Since the day tractor manufacturers moved from steel wheel traction to tire on wheel configurations, farmers have added tractor tire fluids to their equipment to add traction weight, counterbalance and to lower their center of gravity to reduce the possibility of tipping. (Ed Note: Tractor ROPS come standard with most machines these days, but the goal is to avoid using them.) Years of trial and error has changed the material offerings and methods, but not by much.
Why You May Want Ballast
Do you have good tires but still have a hard time gaining traction on loose or wet surfaces? Adding downforce with tractor tire fluid can assist in gaining traction on slippery surfaces. Some 4×4 tractors have a high center of gravity thanks to their tall tires and axle clearance and adding ballast to your tires can help lower that center of gravity, an important consideration if you’re operating on a grade.
Many of the best small farm tractors come with bucket loaders now, which are exceedingly useful around the farm and homestead. That’s something you’ll want to add to your list of farm tools and equipment when you’re considering what tractor and machinery to purchase. Many people quickly find the maximum weight they can lift and for those of us who have been there, you know that unnerving feeling of your rear tires lifting off the ground, adding ballast to your rear tires, or aft of your rear axle, will help overcome this problem and make your tractor safer to operate. If you use the 3-point hitch of your tractor to pull implements like a plow, and you find it hard to steer or the implement’s weight is pulling the nose of the tractor up, then loading the front tires will weigh your nose back down.
Why You May Not Want To Ballast Your Tires
Adding tractor tire fluids to tires can negatively impact your tractor’s ride quality, especially when loading the rear tires, according to John Deere. In a Deere service recommendation sheet for tire loading, they suggest a preferred 40% volume fill for liquid ballast, but the long-standing tradition of tire loading is 75% fill, which is the maximum John Deere suggests. If you drive in high gear along roadways at or near top speed, the already harsh ride may get worse, but at low speeds, you are not likely to see a difference in the ride of your tractor. The old Oliver-White tractor we used to have on the farm came loaded with calcium chloride at 75%, and I felt no significant difference when we upgraded to our John Deere 5105 with no tire ballast, so I personally have no concern about affecting the “ride quality” of our tractor.
What Options Are Available
Farmers will always be a breed of their own, but rest assured they will find the cheapest and/or most rugged way to achieve something, and tractor tire fluids are no exception. Some common materials include water, calcium chloride, antifreeze, windshield washer fluid, beet juice and polyurethane foam.
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It’s cheap and easy, but it freezes. This is a deal breaker for a lot of people since blocks of ice make it feel like you have a flat in your tread, and when ice expands it can push the tire off the rim. If you live in the deep south, then maybe you can get away with it, but here in New England, it’s a big no-can-do.
Calcium chloride is usually sold in a flake form. You mix it into water and the solution resists freezing down to around -50°F. Calcium chloride was the go-to fluid for ages, but it’s notorious for rusting wheels into oblivion. Obtaining the raw material can be an affordable venture, but replacing the wheels down the road will not be, however, there are people who still use it because it can be cheap and the solution weighs around 40% more than plain water. I don’t personally suggest calcium chloride, but it is an option.
If I was to load the tires of our John Deere, I would likely use this method. Antifreeze is easy to come by, albeit not all that cheaply. Ethylene Glycol is toxic, so regardless of the cost savings over Propylene Glycol, I would not use it. It takes very little Ethylene Glycol to kill a dog and honestly, I love my dog too much to take that chance. On that note, Propylene Glycol will work for the application, is nontoxic and is commonly marketed as pet safe. Propylene Glycol is also used by veterinarians as a bypass sugar, administering it to ruminant animals such as cattle to perk them up. Automotive antifreeze resists freezing down to around -40F and adds no weight to the water you’ll be adding it to (which is 8 pounds per gallon).
Windshield Washer Fluid
As I said, farmers will always find a cheaper, better or stronger way of doing things, and this is a perfect example. Automotive windshield wash fluid typically resists freezing down to -20°F, or -32°F for the winter blend, is easy to find and cheap to buy. Windshield washer fluid still only weighs 8 pounds per gallon, but hey, at least the insides of your tire and wheel will stay clean and streak free!
A fairly new product to the tractor tire fluid arena is a product sold under the name of Rim Guard. Rim Guard’s main ingredient is beet juice of all things and boasts a lot of positive points. The real selling points of beet juice are; it’s non-toxic, it’s 30% heavier than water, it resists freezing down to -35°F and the real kicker is that it’s noncorrosive, so it won’t eat your wheels for dinner like calcium chloride will. But as with everything, there is a flip side to Rim Guard, and that’s the price. Rim Guard can be a rather expensive product, especially if you’re filling a large tire. If you can afford the expense, this may be your best option by far.
Foam filling your tractor tires is a viable proposal, but an expensive one with some aggravating downfalls. Foam filling weighs up to 50% more than water per volume and offers you a no-flat tire that is sure to affect the “ride quality” of your tractor. There are plenty of YouTube videos of homebrew DIY methods of foaming tires, but if you’re serious about loading a tractor tire, I highly suggest going to a dealership and having it professionally done. You will have to cut the tire off the wheel or buy new wheels when you want to change tires, so be sure to foam new or almost new tires so you get the longest tread life. Foaming your tires also means you can not adjust tire pressures or tire footprint, but by the same token, you never have to check your tire pressure, so it’s really a catch 22 situation.
Loading Your Tires
Support your axle to take the weight of the machine off the tires, deflate them and remove the valve core in the tire stem. There are plenty of devices and methods for loading tractor tire fluids, but the easiest would be using a filling device, a drum of fluid in the bucket of the tractor, a hose between the two and then raising the bucket, relying on gravity to do the work for you. If you want to fill to John Deere’s recommended 40%, rotate the tire stem to the 4 o’clock or 8 o’clock position and fill to the stem. If you want to fill to the industry standard of 75%, place the stem at 12 o’clock and fill to the stem. Rim Guard has a handy tire size chart that shows you how many gallons to put in your tire, just remember that the chart shows the weight of their product so calculate whichever product you use based on pounds per gallon.
Do you use tractor tire fluids to add ballast? If so, what’s your favorite fluid to use and why?
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