The BMO Bank of Montreal estimated farmers in Saskatchewan and Manitoba could lose $1.5 billion because of the wet weather. That figure, released in December 2010, was half the amount estimated in July. Strong commodity prices meant the farmers who could get their crops off the field did well. In Saskatchewan, BMO estimated the grain harvest dropped 36% below 2009’s level.

“Given the weather conditions in Western Canada through the end of harvest, the flotation provided by tracks were a necessity in many locations,” says Dale Shepherd, vice president of sales and asset management for Mazergroup, a farm equipment dealer that operates 13 locations around Winnipeg. It carries the modular track systems made by ATI Inc. “Some parts of Western Canada got over 48 inches of rain. Many farmers in this area are accustomed to growing crops with 6-8 inches of rain.”

Emergency situations may be great for generating immediate sales but are unpredictable. Shepherd says emergency sales of the tracks are rare for Mazergroup, but in 2010 farmers didn’t see tracks as a luxury item — they were required.

According to the dealers Farm Equipment spoke with, farmers typically buy tracks to solve one or two critical issues in the field: flotation or compaction. Other benefits, such as improved tractive performance compared to conventional 4-wheel drive tractors (more power to the ground means less fuel is wasted) and better ride, also can produce sales.

For the laser-leveled rice fields that surround Valley Tractor in Gridley, Calif., Aldo Romano says the most important feature of tracks is “they don’t tear up the ground so farmers don’t have to go back in and laser-level the field after each harvest. Tracks can also provide better control. Combine headers can be from 21-35 feet wide, and with tracks they stay firm to the ground.” Valley Tractor handles Gilbert & Riplo Co.’s GripTrac track systems.

The dealers agree that while tracks will likely remain a niche item in the ag market, the technology is relatively young — Caterpillar introduced the first rubber-tracked farm tractor in 1987 — and hasn’t reached its full potential in terms of applications. As machines such as combines grow larger and farmers look for ways to get as much value from their acres as possible, tracked undercarriages will likely become more commonplace on engine-driven and pull-type equipment.

Omnitrac LLC works with manufacturers to create a custom solution based on a dealer request. “There are applications where tracks do well, and others where you just can’t justify the cost,” says founder Dennis Wilkinson. “A typical pull-type undercarriage with a 30-inch track sits in the mid-$30,000 range. If you add that to a low-priced implement, the total cost is going to jump. However, if the farmer got stuck the year before, those tracks may look inexpensive.”

Fred Riplo of Gilbert & Riplo put tracks on a combine in 1972. He says a “satisfied customer is our best form of advertising.” The tracks are in 25 countries and 39 states.

Where There’s a Need

“It’s nearly impossible to figure out the best sales approach until you talk to the farmers in your area,” says Marc McDonald, Soucy International’s regional manager for the southern U.S. “They’ll tell you if tracks don’t make sense in their operation. If they’re interested, every one of them will have different reasons, but all will arrive at the same end game: they want to save money by using the track systems. Farmers don’t buy things because they’re cute.”

Before joining Quebec-based Soucy, McDonald sold different brands of tracks and undercarriages for several years. “In the early 1990s, many tracked machines were sold with the belief that rubber tracks would outlast tires. Farmers soon discovered that wasn’t always the case. When tracks are used in the wrong applications, they may cost more per hour than a machine with tires.”

You have to put a pencil to it, suggests McDonald. The initial cost per hour for the tracks might be higher than tires, but in the end the farmer may be saving 10 times that money by switching to tracks. “I’ve sat for hours on end with a farmer, and once you show him what it would mean to his operation, it starts to come alive.”

Then, sometimes it doesn’t. If they’re planting ground that is always dry and compaction is not an issue, tracks won’t make financial sense.

Even in better soils where compaction is an issue, farmers may find an advantage as far as yields are concerned if they can minimize ground pressure from the machinery. A tractor with tires exerts 24 psi on the ground, while tracks can drop it to 3 psi depending on the width and length of the track.

Northern Plains Track Inc. is a distributor for tracked undercarriages from Camoplast. It supports dealers in a 6-state region that extends west from Wisconsin to Montana and into Western Canada. “I came from the tire business,” says John Golden of Northern Plains, “and saw a need for tracks in this area long ago, but you really couldn’t get them until Caterpillar and John Deere came out with track tractors. Tracks are all I do today.

”We’re in a great location for selling tracks. Farmers in the Red River Valley work large, flat fields that allow track tractors and combines to perform at their best, with very little traction loss. Tracks allow the farmer to make full use of the tractor’s horsepower.”

He says customers will claim track machines are more costly to maintain, but it depends on how farmers use them. “If you place a track machine in a big field and it stays there, the cost per hour of operation may be less than tires. There’s no slippage, so the track lasts longer and the tractor uses less fuel. Compaction goes down, too, which can help improve yields. On the other hand, if a farmer puts a lot of hours on the road between fields, tires are the better option.”

Tracks also provide flotation, providing farmers with the opportunity to keep working through muddy fields. On farm operations with poor soil or drainage, the ability to plant a few weeks earlier than is possible with tires can make an impression.

“I’ve seen a lot of people with the perfect window to plant in the spring, but because the ground wasn’t firmed up they had to wait weeks to get in and they end up having a late plant,” says McDonald. “When selling tracks for a tractor, this makes all the sense in the world. On a combine it’s all about the harvest, having the ability to get at the crop when you normally couldn’t get in the field.”

Understanding exactly how a customer farms is crucial when it comes to selling tracks, says Soucy International’s Marc McDonald. While some growers can’t operate without tracked equipment, for others it’s an unnecessary expense.

