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Comparing Tires and Tracks in Agriculture: Finding the Optimal Path for Efficiency

April 1, 2024

Deciding Between Tires and Tracks in Agriculture 

Picture this: carrying a hot cup of joe, running errands in the early morning hours. A pit stop at the local diner or gas station brings on a familiar hum of conversation. Suddenly, a topic resonates across the air: the discussion between tires versus tracks. The choice between tires and tracks can be vital in the search for higher yields and the battle against soil compaction.

Tires or tracks isn't a decision made lightly. It's a key consideration for any farmer looking to optimize their operation, with factors like soil texture, conditions, and ownership costs weighing in the balance. The question of whether tires or tracks are better could shape the future of their farm. We jumped into this critical choice to provide insights and research to help guide the decision-making process.

Considerations when choosing between tires and tracks

When comparing tires versus tracks, it's essential to look at the features of both while also considering the function the equipment will serve on the farm.

1. Soil compaction, texture, and condition

While looking at tires versus tracks, it's important to know that neither option offers zero compaction. Many factors intertwine when considering tires and tracks, including proper tire inflation (psi), soil compaction, soil texture, and condition.

As referenced in the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) article on soil degradation, some crops are more susceptible to compaction than others, but minimizing soil compaction is important in order to increase plant health and yield with all crops. Managing pounds per square inch (psi) can help with this in wheeled machines, making them more comparable to tracked versions. According to the University of Minnesota Extension, research in Iowa found that tractor tires between 6 and 7 psi ranked best compared to tractors with other over-inflated tires and two tractors with tracks. The same is true for a harvester comparison study ran in Ohio that shows harvesters with 28 inch wide tires inflated to 15 psi delivered minimal compaction.  

When considering soil texture and conditions, tires tend to perform better in dry soil conditions because they can be prone to slippage in wet soil, and slippage increases fuel usage. Sandy or loamy soils, with their fragile structure, are prone to compaction, so paying attention to ground contact and proper tire inflation mitigates this risk in dry conditions. The University of Minnesota Extension recommends avoiding soil while wet and managing the timeliness of field activities.

Although tracks cause less soil compaction compared to wheels, it’s a myth that they always provide less compaction. According to studies by Firestone Ag, tracks only had better soil compaction ratings when their tire counterparts exceeded 35 psi. Tires were comparable to the soil compaction experienced with a tracked model if not over- or under-filled. Researchers at the University of Minnesota recommend that individuals pay attention to axle loads on their equipment. By ensuring the load is under 10 tons, soil compaction will likely be less than 6-10 inches. This depth range is where most of the roots sit in the topsoil. Loads greater than 10 tons can cause the compaction to be as deep as 2-3 feet. Deeper compaction in this secondary range will affect roots more because of growth restriction and the greater difficulty of nutrients reaching the plant.

Tracked machines outperform tires when maneuvering in wet and muddy soil conditions, especially in heavy clay soils. According to a table on axle loads published by the University of Minnesota Extension, tracks and duals offer more floatation abilities than single tires, allowing equipment to return to the field faster, even in less-than-ideal conditions.

2. Cost of Ownership

Generally, tracks are less expensive to purchase than tires, but there can still be significant maintenance costs if a tire blows. It’s important to note that maintenance costs are still cheaper than tracks since there are fewer maintenance line items.

Tread should be examined to determine if tires need replacing. The tread wear will vary based on the soil conditions and how often the equipment is operating. According to NMC CAT, tracks will last longer than tires and won't need to be replaced as frequently.

According to Firestone, back tires should have a lifespan of around 2000 to 3500 hours for tractors, while front tires roughly last 1700 to 3000 hours. Of course, these averages depend on usage, soil terrain, tire brand, and crop harvested. Floatation tires can be an effective alternative to tracks. Brands like GCR carry floatation tires that allow weight to be transferred more evenly over surfaces, reducing compaction.

Tracks generally are referenced as having improved fuel efficiency, according to a blog by Tyler Harris, editor for Farm Progress. A study conducted by Nebraska-Lincoln's Nebraska Tractor Test Lab showed that when comparing a Case Steiger 600 against a Case Steiger 600 QuadTrac in the field, tractor tracks did better with heavier loads and bare soil conditions. Still, tires won the race on fuel efficiency when operated on concrete. Tracks are a smoother ride in the field but are more challenging to get to your location as they can't be driven to the field as effectively as a wheeled machine; there will be added expense in hauling the equipment to the harvest area.

According to an article by Madeleine Baerg with Grainews, another mobility factor worth considering is that tracked equipment tends to be slower due to the higher horsepower needed to operate it, but they offer greater traction and decreased slippage in wet conditions.

While tire shops are relatively common, repairs to tracked equipment could prove less convenient and require assistance from a local dealership.

Firestone states that additional maintenance factors like setting correct tension, greasing drive wheels, and checking oil levels are required to ensure a longer track lifespan. Rubber tracks typically last about 1200 hours, generally less than most tires' lifespan.

Track Conversion Kits

Beyond the conventional factory-tracked equipment offerings from industry brands like John Deere, Case IH, and CLAAS, there are a number of aftermarket options. Consider innovative alternatives that can transform wheeled equipment into its tracked counterparts. Manufacturers like Mattracks, Camso, and ATI present cutting-edge rubber track conversion systems. The track system can integrate seamlessly into existing wheeled equipment to replace the tires.

What does the research say?

As Jodi DeJong-Hughes, regional extension educator for the University of Minnesota, and Aaron Daigh, soil scientist for North Dakota State University and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, note in their Upper Midwest Soil Compaction Guide, compaction can last over 100 years and a perfect example of that is the Oregon Trail. Some types of severe compaction can persist for generations.

No one wants to lose crop production, and tracks are more expensive than their wheeled counterparts. Still, Dr. Sjoerd Willem Duiker, professor of soil management and applied physics at Pennsylvania State University, has some tips for reducing soil compaction by adjusting tire pressure.

Sjoerd’s article “Maintain Proper Tire Pressure Critical to Avoid Soil Compaction discusses why tire pressure is essential in limiting soil compaction and getting the best return on equipment. Overinflation can cause issues like increased fuel usage and less comfort, while underinflating can cause tire damage or increased wear.

“You should regularly inspect tire pressure to make sure it is still in the optimal range," says Duiker. "To determine the right inflation pressure, you need three things: tire load, tire size, and speed of operation.” 

What are the next steps?

Across the board, research shows that ways to help reduce soil compaction and keep crop yields higher are to ensure that tires are inflated adequately on equipment, the amount of equipment in and out of a field is regulated, and proper research is performed to determine the best practices and equipment to use in each operation.
Some key points to remember are that managing tire psi decreases soil compaction and makes tires more comparable to tracks. Both tracks and tires have maintenance costs, but tracks can be more expensive to maintain with the additional repairs they take on, like tension settings and oil levels. There is no actual method that offers zero compaction. Hopefully, the information above will be helpful when weighing the total cost of ownership between tires and tracks against maximizing crop yields and minimizing soil compaction.


What is soil compaction?

Soil compaction threatens crops by altering soil density, porosity, and structure, hindering root penetration and affecting air, water, and nutrient supply. It causes increased surface water runoff, affecting plant growth and ecosystem health. Effective soil management strategies are crucial to mitigate compaction effects.