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Respect your tires

“I get no respect, I tell you. No respect.” This is a catchphrase made famous by the late comedian, Rodney Dangerfield, and one tires can relate to.

Why? Because while farmers have gotten better about paying attention to the needs of their tires, there's still room for improvement and new hurdles to overcome.

“Farmers have come a long way in caring for tires,” says Wayne Birkenholz of Firestone. “But there is still the misconception that as long as a tire looks OK, then it probably has enough pressure, and the ballast is also OK – or close enough.”

For example, he says, a farmer may believe that if slippage is down to 2% to 3%, that's good. In reality, the tractor operates most efficiently at around 10% slip (at high torque) because some slippage is needed to limit strain on drivetrain components.

“Some producers still don't understand what they're giving up by not having the tractor set up correctly with proper ballast and inflation,” he notes.

So why do farmers routinely monitor fluids like oil and fuel, but they merely eyeball the tires on their equipment?

“Farmers regularly check oil levels because they don't want to burn up the motor or drop the short block,” says Birkenholz.

“You're also talking about having to check eight tires instead of one dipstick,” says Titan's Scott Sloan. “But there's a good reason to do it, even though it may be easy to forget.”

If they did the math, farmers would quickly see tires are an investment worth protecting. For instance, eight tires on a four-wheel-drive tractor can range from $20,000 to $30,000, while a short block costs around $15,000.

The cost of these rubber wonders is only one factor in the equation. Poorly cared for tires can also affect things like fuel efficiency and soil compaction.

“The tire must keep up with the demands of the machine and the farmer,” says Michael J. Vandel, Michelin's North America marketing segment manager.

Firsthand experience

Iowa farmer Lowell Garrett saw firsthand how improperly inflated tires can impact an operation.

“I've known for years that being vigilant about caring for tires goes a long way toward my bottom line,” he says.

That knowledge really hit home in August 2010 when he saw tire tracks in his fields and was concerned that yields would suffer. Garrett knew inflation pressures were at the heart of his problem.

“We didn't get any freezing and thawing last year, and Mother Nature didn't help us any when we went into spring,” he says. “I could see every pass where I had been, and yields were roughly 30 bushels less in the width of my tractor.”

On average, Garrett believes he lost about 10% yield because tires were improperly inflated, which, in turn, caused added soil compaction. He was determined to find a better way to monitor inflation pressures to optimize the rubber that bears the weight of his machines, which have steadily grown in size.

“When I fold up my 120-foot planter, it puts 17,000 pounds of load on the drawbar, so I have to pump the rear tires up to 20 psi,” he says. “When I get to the field, I need them back down to 6 psi, but I had no way to do that.”

Garrett found the answer in an on-board inflation system that operates from the cab of the tractor as well as Firestone's AD2 technology, which allows a 4- to 5-psi reduction for his axle load. With the turn of a dial, he can reset the psi to meet conditions in the field and for transport.

“I've been looking at this for several years wondering why I couldn't do this,” he says. “I finally found it on the Internet and learned Precision Technologies Group (www.machinery.co.uk), a company in Germany, was doing exactly what I had dreamed of doing for 10 years.”

A few phone calls and a couple of shipments later, Garrett had the system installed on his tractor and planter.

The story will be in the yield results. Did this nearly $20,000 device help alleviate the problem and increase yields? While Garrett admits this might not be the total cure for his problem, he feels it's definitely a step in the right direction. Especially when he figures he lost over $100,000 in revenue because of compaction issues and yield loss.

“I've seen a lot of things in my 50-plus years of farming, but I really think this system is going to be the biggest bang for my buck,” he says. “It's nice to be able to look over at the gauges and see exactly what's going on with my tires.”

Sign of things to come

A little over 10 years ago, farmers were skeptical of GPS being incorporated into farming. Yet today, some form of precision ag technology is virtually a standard feature on a few pieces of equipment.

“I think the inflation system very well could follow in that vein. And in three to five years, you'll see that becoming an option or maybe even a standard on some tractors,” says Birkenholz.

In fact, at least one major machinery company has a pressure monitor device it's looking at.

It's no secret that an underinflated or an overinflated tire can affect how equipment performs, which, in turn, can affect the farmer's bottom line. And as machines continue to grow in size to cover more acres in less time, added pressure is placed on tires to perform the way they always have. Yet, they are expected to carry more weight.

“I think that's key – the care and maintaining pressure and proper ballast of tires,” Birkenholz points out. “Optimizing how you set that piece of equipment up will have a direct impact on tire life and could potentially double the life of a tire.”

While predicting the expected life of a tire is a variable answer based on a number of factors, properly caring for a tire is definitely going to add significant life.

“If you overinflate, the tire may experience irregular wear,” he says. “You're going to get poor traction. It's going to slip and wear more. If you underinflated or do more than it's obviously designed for, you're going to have some sort of failure prematurely. Therefore, treating a tire right goes a long way toward extending the life of that tire.”

Four basic tire rights to protect your investment, tire manufacturers offer four tips.

1. Right tire. Choose the appropriate tire for the work it will tackle. “Tires are designed and built with the application in mind, and farmers must realize that not all tires are made for the same operation,” says Michelin's Vandel.

How to minimize stubble damage

● Choose the right tire for the application.

● Run parallel to the row on the first pass.

● Set MFWA (manual front wheel assist) wheel spacing to run between the rows.

