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March 8, 2024

Tires Versus Tracks for Decreased Soil Compaction

In the great agricultural equipment battle, are you Team Tires or Team Tracks? It seems like lots of folks tend to come down on one side or the other, especially when the debate turns to which decreases soil compaction best. For us, it would be like trying to choose a favorite child, and at East Bay Tire, we love all our kids equally.

The truth is, there isn’t a clear right or wrong choice. It all comes down to which is the best option for you, and sometimes that might even be both. So, let’s break down the pros and cons of tires versus tracks for decreased soil compaction and overall performance in ongoing farming practices. 

The Reality of Tracks: Advantages and Disadvantages

There’s really no such thing as zero soil compaction, but generally speaking, the more you can avoid it the better. Soil compaction, which is caused by repeated pressure from machinery, leads to “densification,” a fancy way of saying the air between soil grains is being squeezed out. And over time, without space for air and water in the soil, plant life suffers and agricultural yields drop. This smooshing process can take a huge toll on your finances, so understanding whether tires or tracks are right for your operation is important business. 

Advantages of tracks 

  • Fool-proof use. One huge benefit to tracks is that their psi (pounds per square inch) is fixed. PSI measures air pressure, and with tracks, the PSI maintains itself, meaning the operator can’t mess it up. 

  • Better traction in wet or muddy soil. Typically, tracks have a larger footprint than tires, which gives your machine more of a feeling of driving over the top of soil rather than through it, like with tires. This comes in especially handy in very wet conditions and muddy soil. 

  • Potential for reduced ground disturbance. Tracks in motion plant themselves into the ground, pulling your machine forward, which leaves very little rut or dirt wake behind you.

Disadvantages of tracks

  • More expensive. On the whole, tracked vehicles cost more. 

  • Maintenance challenges and costs. Like any piece of machinery that you want to last, you have to take care of the ongoing maintenance. Make sure the track tension is properly set, the drive wheels are greased, and the oils stay at their optimal levels.

  • Weight of the machine isn’t equally distributed. A common misconception is that tracks create an equal distribution of weight across the vehicle, but that’s not quite all the way true. Pressure will be greatest under the drive wheel and much less so under the dolly wheels. That uneven pressure will still result in some soil compaction.

The Reality of Tires: Advantages and Disadvantages

Advantages of tires

  • More affordable. Tires come in a million-and-one different styles, types, brands, and more. (We should know!) They’re easy to find and more affordable to purchase.

  • Possibly better fuel efficiency. Technically, it takes more horsepower to run a tracked vehicle than one with tires. Tracked vehicles, however, have less slippage (between 0% and 3%) than those with tires (5% to 9%), which gives them a slight upper hand on fuel efficiency there. In the end, tracks vs. tires come out about the same in fuel efficiency.

  • High versatility in both field and road performance. Tires perform well in the field and transition nicely to the road, especially if you invest in higher-quality tires like IF/VF tires. 

Disadvantages of tires

  • Potential for ruts in wet soil. Tires push a vehicle forward, and that push effect drives dirt in front of the wheels up and out to the sides, leaving ruts behind. Wet or muddy soil can exacerbate this issue as the tires tend to push themselves deeper into the ground as they move forward.

  • Soil compaction concerns, especially when improperly inflated. Remember above when we talked about tracked vehicles having a fixed psi? Here’s why that matters: When tires go above or below their recommended psi, they don’t carry the vehicle efficiently. It’s like driving with a flat tire. So, when the air pressure isn’t correct, this can increase soil compaction.

The Differences In Traction Between Tracks and Tires Based On Soil Conditions

Traction, or the way a vehicle grips itself to a surface, like a dirt field or an asphalt road, differs based on whether a vehicle has tracks or tires. Let’s take a closer look.

Traction and Fuel Economy

We touched on this earlier, but slippage can affect a vehicle’s fuel efficiency. A tracked option experiences less slippage than tires, which can give it an advantage in the fuel efficiency category. This holds especially true in wet conditions. Tracked vehicles also display greater grip compared to tires. This doesn’t all necessarily add up to huge savings though as tracked vehicles are more expensive to purchase and maintain. 

Soil Compaction

Zero soil compaction isn’t a real thing. There’s always going to be some measure of soil compaction simply because you’re driving a very heavy piece of machinery across dirt. That being said, tracked vehicles create less soil compaction than their tire counterparts. 

There are also varying degrees of soil compaction to keep in mind. Surface soil compaction is generally in the first six or so inches of ground and is caused by animal traffic. Deeper, subsurface compaction goes from about 6 to 18 inches in the ground and is caused by heavy machinery. The deeper and denser the level of compaction, the greater the risk of reduced crop yields due to nutrient-deprived soil. 

Ride Comfort and Maneuverability

Tires provide a better ride on roads. They can go upwards of 30 miles per hour so that time between fields decreases. Tires, however, can make vehicles wider and harder to maneuver on narrow roads. Tracks hit their max speed at about 20 miles per hour, so it’s a slower ride, but generally, a more pleasant one, especially in the fields.

While tracked vehicles are heavier, the increased width of the tracks means more ground is covered in less time and with less soil compaction. Decreased trips up and down rows will increase the longevity of the soil in your driving lanes. 

So, Should You Get Tracks or Tires? Here’s How to Decide.

This might seem like a complicated question where the wrong choice could cost you big, but it really can be a lot simpler (and way less stressful) than all that! Consider:

  • Budget. Tracks are more expensive to buy and maintain but they experience fewer maintenance issues. Tires are more affordable, but you have to monitor and maintain the correct air pressure, and they’re vulnerable to punctures.
  • Geography and weather. Do you live in a wet and rainy area? Tracks are probably the better choice. 
  • Time savings. If you spent less time between fields because tires are faster on roads, is that worth the increased maintenance? If you spent less time in the fields because tracks can cover more ground faster, is that worth the increased cost to purchase? What would you do with your extra time in either scenario?

Here’s our best advice though: Don’t navigate all your options alone. Call or visit East Bay Tire to talk with one of our experienced customer service representatives. Tires and tracks are our life, and we love helping people find the right selection for their specific needs.