Cambridgeshire Farms Growers Ltd was an early adopter of rubber tracks for machinery used on 4,500ha it farms in Cambridgeshire. Investment has continued as technology has improved and
David Williams visited the farm to find out why tracks continue to replace wheels whenever possible.
The farm operation includes 3 main sites and 8 growing areas, up to 25 miles apart, with highly productive soils ranging from black sand to fen, and heavier skirt fen with silt and clay including at least 10 per cent organic matter. The rotation includes 1,000ha of combinable cereals, 1,000ha of maize grown for an AD plant, 400ha of potatoes, 600ha of onions and more than 1,500ha of salads produced and marketed through G’s Growers of which the farm is a member. Salad crops include 600ha of bulb onions, 1,150ha of Little Gem and Iceberg lettuce and 350ha celery and there are also 400ha potatoes. Part of the production is organic including lettuces, celery, bulb onions and beetroot.
The farm’s first rubber-tracked tractor was bought over 20 years ago when the farm imported a John Deere twin- track crawler. The tracks’ performance encouraged the company to look at options for other tractors and a set of Soucy tracks was purchased from the importer at that time, a local dealer, for a Case IH MX170 tractor. “We were trying to plough-in sugar beet crops in wet November conditions using a 7f reversible plough on a twin-track crawler,” explained leafy salads manager Rob Parker. “It couldn’t achieve sufficient traction but a demonstration Case IH tractor with Soucy track units had no problem at all, and we placed an order.”
The fenland is ‘bottom-less’ and Rob said it takes only a small amount of wheel-slip before problems occur and machinery becomes bogged down. The farm tries hard to prevent compaction although wet soils more commonly result from water build-up over the clay layer below, so rotational sub-soiling is used to ensure free drainage. “We irrigate extensively but need soils clean and dry for field operations. Tracks and sub-soiling are key to this while cover crops increasingly play their part,” he said.
Much of the land is ploughed in front of salads, but in-furrow ploughing is avoided because of potentially deeper compaction. A Case H Quadtrac operates with a L mken 12f reversible and two Lemken 7f reversibles are used behind Case IH Pumas, both on Soucy tracks.
“The track frame geometry means the rearmost ground contact point is further back than on wheels,” explained Rob. “This means heavy ploughs re easily lifted without any front ballast which helps keep tractor weights down and allows smaller tractors to be used than would otherwise be needed. On wheels, we would need at least 300hp but the 215hp Pumas easily pull and lift the ploughs.”
The farm operates five sets of tracks; two wide and three narrow. Three tractors were ordered without wheels as tracks are fitted all year while the other two tractors are swapped onto wheels for part of the season, an operation taking just a day each to fit and remove. Four sets are Soucy and one is a competitor make although Rob said the latest Soucy units offer significant advantages. “We used to operate two sets of another brand – one narrow and one wide, but they were difficult to fit and remove and couldn’t be easily swapped between tractors without needing bespoke components. Soucy tracks have proved well made and reliable from the start, but an advantage of the latest version is that it can be swapped between different tractor brands and models relatively quickly. Only the mounts and drive sprockets need changing.
“Another advantage of Soucy is the service from importer Brocks Wheel & Tyre (BWT) and Soucy itself. We ordered a new John Deere tractor this year and as soon as our main dealer Doubleday gave us the chassis number, which we passed on to Brocks and Soucy, the tracks arrived ready to fit with no problems. We also found Soucy’s service very good previously, when we bought a new Case IH Puma 230 and needed to transfer a 6–7 year old set of Soucy tracks from the outgoing Puma 210. We provided the serial number and received accurate advice regarding fitting,” explained Rob.
Soucy is just as quick to provide useful advice even if it prevents a sale, added Rob. Last autumn when a set of 12in tracks was considered for a Puma 230, Soucy advised that potential loadings could be too high for the narrow assembly. “That sort of advice is valuable to us. We don’t want problems and downtime and although it meant they didn’t take a possible order, they preferred to be cautious for which I respect them even more.”
Tracks outlast tractors Tractors are replaced after 5 years when they have worked 8,000– 10,000hrs but the track sets are kept for the new tractors. The older track assemblies have worked approximately 8,000hrs, explained Rob although new rubber belts are required every 3,500hrs for the wider sets and after 4,000–5,000hrs for narrower row crop versions.
“Narrow tracks become hard and brittle eventually whereas wider tracks fail at the pulling points,” he explained. “New rubber is softer and as the belts become older and start failing the ride becomes rougher. We treat wider tracked machines the same as tyred tractors on the road, but those with narrower tracks are usually moved by low loader. We rely heavily on the narrow tracks for specific tasks and do all we can to prevent failures.
Although they have proved faultless so far we are keen not to tempt fate,” he added.