● Keep tires properly inflated.

● Install a stubble ‘stomper’ device in front of tires.

For instance, a combine places different demands on a tire than a four-wheel-drive tractor. “The front axle of a combine, with a full hopper and header attached, may weigh the same as a 450-hp. four-wheel-drive tractor,” Vandel notes. “The difference is that the combine will carry that load with two to four tires, while the tractor will carry that load with eight to 12. That is a big difference.”

2. Right ballast. Select the correct ballast package for a tractor's horsepower. “Be sure to get that weight distributed properly between the front and rear axles,” says Birkenholz. “When you get the tractor from the dealer, make sure the weight split is appropriate for the tractor's configuration (2WD, MFWD, or 4WD).”

3. Right inflation for the application. Match the inflation pressure to the load it will be expected to carry. Proper tire inflation for the load can make a significant difference in traction, fuel costs, time in the field, and soil compaction.

4. Right maintenance. Monitoring the overall health of your tires from application to application will go a long way toward extending the life of your tire.

Double stubble trouble

As more and more farmers continually get better at treating tires with a little more respect, they are faced with another issue – tire damage from stubble.

“I think many farmers understand the importance of taking care of tires, but what they have to learn is to protect that investment, which includes protecting tires from stubble,” says Birkenholz. “That's our next big hurdle as we continue to see advances in seed technology.”

Top 5 ways to reduce your soil compaction with tires:

1. Use radial tires rather than bias-ply tires.

2. Use widest, largest tire size possible (large profile/large volume) or use duals/triples to increase contact patch on ground and minimize air pressure.

3. Use proper pressure in tires.

4. Check tire pressure routinely and also when changing application/equipment.

5. Use wide radial tires on implements.

Stubble trouble started cropping up several years ago. While heartier genetics play a significant role, how growers cut the crop is also a factor. The severity of damage has increased in recent years with the use of chopping corn heads.

“In the past, stalks would be cut between 12 and 15 inches tall. As the tractor went across the field, the tires would just roll right over the residue. Today, the stalks are cut 2 to 3 inches off the ground,” says Sloan. “When you add in the improved genetics, those stalks are basically bamboo shoots. A tire doesn't have a chance to push the stalk over, and it ends up running on top of that razor-sharp stalk.”

Stubble damage isn't just plaguing corn growers. It's also causing grief in other crops, including wheat.

“Growers can't run between rows on wheat, so it's not just a matter of keeping off stubble,” says Birkenholz. “As technology continues to be applied, it's not uncommon today to see 15-inch row widths for soybeans and 20- to 22-inch widths in corn. We'll see those widths continue to shrink while plant populations increase.”

With seed companies trying to develop solutions to feed a growing population, those genetics and plant populations will be pushed to even higher levels.

“If companies like Monsanto and Pioneer want to make 300-bushel corn, it'll take a stalk that is more robust, stronger, and bigger,” says Birkenholz. “It's going to be us chasing a problem.”

In fact, Stine Seed Company has test fields in Iowa growing corn plants with a population of 60,000 plants per acre. Today, populations in the state range from mid- to upper-30,000 plants per acre.

“No matter how you look at it, it's going to mean more opportunity for stubble. It literally doubles your stubble,” Birkenholz says. “Farmers have a huge investment in tires. How are they going to protect that investment to get the most value? There's still a lot to learn.”

Noted for being ingenious problem solvers, farmers are stepping up with homemade solutions to combat stubble to save tires. Devices to push stubble down before it reaches tires have inundated ag over the past few years, and tire companies are recommending such devices to combat the problem.

Advantages of correct pressure

● Reduced soil compaction.

● Longer tread life.

● Less irregular tread wear.

● Improved traction and flotation.

● Optimal fuel consumption.

● Longer casing life.

“At the end of the day, farmers must use some device that will knock down that stubble before it gets to the tires,” Birkenholz says.

Other hurdles

How do tire companies fit into the solution? Admittedly, they are not going to eliminate this problem and here's why.

Michelin's Sloan says many equate hardness to stubble resistance.

“A tire's hardness ranges from 68 to 72. A cornstalk is 90, so we have a long way to go in beating the hardness game. If we go too hard, the more problems we have,” he says. “We can tweak the compound, but there are other issues, like different heads and genetics continually changing. For tire manufacturers to keep up and to keep changing is not realistic, especially when farmers are trading machinery much faster than in years past.”

When you have a new product in susceptible conditions, like an extremely dry summer during harvest season, a farmer in a new tractor with fresh tires is in the middle of a perfect storm to experience tire damage.

“If those farmers have run the same tire brand in years past and don't know what the competition does in those situations, they assume it's that particular brand's problem,” says Birkenholz.

But stubble isn't partial to one brand – it's plaguing the entire industry.

Looking to the future, new technology (like the autonomous tractor) coupled with larger equipment will continue to challenge a tire's ability.

“If the technology is good enough to line up the tires between the rows, that's great,” says Birkenholz. “If not, there will be damage.”

The path the tractor travels once the grain cart has been loaded will also be key. “If it's going to be programmed to go the shortest distance between two points and run diagonally across the tracks, that will be bad for the tires,” he says.

No matter what the future holds, it all comes back to protecting your investment. After all, a little respect goes a long way, even for something made of rubber.

“Tires are becoming the second most expensive thing on a tractor, and growers should protect that investment,” says Sloan.

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