Reinforcing Brand Loyalty

Mazergroup took on the ATI modular track line as a way to keep its customers brand-loyal. “We sell New Holland farm equipment at all of our locations,” says Shepherd, “and New Holland is the only mainline manufacturer of high horsepower tractors without a track option. Our initiative in taking on a track system was to offer customers a tracked tractor without switching brands.”

These tracks are offered in two versions — a high idler module, featuring an aggressive approach angle to help equipment climb over obstacles, and the standard module with a large, flat footprint. Both can be transferred from a 4-wheel drive tractor to a combine regardless of brand.

“Recently, we jumped on the opportunity to offer tracks to some customers in Western Canada,” says Shepherd. “They had shopped around but were brand-loyal, and decided that they would stick with New Holland combines and add a set of tracks.”

Mazergroup sells the tracks with the idea that farmers don’t have to replace them every time they trade in a combine or a tractor. Much like a combine header, they may trade combines many times and transfer the same track system to each new harvester. Four modules on a 4-wheel drive tractor will outfit two combines.

“We sell the tracks as an investment. Even if the customer decides to change brands, the ATI module is applicable. This isn’t a product that is brand loyal, it’s customer loyal,” says Shepherd.

Northern Plains distributes three product categories from Camoplast: tracks for agriculture and construction and lighter Tatou track systems designed to replace the four wheels on ATVs and UTVs.

“Farm implement dealers are seeing success with the UTV track systems,” says Golden. “We’re selling a lot of track kits for the new John Deere 825i Gator, and it’s a direct-fit part in green and yellow.”

The traditional applications for these machines have been recreational, but there are more commercial uses for them all the time. One example is in livestock operations where a tracked UTV is used to check on animals in deep snow.

Demo to Sell

Dealers Farm Equipment talked with agree that farmers need to see the units in action before making a final decision.

Mazergroup outfitted a 4-wheel drive New Holland T9060 tractor and a CR9080 combine with tracks. They made the units available to customers as well as dealers to use. They also displayed them at shows throughout Western Canada. “Customers really need to see these modular track systems, which weigh 7,500 pounds each, because they have some unique features in the undercarriage,” says Shepherd. For example, there are no grease zerks, which means no service intervals.

Even on the other end of the size scale, Golden says the only way you can sell the UTV and ATV conversion kits is to have them on hand. “I have an 825i Gator set up on tracks up as a demo. When we sell them to the dealers, we take the sales and parts guys out on a ride and let it go from there. That is what they need to do for their customers, too. You have to take it out in the powder and show how the machine floats over snow. That’s by far how we sell the most machines. You need to get out there and use it. When we go to ag shows, the first piece we take with us is the tracked UTV. It pulls people into our booth.”

Dealer Takeaways

• Farmers need to see tracks in action. Demonstrations are essential.

• Many tracks systems are interchangeable and can be used on both tractors and combines, eliminating the need for 2 systems.

• Tracked utility vehicles are becoming increasingly popular with farmers and others.

Northern Plains has a fall promotional period where dealers can buy a kit that includes a demo unit at a discount. Dealers will keep the machine on the floor until January and then let it go.

Word-of-Mouth Can Be the Best Marketing

After demonstrating the equipment, Golden has seen that word of mouth is the best marketing. “I know a lot of equipment sales are generated when one farmer tries something and it works for them. Once that takes off, you’ll soon see more tracks in an area.”

Thanks to word-of-mouth marketing, when a farmer arrives at the dealership, he usually knows what he needs on his operation. Jim Bowers of Smiths Mill Implement Inc., Janesville, Minn., recently sold a Meyer 9500 Crop Max spreader unit with a LandLuvr track system from Systems by LAR, which was recently acquired by Camoplast. It was specifically set up to minimize compaction.

Bowers says the future looks good for tracks. “Farmers who come to us have done their homework. Once we get one in the field, others get interested and we develop a strong customer base as they sell the machines to their friends. Farmers are our best salespeople.”

As a manufacturer’s rep, McDonald sells to dealers, but works almost exclusively with the end user. “I can’t sell a dealer on the idea of tracks because he doesn’t use them. When I’m working a farm show, I’m there to connect with farmers. It’s important for dealers to understand the product, but he isn’t going to sell something the customer doesn’t want. I go into areas I know would benefit from tracks, drum up the interest and let the dealer take it from there.”

When farmers walk into a dealership run by Caterpillar dealer Ziegler Ag Equipment, they’re usually already well educated about tracks, says Dick Emmerich, ag sales manager, Shakopee, Minn.

“If the farmer already has experience with track vehicles, whether ours or a competitor’s, they understand the benefits that tracks can bring to a machine and come to us for a tracked Lexion combine. When you put 60 pounds x 360 bushels in the grain tank and a header on front, that’s a lot of weight on a combine,” says Emmerich. “If we make a cold call to promote tracks to a farmer, he often prefers to put tracks on a grain cart or combine first, before he equips his tractors.”

These days, dealer Aldo Romano only has to order what he sells. “When I started out with the GripTrac line I had to have one on hand, but now I have so many out there, customers can just run up the road and talk to Farmer Joe. Our best salesmen are the ones using it.”

Emergency sales of tracks are bound to happen, says Romano. “I urge farmers to plan and get their orders in early and offer discounts on presells, which has been successful.”

For dealers looking to add a line of tracks to their lineup, McDonald adds that it’s a complex market and reminds them to listen closely to their customers. “As it should be, most farmers understand their territory better than you do. Understand the applications they might be looking at when considering outfitting equipment with tracks and the ground they’re working.”