Each tractor has a main operator and Rob said the tracks are popular, but users are aware of compromises that must be made for roadwork.
“The ride is better than a twin-track crawler as they don’t tend to ‘nod’. Vibration levels are similar and overall drivers prefer them.”
There is little additional maintenance beyond keeping an eye on the idler rollers. No issues have been experienced with tractor reliability although tractors on wider sets have kingpins replaced annually. “Experienced operators achieve headland turns just as quick as for wheeled tractors,” said Rob, “but overall work rates are higher with very low wheel-slip.
“We have to remember that tracks haven’t been purchased to increase tractor performance, which they are more than capable of doing,” he said. “Our objectives are to extend our growing season by operating earlier in the spring and later in the autumn and achieving better growing conditions than would be possible on tyres.”
Although no reliability issues have been experienced a concern is invalidating the tractor manufacturer’s warranty. “Tracks gear down the transmission by 20 per cent,” he explained, “so we always bear in mind the additional torque available. Having never experienced a problem due to tracks we believe our use is reasonable, but it would be reassuring to have the manufacturer’s approval for our use just for peace of mind.”
The wide sets comprise 32in rear tracks with 25in fronts and narrow sets are 12in front and rear. Operations on wider tracks include ploughing before vegetables, drilling cereal and cover crops and power harrowing while narrow sets are used mainly for salad planting and hoeing.
Tyres are limiting factor
Two salad planters work six days per week between February and August; a 6m and an 8m, both bespoke designs for the farm. They are carried between the rear linkage and a pair of flotation tyres at the rear, running at 80in track widths the same as the tractor’s narrow rubber tracks. “The planters take a lot of pulling and lifting,” said Rob, “and if the tractor was on tyres it would sink immediately but on tracks, there is no problem despite it being relatively light. The large contact area means there is only a very shallow rut created by the tracks, whereas the planter’s tyres sink in considerably more.”
A future project is replacing the planter tyres with tracks as valuable growing space is lost due to wheel indentations. A gap is left between plants at the edge of the bed and the wheeling partly because a tyre’s sidewall is wider than its tread, which becomes an issue as it sinks creating a wider rut. With rubber tracks, the width remains constant and reducing wheeling depth would allow planting closer to the tramline, potentially increasing the number of plant rows possible. “We plant 200,000 lettuces per hectare so an increase of just one per cent would be equivalent to 1.4 million extra overall, or 6ha of extra land. It’s something we are keen to achieve and certainly worth investment,” stressed Rob.
Tracks also help the farm optimise product quality, important for supply to major supermarkets. Rob explained that whereas tyres operating in wet conditions fill a wheeling, squeezing out water and loose soil which ends up as mud on leaves, tracks run-flat and any water in the rows can run around and over the bands reducing dirt splashes on the plants.
RTK is used for all field operations and Trimble steering systems cope easily with the tracks although settings have to be changed from wheels due to slower response times when changing direction.
“We get on very well with tracks and couldn’t farm as we do on our land without them,” said Rob. “Going back to wheels would mean smaller planters, higher production costs and more labour needed as well as reduced plant populations as our outside rows would have to be further from the wheelings. Our soils would suffer and we would have to subsoil more, to alleviate compaction caused by ploughing in the furrow, as there is no way we could achieve traction or steering control to plough on top with wheels.
“We have dealt with Outland Group for many years and always receive good service and reliable advice. Even before the company became the Soucy importer we relied on its staff for parts and after-sales service so we were delighted when it took on the brand. Compared to other track system manufacturers, Soucy continues to invest and improve and we have seen the differences between our older and latest sets of tracks. We have one remaining set from another manufacturer and when that is due for changing Soucy will be strongly considered. We have no doubts regarding the brand or its back- up,” he concluded.
Outland Group is a long-established supplier of agricultural wheels and tyres and became the Soucy importer early in 2017. “We also represent Soucy in countries where there is no current official importer,” explained Percy Brock, who was at the farm. “We have looked at other makes of track system over the years and still offer an alternative where Soucy has gaps in its range,” he explained. “Soucy offers very good back-up which was an attraction for us from the start. We have committed to a large parts stock and since taking on the agency have been busy with enquiries and orders.
“Tracks to fit UTVs such as the Kubota RTV900 are popular with agronomists and contractors and we have received enquiries and taken orders for conventional tractors too. New innovations of the latest S Tech series include better track lug design, and steel rollers for better heat dissipation, longer working life and suitability for higher speed on-road applications. They also offer better weight distribution across the track. We sell replacement rubber tracks too for Soucy and other brands, including Bridgestone which is new to the track market,” he added. “Typical track system costs are £40,000–£50,000 for narrow 12 or 16in tracks and £50,000–£90,000 for wider versions. We are delighted to offer this premium brand and expect popularity to grow as users invest to increase productivity and reduce soil damage.”