Among the tractors on display at Marion County Fair this summer, one more than all the others caused passers-by to turn their heads to gape at its odd, unfamiliar appearance.
It wasn’t the size or the gleaming red paint characteristic of Case IH equipment that caught their eyes. Instead, it was the absence of tires.
Where tires were expected to be seen, gawkers saw large triangular track assemblies, equipment more familiar on tanks or bulldozers than tractors.
Tractors with two-track and four-track locomotion are available through local implement dealers, but they’ve yet to catch on with county farmers.
Straub International manager Marlin Bartel of Marion said the size of county farms, small and often oddly-shaped compared to wide-open western Kansas operations, are one reason why.
“Interest is good and they’re curious about it, but because we’re talking pretty high-end, high-priced tractors, I think our farm size doesn’t support it. You’re not going to see a big influx of them.”
Salesman Justin Blew agreed.
“Western Kansas could probably justify it,” he said. “The patches of ground we have, they’re not square patches, they’re smaller patches — 40, 50 60, 70 acres at a shot — rather than 300 or 400 acres.”
However, as conditions change over time, Bartel believes some farmers will seek out an advantage tracks have over tires: they don’t pack down the soil as much.
“Your crops need loose ground to grow in,” he said. “The less I pack it the more the crop can grow and come through.”
LDI manager Gerald Funk said the larger footprint of tracks spreads the weight of a tractor across more surface area, meaning fewer pounds per square inch to compact the soil.
“It’s all brought back to that compaction,” he said. “They’re not necessarily lighter, but they spread that weight out over the whole footprint. You can go around the country when wheat is coming up and you can see the tillage tracks. If you look where a track tractor has been, they’re very minimal.”
Other equipment also has track options available, such as combines, row planters, grain carts, and manure wagons, Funk said.
“It’s hard to know how to handle all that grain and manure without compacting the ground so you can still farm it, and that’s an advantage tracks have,” he said.
Less compaction is particularly an advantage when it comes to no-till farming, Bartel said.
“Especially with no-tilling, I’m not going to till the ground to work it up again, so the less I can compact it when I’m harvesting, the sooner I can get another crop back in,” he said.
Tracks also allow farmers to get into wet fields sooner because the larger footprint can carry over soggy patches where tires could get bogged down, Bartel said.
Aftermarket tracks also are available.
“People that were innovative could buy that track system, pull the wheels off their tractor, and put them on,” Bartel said.
However, farmers may be less inclined to do so with what Bartel termed the “newest thing in tracks;” row tractors equipped with narrower tracks that fit between crop rows.
“So even if I’m planting or strip tilling or putting fertilizer down, my compaction is all between the growing rows.”
While tractors with tracks aren’t common in the county now, Bartel said farmers may begin to opt for used models that would be more cost-effective for their operations.
Gradual consolidation of small farms into larger ones hold promise for track tractor sales, too.
“Commodity prices got really good, and guess who started coming back to the farm? The young grad that had an engineering degree or had a sales position,” Bartel said. “They came back, and now several of those farms seem to have no limit on how much land they want to take on. We’ll have some of those farm sizes that will support this.”