Swapping tires for tracks is enough to make a grown man, well, smile.

"I always thought I'd be a 4WD man," says Dyle Erickson, Humboldt, IA. "I would have sworn I would never give them up. A big 4WD is an impressive piece of gear."

That impressive look, however, can't compete with the field performance of a track tractor, in Erickson's opinion. "I've got the traction for big equipment with 225 hp, but the 16"-wide tracks are narrow enough for row crops," he says. "What front-wheel assist is to 2WD, tracks are to front-wheel assist."

When Caterpillar introduced rubber track tractors in 1986, the main selling point was less compaction. University tests show tracks also have more drawbar pull and better fuel efficiency compared to tires.

"It wasn't a slam dunk," says Caterpillar senior project engineer Neal Ament. "We had to help people learn about the advantages of rubber tracks, particularly in the Midwest. In the western U.S. many growers already used steel track tractors. For them it was just a switch from steel to rubber."

Since then, John Deere and Case IH have added their versions of track tractors to the market. And as more track tractors find their way to farm fields, farmers are finding more advantages, too.

"The ride is so smooth I can rotary hoe at 181/2 mph," says Erickson. That may not be a goal of yours, but the comfort that allows that kind of field speed means you get more done with less physical stress. "You can work an 18-hour day and be in great shape," he adds.

"A lot of times, how much work gets done with a 4WD tractor depends on how much the driver is willing to get beat up," says Modale, IA, farmer Tony Salter. "You can talk about all the other advantages you want, but to me the ride is the biggest selling point of a track tractor. When field conditions start to get bad, there's no comparison between tracks and tires."

Like Erickson, Salter had been a 20-year devotee of 4WD tractors. Now he plans to eventually eliminate tires from his farm operation. "A track tractor will walk right through fields where you'd have trouble with a MFWD tractor," he says. "When you've got 6,500 acres to cover, you've got to be ready to go."

As equipment gets bigger and wider, track tractors have even more of an advantage, according to crop consultant Kirk Wesley of Key Agricultural Services, Inc., Macomb, IL. "As long as you can get by with single tires, there's no difference in performance compared to tracks. But as equipment gets wider and you have to add duals or triples, you're taking a yield loss and tracks have the advantage."

Wesley has tested track tractors for different manufacturers and believes the benefits are bigger than compaction control.

"Their real advantage is the amount of traffic you introduce to fields," he says. "It's the difference between 8'-wide tracks with duals vs. 32" wide with tracks. You can pull a 60' piece of equipment and leave only a small footprint."

Commercial applicators are seeing the same benefits. "When we started our anhydrous custom application service we wanted to offer something different from the competition. So we decided to use GPS for variable-rate application and track tractors to reduce fall compaction," says Larry Eekhoff at NEW Cooperative, Ft. Dodge, IA. "We bought three track tractors, and in terms of performance, reliability and maintenance, they've been very good to us."

The fall of 1996 made Eekhoff a believer in a track tractor's ability to tiptoe across the field.

"It was very wet that year," he reports. "We had one customer who insisted that we put down his anhydrous, even though the fields were really too wet to be in. A 4WD tractor would have been balling up. The next spring we took infrared shots of the field to see what had happened. You could see tracks going across the field, but they were from the anhydrous tank, not the track tractor."

One downside to a track tractor is it redefines how you steer. "They can be rough when you drive down the road. It's the one thing our guys complain about," Eekhoff says. "It's a different breed of machine to try and steer, even in the field."

You don't steer a track tractor as much as you guide it, adds Erickson. "The tracks tend to tear things up when you turn. And it takes more power to turn. Guys who like to turn on the ends with an implement in the ground won't be happy."

But adjusting to a new way of steering isn't likely to slow down the popularity of track tractors, believes Eekhoff. "We're going to see more and more of them in agriculture. And manufacturers are already adapting tracks to other equipment. There's even a set of tracks you can put on an anhydrous tank. The only problem is right now the tracks cost more than all the rest of the machine."