For Welsh fencing contractor Jody Roberts, ground clearance and soil damage are major issues. Richard Bradley finds out what he is doing to tackle the problem.
A tracked utility vehicle has proved invaluable for fencing contractor Hill Farm Services.
To combat steep hills and soft ground, fencing contractor Hill Farm Services has fitted rubber track units to its John Deere Gator UTV.
Based in Monmouth, the business was first established in 2012 by farmer’s son Jody Roberts and 30-year fencing veteran Collin Williams.
Mr Roberts says: “Our fencing contracts often require us to cross ground that wheeled machines simply can’t get through without making a mess. We sought-out track units for our John Deere Gator in late 2015, as tyres couldn’t provide enough ground clearance and limited the work we could carry-out.”
Jody Roberts established the fencing company in 2012.
Jody and Collin started out with a tractor mounted post-knocker erecting stock fences for farmers, with the aim to work on larger commercial and utility contracts.
Now the company has eight full-time employees, a contract for secure fencing of the Welsh rail network and regularly erect security fencing around large solar farms.
Mr Roberts says: “As we have moved away from agricultural work, we have tried to get equipment that exceeds our current needs, allowing us to do more adventurous work. We also realised that we needed to meet the relevant health and safety regulations, so all our employees carry excavator tickets and are trained for working on railways and near overhead powerlines.
“Our Maxi and Midi AutoGuide pneumatic post-drivers, three mini-excavators and two excavator-mounted ProFencers allow us to work in challenging conditions, installing anything from low height stock fencing, to deer fences that are trenched into the ground.”
"The Gator no longer makes ruts, in fact we use it to level-out the ruts left behind by our mini-excavators at the end of a job"
- Jody Roberts
Working in areas with limited access means Mr Roberts’ team often has to transport tools, equipment and fuel across two or three fields, where he says making a mess is not an option. Despite trying various options of stiffer springs and wider tyres on its John Deere 855D Gator, the machine still struggled for ground clearance.
Mr Roberts says: “On a site in December 2015, we got to try out a tracked skid-steer loader, which travelled really well on the boggy site. When we finished the job we looked into buying one, but after seeing the prices we started looking for more affordable track units to fit to our Gator.”
After searching the internet, Mr Roberts came across CamoPlast, an American track manufacturer who produces tracks for all-manner of ATVs, as-well as for construction and agricultural machines.
He says: “Frank Suttons, our local John Deere dealer, ordered the units for us and fitted them in less than one hour; the four tracks came in at around £5,000 including fitting. They told us with a good mechanic we could swap the units back for the wheels in one hour.”
CamoPlast track units can be fitted in less than one hour.
Since having the tracks fitted in December 2015, the units have not been removed, as they are said to make the Gator much safer for traveling on slopes and across rough terrain.
Increasing ground clearance by 70mm (2.75in) and offset track-width by 150mm (6in), compared to standard tyres provides more stability, while a contact patch of 1.30sq.m is said to provide an impressive reduction in compaction levels.
“The Gator no longer makes ruts, in fact we use it to level-out the ruts left behind by our mini-excavators at the end of a job,” says Mr Roberts.
Daily jobs for the machine include towing equipment to work sites. Despite the manufacturer’s rated towing capacity, Mr Roberts told us how the towing capacity of the tracked Gator is limited by how much you can fit in the trailer, as the machine will pull its own weight – literally.
When the units were first fitted, business partner Mr Williams was sceptical about the tracks effectiveness, so both machines were driven up a steep hill.
With a wry smile, he told us: “The wheeled Gator ended up being towed up the hill by the tracked machine, which was still only in two-wheel drive.”
Fitting the tracks has provided some drawbacks according to the fencing duo; travel speed is reduced roughly by one-third and tracks do not provide as much cushioning as tyres. Despite this, there is no noticeable impact on steering and handling.
Minor issues were quickly discovered according to Mr Roberts, as the tracks caused mud to fling into the load-bed and covered occupants in the cab. Sections of checker-plate have been bolted to the Gator’s protection frame to solve this, with fixed toolboxes providing handy storage.
To prevent occupants and the rear load box getting covered in mud, from 150mm extended track width, chequer plate mudguards have been fitted.
Along with the innovate wheel-arch conversion, Jody and Collin told us how they would like to see stronger suspension and steering components made available, as the tracks cannot absorb shocks to prevent damage in the same way tyres do.
Mr Roberts explains: “We have had some damage; the machine was travelling through a bog to a site which had not seen life for years. After a loud bang the machine stopped, and the engine would not start. We dragged the machine out with the excavator and found that it had sheared the drive cog from the shaft, and badly bent the track rod end and track stabiliser.”
Mr Roberts is looking into fitting skid plates to the underside of the Gator to prevent any further damage, as he says the machine will bottom out, before it gets stuck. “The Gator has never struggled to travel; the only time it has been pulled out was when the engine stopped working. Had we been able to get the engine going there and then, I don’t think it would have been a problem driving out of the bog, albeit on three working tracks.”
Towing capacity is said to be limited by how much you can fit in the trailer.
In 10 months of using the machine, it has clocked up 450 hours, and has only stood still for two weeks after the bog incident, while waiting for parts to arrive.
Mr Roberts explained: “Parts back-up isn’t brilliant, as we had to buy a complete steering assembly for the Gator, instead of individual track rod and drive shaft. Availability of parts for the track units could be down to low volumes in the UK, however.
Aiming to further expand the business, a Unimog has been purchased to transport equipment to sites further afield. Mr Roberts says the ‘Mog’ will allow them to travel further in less time and carry more equipment than they currently can with a John Deere 7530 tractor.
The tracked Gator has also gained its fair share of interest says Mr Roberts: “I will be taking the machine to a job behind the pickup, and people come up to you to take a picture of it and ask what we do. I think we need to get it sign-written for some advertisement.
“If our work carries on expanding the way it has, we will be looking into another tracked Gator, as it would allow us to push on the vegetation maintenance work.
“Overall, we would recommend the tracks to anyone looking for lower ground pressure and more ground clearance.”
“We didn’t see how valuable the tracked machine was to the business, until we were without it for two weeks. All our excavators are fitted with hitches on the dozer blades, so these were used to transport equipment to sites. We quickly realised how useful the tracked Gator is, especially when having to ‘nip’ back for something.”