Tarping a truck box or trailer has never been fun, and in certain conditions — gale-force winds or thunderstorms, for example — it can be dangerous, time consuming and downright tiring. During the past decade or so, farmers have increasingly relied on roll-tarp systems to help with the chore.

The popularity of roll tarps has grown steadily since they were introduced more than 20 years ago. Today, there are mechanisms for almost any kind of box, trailer, gravity wagon or grain cart. Apparently, no opening is too small or too large to be mechanically tarped.

“I've sold only one grain trailer in the past eight years without a roll tarp,” says Jim Langland, a salesman at Wilson of Colorado in Henderson, CO. “And that went to a guy whose driver had destroyed his existing roll tarp by leaving it loose going down the road. I think the unit was meant as a payback.”

Farmers and grain truckers prefer side-roll systems, one of several types of tarping equipment used on transport vehicles. The others include front-to-back devices (“arm” or “pull”) commonly found in the construction and refuse industries and the “retractable tarpaulin,” the largest and most comprehensive apparatus, which will transform a flatbed trailer into a soft-side dry van in minutes.

Most roll tarps consist of front and rear end caps, a sheet of tarpaulin, a trailer-length (or trailer — width) pole, gearing and locking devices, a few bows, and a long-handled crank or electric motor. As the name implies, roll tarps operate by rolling, or wrapping, around the attached pole as it's spooled over the trailer's top.

Welcome invention

Deceptively simple in design, today's strapless roll tarp systems were first marketed in 1981 by a tarp manufacturer then known as Wahpeton Canvas Company in Wahpeton, ND. The inventors, Jerry Dimmer and Bill Shorma, believed their creation would help people save time and reduce the labor and risk of crawling up on trailers to manually cover and uncover loads. The idea quickly caught on, and soon company officials redirected their efforts to the new product line. The strategy was a success, and the company was eventually renamed Shur-Co and relocated to Yankton, SD.

Shur-Co continues to be a leading force in the tarping industry, but it has been joined in recent years by a growing list of competitors. Ag-related products account for about half of Shur-Co's sales. The other half is derived from construction, refuse and trucking products.

“We thought [Shur-Co] had the best system when we started out,” says Ken Nash, a custom harvester from Hasting, NE. “And we've stayed with the brand ever since.”

Nash has a manual-crank roll tarp on each of his four straight trucks and one grain cart. The older ones have been through eight three-month harvest seasons, which start in Texas and end in South Dakota. So far, his repairs have been minimal, usually resulting from close encounters with low clearances at country elevators. “We've had a few bent end caps,” he says. Nash attributes this lack of mechanical trouble to a little regular maintenance and two rules for his drivers: Always enter a scale platform with the truck's tarp open to avoid the damage done by anxious probe operators. And always try to park out of the wind, or in a direction that prevents a big gust from launching a partially opened tarp off the truck.

Bob Nolan, product manager at Aero Industries, says high winds are a threat to any tarp, rolling or otherwise. To help reduce the hazard, Aero designed its side-roll tarp with cables at both ends of the roll tube to limit its vertical travel. Still, Nolan says, no system is immune from a good blast directed underneath a tarp. In a worst-case scenario, the force will bend the roll tube or rip the tarpaulin sheet from the metal stops.

New fabrics

Aero Industries, headquartered in Indianapolis, IN, has been covering loads since 1944, when it started making canvas tarps for the military. Nolan says nylon- and polyester-coated fabrics came along in the early '60s. These newer products were “godsends to anyone needing to throw a tarp,” he says. They were lighter, more flexible in cold temperatures and less prone to leaking and rotting. All tarps are coated nowadays and made in a range of thicknesses, measured by the ounce. An 18-oz. sheet is the most popular in farm applications.

Nolan says the average life expectancy of a tarp is about six years, if it's maintained (with periodic cleaning and shed storage) and not abused. He says manufacturers continue to look for exotic new substances that will make tarp material tougher and lighter.

Electric motors

Aero and others are also developing tarping systems that operate faster and more easily. Electric motors are part of those efforts. “We're seeing a lot of interest in electric units lately,” Nolan says. “Trailers continue to get longer, and it can be a real muscular challenge to move a tarp across the top of a 53-ft. trailer.” One Aero customer — a fleet owner whose trucks each haul six to eight grain loads daily — recently told Nolan that electric tarping systems make driver recruiting easier, too.

Ron Peterson, a farmer from Gilbert, IA, would no doubt agree. Last summer, he purchased a new 43-ft. Wilson trailer and ordered it with an electric tarping system from Roll-Rite, based in Alger, MI. The combination was a first for Wilson. Its factory normally mounts Shur-Co products, so Roll-Rite dispatched one of its lead installers to assist on the project.

Peterson reports that the system performed well throughout the harvest, saving him time and energy. “When we were loading in the field, the truck driver didn't even need to leave the seat,” he says. “Then, once the trailer was full, we could close the tarp while the truck was heading to the road.” His neighbors took note of that: “They all thought it pretty slick,” he says.

Peterson's trailer is also fitted with Roll-Rite electric traps, which can be operated with a remote control from up to 100 ft. away. He says this feature further speeds the grain-hauling process.

Such convenience isn't cheap, however. Cindy Cook at Roll-Rite says an electric tarping system lists for just less than $3,000. Electric traps add another $1,300 to $1,600. Nevertheless, Roll-Rite officials apparently believe that convenience outweighs cost for a lot of potential customers. The company offers only one nonelectric system, and it's designed for the small trucks used by landscapers.

Roll-Rite's strategy could be considered bold, or maybe just ahead of its time. Gary Jerman, owner of LCL Truck Equipment in Hastings, NE, says he hasn't seen much interest in electric tarping. He thinks the extra complexity just adds to the risk of malfunction, especially for owners who don't regularly follow all the recommended maintenance procedures. “For a lot of folks,” he says, “it's like asking for trouble.”

Mechanical issues aside, farmers have usually embraced products that reduce the time and effort needed to do their jobs. (Roll tarps are a perfect example of this.) Many prospective buyers will decide to order an electric tarping system as soon as they're convinced that the pleasure of using the device will long outlast the pain of paying for it.