We should not shy away from the fact that if you want high output for cultivation work, then you need horsepower - and lots of it.
Where tyres were once the only choice for those seeking serious grunt, the advent of rubber tracks has allowed power outputs to climb to dizzying heights, while keeping tractor widths manageable - more so for those who need to negotiate public roads and narrow lanes to reach their fields.
How long it will be before we see 1,000hp on tracks is anyone’s guess, but we have already seen it with foragers.
In this test, we assembled stalwarts from Agco and Case-IH to put up against John Deere’s new 9560RT in this exclusive hands-on with its all-new flagship.
As tested here, the 9560RT (serial number 0002) promises considerable improvements in power, hydraulics, hitch, cab comfort and controls. The cab provides 10 per cent more internal volume, has 7 per cent more glass and four times as much storage space as the previous 9030 series.
Squaring up to the Deere is Case-IH’s latest Quadtrac 550, complete with FPT engine and AdBlue exhaust after-treatment.
Since its arrival in 1997 as the 9370, the Case-IH Quadtrac has divided opinion - should you choose two tracks, or four?
Developed from the Steiger 4WD articulated tractor range, the Quadtrac has four positively-driven tracks.
Each track assembly can pivot around its respective drive sprockets, so the Quadtrac’s ability to keep all four 1.8m-long tracks in constant contact with the ground is unrivalled by the longer footprint of twin-track systems.
The UK is Case-IH’s largest Quadtrac market in Europe and is the third biggest after North America and Australia.
However, there are firms offering track conversions for wheeled tractors, so the concept can be applied to conventional tractors in addition to other makes of articulated wheeled tractors.
Our final warrior is from Agco’s MT800-series Challenger range. In this power range, we have opted for the MT865C.
It is worth remembering this is the only tractor in this group which was purpose-built as a rubber tracked machine. That was 25 years ago, when it first broke cover as the Caterpillar Challenger 65.
The MT series remains a popular machine, with more than 30 MT800s sold in the UK in the last 12 months. But the MT has been around since 2002 - and in 800C series form since 2009. It is one model which might need a botox injection.
With our trio, we intended to find out how they would compare against each other in a group test carrying out primary cultivation.
To do this, we took them to Essex and presented them with some challenging, heavy clay land and various cultivators. These included a Lemken Gigant tool carrier with 8m of Rubin discs fitted to it; a 6m Vaderstad Topdown featuring 22 legs, two rows of discs and a packer; and a 6m Simba Great Plains SLD 600 deep-legged cultivator.
So, will the MT’s grunt win through? Will the Quadtrac walk all over its competition, or has Deere’s new flagship 9RT got enough under its skin to rattle the old guard?
SPENDING a week behind the wheel of these arable giants carrying out long days of primary cultivation work - and some nights - gave us an opportunity to gain an in-depth evaluation of each.
Our aim was to assess traction, comfort and control. After all, you do not buy the thick end of 600hp to be unproductive, while fighting with the levers.
Our stubble test site in Essex, courtesy of James Nott, provided a perfect setting to put these tractors through their paces.
As if heavy Essex clay land was not tough enough, it was sodden too. For good measure, our fields included gradients and twisty headlands, which really gave our American-bred muscle something to think about.
The plan was to deep cultivate, opening up the soil structure in preparation for drilling.
During the week, all three spent their fair share of time wrestling with a 6m Simba SLD 600, 6m Vaderstad TopDown 600 and an 8m Lemken Gigant 10 tool carrier, complete with a pair of 4m Rubin disc cultivators.
As you would expect, each tractor had its good and bad points, but none really shone brighter than the other.
Considering these tractors carry a premium price tag, none were really premium machines, with several shortcomings to be found with each, and this is reflected in the scores.
Despite attaining similar overall scores, they remain some way off the available total.
In the field, in comparable conditions, it was interesting to see their differences. In relatively good conditions - flat and dry - the performance of each machine was almost inseparable when hitched to the benchmark cultivator - the Simba SLD 600. With forward speeds of about 10kph (6mph), we noted track-slip of 3-4 per cent and working fuel consumption of 110 litres per hour with each tractor.
It was only the Quadtrac which remained fully composed when the surface got sticky or steeper. It also managed much better than the other two when we increased the working depth of the cultivator - something our host farmer was eager to see, as we nudged 280-300mm (10-12in).
But traction is just one part of the equation - user friendliness, in-cab comfort and controls are big factors, particularly if you have to live with such a tractor day-in, day-out throughout the intense cultivation period. Even daily service checks need to be practical and within reach.
John Deere certainly leads on cab comfort and control, with the latest CommandArm getting a big thumbs-up for clarity, simplicity and ease of setting headland turn sequences.
Years of evolution, along with R&D have gone into every aspect of operator comfort, but the spartan feel of that spacious interior makes the 9RT feel as though the cab is not quite the premium environment it should be on a £350,000 tractor.
Deere is not the only firm which needs to take note - this is a feeling replicated by Case and Challenger’s cabs too.
However, the 9RT’s biggest let-down is its wide proportions and frustrating rear-end. While many users might not choose the three-point linkage, it was fitted to our tractor and caused us a few headaches. But it is a fair chunk of weight that, no doubt, helps the tractor to maintain an impressive level of traction.
Similarly, the Challenger has a great engine and super smooth transmission, but the old girl is getting a bit long in the tooth and is in need of an update.
We particularly liked the auto steering and its smooth ride too, while the ability to shed ballast weight makes the Challenger as useful for top-work as it is for heavy draft applications.
Yes, it is roomy and user-friendly, but it is time the 865C and its C-series stablemates had an overhaul. We suggest Agco skips straight to the E series.
The Quadtrac’s phenomenal traction is by far its most impressive feature, and thanks to its articulation and sympathetic preservation of headlands, it also allows you to go drilling without the worry of scuffing.
But a lack of logical electronics, especially its headland management system and scattergun approach to control layout, are just two reasons you might think twice about buying one.
Choosing one of these, which is essentially a self-propelled drawbar, is difficult. All three are good at what they do. Good, but not exceptional, and this is why they all scored mid-70s out of a possible 100. There are some potentially ferocious running costs to be aware of too.
All have their strengths, and the best tractor would be a combination of all three. We would take the Quadtrac’s articulated four-track system, the Deere’s cab and controls and the Challenger’s engine and transmission. But such a beast does not yet exist.
As with all major purchases, individual circumstances and requirements, a good deal and service back-up influence the decision-making process.
If we had to choose one, it would be the Challenger. Its ability to deliver good all-round performance was just enough for it to raise its head above the crowd.