To twist the words of Teddy Roosevelt, more and more farmers are “treading lightly with big equipment.” They're carrying the weight of heavy equipment on tracks rather than on tires. The result is less compaction and earlier access to fields when conditions are less than ideal.

You can find real tracks devotees if you travel to McComb, OH, and talk with Dennis and Bruce Bishop. They've bought track tractors and built track equipment like you've never seen before.

The Bishops' planter rides on a Cat tracks undercarriage and a frame that Bruce designed. The frame carries a 2,500-gallon tank for liquid fertilizer and a 120-bu-capacity air-seeding unit. This represents a half-day's worth of fertilizer and a full day's worth of seed.

“That capacity allows us to pick up an extra 30 acres a day, because we don't have to stop and refill the planter all the time,” says Bruce Bishop.

Forward of the tracks, Bishop bolted a 5 × 7" toolbar to carry 16 row units on 30" centers. “The axle of the Cat undercarriage has 17° of flex in each direction. That allows us to lift the planter 10° with a single, 4" hydraulic cylinder,” Bishop says. “Because the seed and fertilizer ride over the axle, their weight doesn't have to be lifted. That's a big advantage over how conventional planters are designed.”

Two 5" cylinders lift the planter's wings on turns and also provide down pressure when needed. The 40' bar hinges in the middle and allows the wings to rise 6°. Two hinge points on each wing allow the bar to fold to 151¼2' wide and 14' tall. Bishop locks the hinge points with hydraulic cylinders to make the bar rigid and allow for down pressure.

Seed feeds from the tank to 1¼4-bu seed boxes designed for a John Deere drill, mounted on John Deere Max Emerge planter units with finger pickups. Bishop vents the boxes with ¼" elbows so air can release, but rain can't enter the boxes and corn can't jump out. Two Rawson hydraulic controllers power the planter units. With the bulk capacity, Bishop can buy seed in 30-bu bags and minimize the work involved with filling the planter.

To minimize yield loss from compaction, Bishop spread the two planter units that straddle the tracks to 33". The adjacent units are set 28.5" away, and the remaining units are on 30" centers. The spacings allow Bishop to harvest with a standard 30" corn head. Row cleaners and no-till coulters allow Bishop to plant in most field conditions.

Liquid fertilizer is pumped at 80 psi via a ground-driven piston pump through coulters mounted with high-pressure nozzles. The fertilizer units ride ahead of the planter units on a separate toolbar. Bishop blends 10 gallons each of 10-34-0 and 28% N/acre and places the mixture 4" deep, 2" off each row.

The customized planter cost Bishop about the same as a new 16-row planter, he says. But it allows him to plant when neighbors can only watch.

“As long as the top inch of soil is dry, we'll plant, regardless of how wet it is below that,” he says. “On May 22 last year, we had 60% of our corn planted while the rest of the county only had 5% planted because of all the rain we had.”

While the back axle carries the weight of seed and fertilizer, the tractor picks up about 35% of the weight of the planter and fertilizer units. Bishop modified the planter's Cat tracks to match with his tractor's 120"-wide track tread, so almost all compaction is limited to the two tracks. Two depth-gauge tires keep the planter bar a steady 20" above the soil.

The Bishops spend plenty of money on diesel fuel in the fall when they deep rip fields that have been compacted over time. They don't want to lose that advantage in the spring.

“We've seen an 18-bu/acre difference between the fields we've ripped and fields we haven't on new farms we've rented,” says Bishop. “We haven't seen a similar yield jump with beans.”

After planting, the Bishops slide the tracks from underneath the planter frame and mount their shop-built sidedressing unit on them. The frame holds two 2,600-gallon tanks for liquid fertilizer and a 200-gallon tank for herbicide. “We put the liquid fertilizer down with a ground-driven, four-piston pump and spot spray where we have weed problems,” says Bishop.

Compaction control continues at harvest with 4'-wide logger tires on the Bishops' combine and a grain cart with tracks. The Ohio farmers use the cart tracks in the spring as well, when they mount them under their shop-built soybean planter.

Air seeder or train? You can make an argument for both when you look at Todd Stanley's planting machine. The Grygla, MN, farmer has assembled more than 120' of tracked gear to plant through wet springs without compacting his soil.

“The farm size had outgrown my 40' drill, and everything I looked at to replace it cost at least $100,000. We don't have crop prices to support that kind of purchase,” he says. “Instead, I spent about twice that and put together a system that allows me to seed and fertilize in one trip.

“It eliminates fall anhydrous application, which saves a trip and reduces nitrogen loss, eliminates the custom application fee for dry fertilizer and eliminates the fertilizer blending fee we used to pay for canola,” he says. “With those savings, I could justify the cost of this machine.”

Stanley bought a John Deere air seeder with three tanks that he uses for wheat, soybeans, oats, barley and canola. He carries seed in two tanks and fertilizer in the other. When fully loaded, the air seeder weighs in at more than 50 tons.

To carry that weight, he replaced the unit's original axles and tires with 30" tracks. Fargo Products, Fargo, ND, moved the tracks forward to where the original axle mounted to take the weight off the caster wheels in front. “I wanted to take the weight off the air seeder's front tires so I didn't leave tracks,” Stanley says.

Fargo Products also built a one-of-a-kind anhydrous application system for Stanley. The company built a trailer on 30" tracks that carries two, 1,500-gallon anhydrous tanks. Stanley chose an Exactrix control system that injects liquid NH3 under pressure rather than a conventional manifold system.

“The air seeder has 95 openers on 7.5" centers. We mounted fluted coulters on the air seeder frame between every other row, 48 total, with an injection point behind them,” he says. The coulters run 2¼" deep. A ground-driven piston pump injects the NH3 at 100-110 psi, which puts it down at least another inch.

“The pressure keeps the NH3 from freezing up at the tips. With our wet spring soils and traditional application equipment, the soil builds up on the knives to the point it's like dragging a club through the field,” Stanley says. “Because we can run coulters instead of knives, we can drive faster and don't disturb the soil.” Stanley pulls his equipment with a John Deere 9520T equipped with 36" tracks.

When it's time to plant, Stanley seeds 700 acres/day with his equipment. For wheat, that calculates to two semis of seed, two semis of starter fertilizer and 14 tanks of anhydrous ammonia.

So, you know Stanley isn't kidding when he says his planting system is “the only one like it.”