U.S. sales of high-horsepower tractors continue to climb in 2011. Automated steering, increased horsepower, and high-flow hydraulics top the list of must-have features.

Here's a look at eight of the major tractor-buying trends:

1. Sales up
U.S. unit retail sales of tractors are up 5% year-to-date over 2010 figures, according to the latest report from the Association of Equipment Manufacturers. Front-wheel-drive farm tractors, up 31%, account for the bulk of that growth. Sales of 2-wd tractors are up 4% year-to-date. 

2. Postponed buying
Rawley Hicks, product marketing manager for Challenger track and articulated tractors, expects to see farmers continue to buy high-horsepower tractors but says some may postpone purchase of tractors equipped with Interim Tier 4 engines in 2011 as more of these machines become available. He says the delay can be partially attributed to the initial cost of the new Tier 4i engines, which could drive up costs of the tractors anywhere from 4 to 9% over previous models. “We also expect growers will wait until they have a better understanding of and more confidence in the emissions technology in these machines,” Hicks adds.

Case IH and John Deere refute that claim, reporting very healthy sales of their Tier 4i tractors, which started shipping this year. “Our order boards are up substantially, far above where they were the prior year for these products,” says Tom Dean, marketing manager for Case IH high-horsepower tractors. Dean attributes the gain to a combination of high commodity prices, improved power response, and fuel efficiency gains provided by the new engine technology.

3. Factory-equipped technology
Tractors are being configured at the factory to run a host of GPS-based functions that include guidance, automated steering, field mapping, variable-rate control, row-unit shutoff, and vehicle tracking and diagnostics, also known as telemetry. Manufacturers say the take-rate for these technologies is increasing as customers realize a return on investment.

“For example, overlap without guidance is typically 10 to 20% but can be reduced to just 2% with a guidance system,” says AGCO’s Hicks. “With a 60-ft. machine, that provides a significant saving in time, labor, fuel and inputs.”

4. Increased horsepower
Manufacturers across the board report growing demand for increased horsepower in both row-crop and 4-wd tractors. The additional horsepower is needed to pull larger farm implements such as planters, air seeders, nutrient applicators and tillage equipment.

The Nebraska Tractor Test Lab last year charted the average and maximum horsepower of tractors tested at the lab and found that horsepower has been increasing at a rate of 3% a year since 1950. Currently the industry’s largest 4-wd — offered by Case IH and New Holland — tops out at 600 engine hp. The largest row-crop tractor is John Deere’s 8360R, rated at 360 engine hp. Variable geometry turbochrgers, high-pressure common rail fuel systems, and engine controllers allow for this power boost.

5. Row-crop-configured 4-wds
To meet the need for increased horsepower, some growers are jumping from a row-crop tractor to a reconfigured 4-wd that can run between 30-in. rows. In response to this trend, Case IH and New Holland launched new 4-wd models for 2011 designed with a 36-in. chassis that makes the tractors capable of row-crop work. John Deere, AGCO, Claas, and Versatile offer similar configurations in their 4-wd offerings. 

6. Front 3-pt. hitch and PTO
Demand for an integrated front 3-pt. hitch and front PTO also is on the rise, according to Wade Prouse, tractor marketing manager with New Holland. Prouse says customers want these front options to run 33-ft.-wide mega hay cutters, hold ballast when doing heavy tillage work, and power other front-mounted implements. New Holland offers these features as factory options on its model year 2011 tractors. Case IH also introduced front-hitch and PTO technology for its Magnum series for the first time in 2011. The same two features were introduced as options on Massey Ferguson and Challenger high-horsepower tractors in 2009 and have long been available from Fendt.

7. High-flow hydraulics
Larger-sized implements and grain carts requre increased hydraulics, lift capacity, and tongue weight. Manufacturers are responding with high-flow hydraulics that offer up to eight selective control valves and a 113-gpm flow rate, 3-pt.-hitch lift capacities of up to 20,000 lbs., and heavy-duty drawbars with a vertical tongue weight of up to 11,000 lbs.

8. Creature comforts
Also in demand are features that make the tractor more comfortable to maximize drive time. “Customers continue to demand larger cabs with more features, more storage, better visibility and more comfort,” says Dave Guetterman, senior tractor marketing representative for John Deere. “Farmers have to spend a lot of long days in the cab, so they want the most features and creature comforts they can get.”

Features being demanded include front axle and cab suspension, automated steering, multifunction joysticks, universal touch-screen displays, air-ride seats, HID lighting, and even outlets for MP3 players. All of these upgrades help to maximize drive time on farms.

 

Photo courtesy of John Deere