Bigger loads, faster speeds (on road and off), tire-damaging stubble and more in-crop applications in narrow rows have raised the ante when betting on your tire brand. Add the increasing importance of keeping operators comfortable for safety and employee retention, and you have more reason than ever to kick the tires before you buy.

Luckily for farmers and retailers alike, the industry is responding with new technology as never before. In recent years, new tires have hit the market that last longer, run smoother and do a better job in the field and on the road. Michelin’s new SprayBib tires, Titan Tire Corp.'s Ultra Sprayer tires and new sprayer specific AD2 technology tires from Bridgestone-Firestone show companies are ramping up their ag product lines. One reason is simple innovation.

Knowing that flexing of sidewalls was key to improved performance, Michelin has invested heavily into research along those lines for the past two decades, said Michael Vandel, Michelin. "As Michelin made discoveries in tire technology, we have been able to design tires that not only carry higher loads, but carry those loads at lower inflation pressures with longer footprints," Vandel said.

Advanced Tire Technology

Michelin introduced IF (Increased Flexion or sidewall flexing) with their Axiobib tires in 2006 (2004 in Europe) and created a new industry standard. In 2010, the company introduced VF (Very High Flexion) Michelin SprayBib tires. Michelin SprayBibs may set a new standard, handling road speeds of up to 40 mph, loads of up to 14,300 pounds per tire with 64 psi tire pressure. Although others offer the speed and close to the load, it is the tire pressure that is grabbing customer attention.

"The primary benefit with the reduction in tire pressure is a softer ride," said Vandel. "It handles better in the field, and the operator is less tired at the end of the day. At the same time, the tires wear better. We are projecting a three to five-year tire life compared to one to three on our nearest competitor."

At least initially, Michelin SprayBibs are exclusive to AGCO RoGators. Paul Haefner, AGCO, said the tires made a big impression at the company's "Drive to Learn" new product kick-off days this past summer. "Our customers came into it thinking this is just another new tire," he said. "Then they experienced the ride and saw the longer, yet narrower footprint. That translates to less compaction, better performance, better fuel economy, more productivity and more profitability. After an hour of driving, they were on the phone changing orders on new equipment to make sure they got the Michelin SprayBibs."

Firestone Agricultural Tires is introducing new products of its own. It's a necessary response to a fast changing industry, explained Tom Rodgers, Firestone-brand Agricultural Tires. "Sprayer tank capacities and booms and the sprayers themselves continue getting larger and operating in more diverse field and crop conditions," he said. "In 2010, we introduced our AD2 Technology, meeting the IF standard; this offering includes two sprayer-specific sizes. In addition, you will see more sprayer-specific designs with tread patterns to optimize wear and traction coming to market in 2011."

Adapting to U.S. Needs

CGS is a fast expanding player in the North American market with the establishment of a production facility in Charles City, Iowa. However, the company is well established in Europe with Continental Silent Speed Tires (SST) and Super Volume Tires (SVT). According to Hans-Ulrich Klose, CGS is looking forward to introducing its proven European designs to the U.S. The company recently introduced several new tires, including the new D-rated 70 series HC70. This new tire line allows lower inflation pressure to provide reduced soil compaction on the field and a more comfortable ride both on field and on road. Some attributes CGS emphasizes for Mitas AgriTerra Flotation Radial Tires is "good neighbor" features of reduced road noise at higher speeds and self-cleaning treads that leave less dirt on roads. While required in Europe, they may find a welcome home in the U.S. as well.

"Our technology innovations have been driven by European OE-customer demand for ride comfort at high road speeds," said Klose, who pointed out that reducing road noise at higher speeds equates to operator comfort and efficiency.

"To follow specific U.S. market demands, last year we launched some narrow-tread up to 50-inch rim diameter tires. The Mitas RD-05 provides high-loads at low pressure for spraying applications, with a top speed of 31 mph," added Klose. "We've also made changes in tread designs and tread components to improve resistance to stubble damage. For extreme operations, we introduced Steel Cord for belt reinforcement, which is a unique technology for farm tires."

Titan completed its line of Ultra Sprayer tires this past year. Ultra Sprayers were one of the first specifically designed for application equipment. "We designed the tread bars to carry heavy loads and increased lug bracing and the surface to better distribute load and minimize compaction," noted Jeff Vasichek, Titan Tire Corp. "When we first brought them out, they carried 8,800 pounds per tire at 49 psi. We are testing and evaluating tires to carry higher loads at lower pressure."

Vasichek pointed out that the Titan purchase of Goodyear Farm Tires puts tire and wheel development under the same roof. As a result, the company is working on new tire compounds and designs to better withstand stubble damage as well as wheel designs. He said the company is working with major OEMs on projects five to 10 years out, and OEMs are paying more attention to tires and wheels.

"Tires are going to continue to get wider or taller and narrower," he noted. "We have a sprayer tire in development that is 94 inches tall and only 12.4 inches wide for a 72-inches tall wheel, and we're looking at others that are about 15 inches wide. Soon sprayers are going to be going 40 plus miles per hour. We have to have tires to match."

Tires will also continue to increase in price. Titan/Goodyear, CGS and Michelin have all announced price increases for 2011. This is on top of sharply higher prices that came with recent technological improvements such as IF and VF. It is one reason that tire manufacturers are working so hard to make tires more resistant to stubble damage, as well as stand up to road wear in transit. Rodgers suggested that developments of the two can be related. Compounding is a science. We are always working on better stubble resistance and improved road wear. Of course, tires would also wear less on the road and operate better in the field if properly inflated.

Auto Inflation Devices

Although new compounds and new designs will no doubt extend tire life, another new technology can help. On-the-go auto-inflation devices are being installed in some European machines and eventually may be cost effective here as well. However, automatic tire pressure monitoring is proving itself cost effective today. Imagine protecting tires costing $3,000 to $4,000 each with a monitor and four sensors that cost less than $600. Other industries are doing it to protect much less expensive tires.

"We just finished a 12-month trial on 60 waste-hauling vehicles at a terminal for a waste management fleet in Florida," said Jim Samocki, Doran Manufacturing. "With our monitoring system in place, the terminal replaced 204 fewer tires at a conservative estimate of $208 each. Repair and maintenance labor costs for tires decreased, as did road calls and labor for fleet tire checks, and the total number of tire blowouts fell from 70 to 30. Overall, the estimated return on investment was 8.24 months when combining labor savings related to tire repair and maintenance with the reduced tire replacement."

The Doran 360 Tire Pressure Monitoring System (TPMS) uses sensors in valve caps that wirelessly transmit data to a dash-mounted display through radio frequency signals. Once the system is installed, the driver gets real-time digital tire pressure information on all tires. In addition, visual and audible alarms warn of leaks, pressure drops and high temperature. High pressure alerts are also an option.

"We also have the capability of integrating with off-truck communication/fleet management systems," said Samocki. "One of our integrated systems can even be programmed to send e-mails or text messages to a manager telling him which vehicle has a leak in which tire."

Although Doran has not yet approached the ag tire market, the TPMS will likely be well received by the likes of Rodgers and his counterparts. "Tire pressure monitoring will be a huge benefit to tire performance and life," he said.

Meanwhile, his and the other companies will continue developing and introducing new technologies. "Tire development isn't about keeping up," said Rodgers. "It's about staying ahead."