Ag tire production keeps on rolling


LOUISVILLE, Ky. — They’re round and black and unless you’re a farmer, you don’t give farm tires a second thought.

The ag world, however, has been paying very close attention to its tires — particularly since they’ve been in short supply for well over a year. Equipment manufacturers and tire dealers alike are breathing down tire makers’ necks.

Huge demand, tight inputs

Tom Rodgers, marketing manager for Firestone ag tire division, called 2008 “amazing and unseen.”

Speaking at the National Farm Machinery Show in Louisville Feb. 12, Rodgers said farm tire demand skyrocketed last year and supply just couldn’t keep pace with demand. Adding to the crunch, imported natural rubber and domestic synthetic rubber were both in limited supplies, and their prices shot up at least 30 percent.

Even though Bridgestone-Firestone’s ag tire production facility in Des Moines, Iowa, was running three shifts, 24/7, it couldn’t keep up. Back orders piled up and inventories dwindled.

The replacement tires that dealers need to have in stock were just as hard to get as the tires John Deere and other equipment manufacturers were waiting for.

Many are still waiting. The pipeline for production ag tires is still clogged, Rodgers said, although the lighter demand for passenger and light truck tires has increased input supplies for the pent-up ag tire demand.

Back order time varies by tire, he said, but “we’re still in very tight supply.”

Everyone needs more tires.

Industry-wide problem

And it’s not just Bridgestone-Firestone. Michael Burroughes, director of marketing for Michelin North America, said 2008 was “frustrating for them [dealers and equipment manufacturers] and us.”

Michelin’s ag tire demand continues to be “very strong,” and the company has expanded its production capacity at plants in Spain, France and Poland. Availability is tight, but is slowly improving, he said.

Michelin also streamlined its ag lineup in 2008, phasing out its B.F. Goodrich lines in North America and two other European brands at the end of the year to concentrate on the higher value ag tires, Burroughes said, specifically tires for tractors with 100 hp or higher.

High-tech tires

Tires are becoming a significant investment. One of the biggest farm radials, the 870R38, can list between $4,000 and $6,000 — and a tractor can take up to four of those bad boys, and two or four other tires.

“These are big technology products,” Michelin’s Burroughes said, “despite the fact that they’re round and black.”

There’s science in the treads, there’s science in the flexibility, strength and durability, and there can be at least 16 or more different rubber compounds in a single tire.

And tire production is not something you can rush. It takes a full day to “tire up one tractor,” Rodgers said. The big time hog is the curing process, and as tires get bigger, they take longer to cure.

Inflation rates

To improve fuel efficiency and minimize soil compaction, farmers are paying closer attention to tire pressure, juggling air temperature, loads, tractor size and soil types to hit the right numbers. And you can’t just check inflation rates once a year.

“Just like my dad told me to check the oil before I started the tractor, we’re encouraging farmers to check their inflation rates on a daily or weekly basis,” Firestone’s Rodgers said.

Most local tire dealers are equipped to help farmers determine how to set up their tractors, and you can also log onto tire makers’ Web sites to run through an inflation rate checklist for your operation.

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