Its not all gloom in the UK
tractor market, and the best
news is coming from the
companies selling crawler
tractors with rubber tracks.
Mike Williams reports
A BRIGHT new chapter in the tracklayer story began in 1988 when Caterpillar launched its new Challenger 65 model. Sales of rubber-tracked crawler models of all makes increased to an estimated 80 tractors in 1988, followed by a further boost to about 140 last year.
In the same vein, sales so far this year have started well, and the three leading tracklayer importers are all expecting to match or even exceed last years sales total.
Until the Challenger arrived, the market for crawler tractors with traditional steel tracks had been shrinking for years, and it was easy to believe tracklayers were becoming an endangered species. It was the launch of the Challenger with its steel reinforced rubber tracks which halted this decline. Rubber tracks retain all the virtues of the traditional steel tracks, but they also bring new benefits.
Tracks – either steel or rubber – are unbeatable for efficient traction when soil conditions are difficult for rubber tyres, and in a wet season a tracklayer can continue working efficiently in conditions which could bring a tractor on tyres to a wheel spinning stop. Both types of track also spread the weight of the tractor over a bigger footprint area to ease soil compaction and surface ruts.
The big problem which contributed to the decline in tracklayer sales during the 1970s and 1980s was the steel tracks lack of mobility on the road. This was a restriction which caused serious difficulties and additional expense for many farmers and contractors, and it was a problem the rubber tracks overcame.
The other problem the launch of the rubber-tracked Challenger overcame was the traditionally slow working speed of steel tracks. A pair of rubber tracks can be as fast as a set of rubber tyres on the road and also for top work, and this is helping to bring tracklayers back in favour for seed-bed preparation and drilling.
"Many of our customers are switching from wheels to tracks for seed-bed work," says Mike Whitley, Case IH retail equipment specialist for eastern England. His companys Quadtrac range of tracklayers based on the 360 and 400hp Steiger tractors with articulated steering have shared in the rubber track success story, chalking up a record 24 sales last year, and they have at least three customers with two Quadtracs each.
"Using these tractors for top work and drilling allows much better utilisation. You wouldnt expect to use a Steiger wheeled tractor for drilling, but the tracks are ideal for top work because they avoid soil compaction. More farmers are aware of the benefits of using rubber tracks, and there is no sign of any slowdown in the level of demand this year."
Almost two-thirds of Mr Whitleys Quadtrac customers last year chose the 400hp model instead of the less expensive 360hp version, showing that the pressure for higher work rates is an important factor in the market.
This is also the view of Andrew Rabett, tractor specialist at Claas UK, which took over Challenger distribution three years ago. The Challenger was easily the tracklayer market leader last year as the seven-model range chalked up about 100 sales. Challenger power outputs are from 210 to 410hp, and the biggest surprise has been the demand for the top models in the range.
"We had one customer who traded-in four wheeled tractors in part exchange for one 410hp Challenger," says Mr Rabett. "Farmers are buying Challengers to improve efficiency and reduce costs, and a Challenger can allow big cost savings. Farmers are realising that the price of wheat means they have to cut their establishment costs, and this is why we are able to sell more Challengers at a time when arable farmers are facing lower profit margins."
A further increase in tracklayer sales this year is a strong possibility according to John Deeres product manager for tractors, Gordon Day. Crawler tractors with rubber tracks are living up to expectations, he said, and farmers are realising that they can have advantages in some situations.
"I think some of the claims that have been made for crawler tractors have been exaggerated, but the balanced view is that there is a definite place for rubber tracks just as there is a place for wheels," he says. "What we are seeing is a real change in the market, and we are expecting to see another increase in crawler tractor sales this year."
John Deeres current 8000T series tracklayers in the UK cover the power range from 195 to 270hp, but the more powerful 9400T models are already working in the United States. They could soon be available in the UK as well, after two of the big tractors with 360hp and 425hp engines arrive later this year for an evaluation programme.
The Morooka range of rubber tracked crawler models from Japan is already well established in the UK through their Lincolnshire based distributor, Crawfords. AGCO is also planning to muscle into the market through a development project based on a Massey Ferguson 8200 series tractor. A well advanced prototype version of the MF rubber tracked crawler with a 300hp Cummins engine was displayed at the Agritechnica event in Germany. *