guarantee more traction on greasy surfaces.
“Twin tracks are a good compromise for what we want to achieve,” he says.
“A Quadtrac would be kinder for headland turns, but it’s twice the weight of a 700-series Challenger. So for cereal crops, we’ll continue to cultivate headlands to lift and smooth out any scuffing after the body of the field has been drilled.”
Farmers Richard and Lyn Anthony operate a Quadtrac STX600 on their 1,200ha farm at Tythegston, Bridgend.
Comprising a mix of |grassland and arable crops, the south Wales Agrii Smart farm grows about 404ha of wheat, 280ha of maize, plus an area of oilseed rape and rye.
When the farm’s Quadtrac isn’t taking care of mole ploughing or cultivating, it finds itself attached to a Reynolds scraper box on earthmoving duties.
Mr Anthony says: “There’s a lot of farm ground which needs tidying up in the area. It could be severe dips in the landscape which are difficult to farm or soil erosion from slopes where there’s only a very thin layer of topsoil over rock.
“With the scraper, we can easily move and replenish topsoil, or relocate sub-soil to fill low areas so we can carry out land reclamation which allows us to farm these difficult areas much more productively.
“Using the Quadtrac and scraper is a lot faster and easier than using earthmoving kit, and importantly, it is a one-man job,” he says.
“With 600hp, we have the muscle so we might as well use the tractor when it isn’t needed for cultivation work.”
Having three almost identical frontline tractors at Worth Farms means a sizeable inventory of kit is required. Each tractor has its own seven-furrow plough, and access to a variety of cultivations and drilling equipment.
Such kit includes a 9m Preparator, AVR Miedema 4-row potato planter, Simba Cultipress, seven-leg Tim Howard and Cousins sub-soilers, 4m Sumo Trio, 5m Vaderstad Topdown cultivator, 6m Vaderstad Rapid drill with system disc and a 4m power-harrow drill combination.