The thought of starting up a high-horsepower tractor during cold winter weather makes many Prairie farmers cringe, due to the higher risk of engine and transmission damage from reduced lubrication. But there are a select few ag tractors in the world that see nothing but cold weather operation, and they’re put to work on a continent where farming is impossible: Antarctica.
Incredibly, a large number of the machines operated by the Antarctic expedition are — believe it or not — rubber-belted farm tractors. And they’ve earned their spots in the expedition’s fleet because they’re the best machines for the job.
Best for the job
“I played probably the single, largest role in getting these tractors to Antarctica,” says George Blaisdell, operations manager for Antarctic infrastructure and logistics. Prior to actually working for the U.S. Antarctic Program, he was involved in cold weather evaluations of belted farm tractors in northern Minnesota. And he recommended them for work in Antarctica.
Despite Blaisdell’s stamp of approval, managers at the U.S. Antarctic Program initially decided not to use them. “They wanted to use proven technology,” Blaisdell adds. And belted ag tractors were relatively new at the time. But after the French contingent opted to use them in its work at the South Pole and had good success, the U.S. program followed suit.
“By the mid 90s the U.S. program started using them,” Blaisdell says. “That’s when we decided to do long traverses from McMurdo (the port where supplies are offloaded from ships).” Prior to that, supplies had to be flown to the South Pole from that location, but belted tractors were given the job of pulling sled trains from the coast to the research station instead. “We could haul 36,000 gallons of fuel on a single trip and tow it at six to eight miles per hour. We’ve reached a point where we’re very efficient towing things with these tractors.”
“Our ag tractor fleet has grown in leaps and bounds since we first started using them,” Blaisdell continues. “We have a vehicle fleet that’s about 350. But the biggest category would be ag tractors.” The number in use varies between 35 and 56.
Initially, the program used a modified Challenger tractor called the DV87, which Caterpillar produced specifically for Antarctic service. Among other things it included a different cab that allowed for multiple occupants and design changes to allow the tractor to better deal with the extreme temperatures, which range from -20 F to -40 F during the Antarctic summer.
Today, however, the belted tractors used are off-the-shelf models with only some minor changes. “Now, we just take what the dealers have,” he adds. “We purchase virtually everything in the U.S. and work through the dealership network.”
“We run a little less aggressive tread pattern (on the tracks),” Blaisdell adds. “The grousers aren’t as tall. On snow you don’t want any slippage, because then you start excavating.” The lower grousers also allow the track to flex more easily in cold temperatures.
Among the modifications made to the tractors, the air intakes are changed to keep snow out, and the hoods have been redesigned to completely enclose the engine for the same reason. The Case IH QuadTracs also get a larger fuel tank. And, not surprisingly, additional heaters are installed in all tractors. Finally, the standard fluids are replaced with cold weather viscosity types at the dealerships before shipment to the southern continent.
Currently, the U.S. Antarctic Program uses both Case IH QuadTracs and Challenger MT865s. “Ideally, we’d like to only have one (brand),” says Blaisdell. “Because NAPA isn’t just around the corner, we need to stock our own parts.” But the two tractor types each excel in different jobs, so the program will likely continue using both. “The QuadTracs have some advantages over the two-track in some areas, and the two-tracks have advantages over the Case in some areas.”
Newer tractors are used on the long-haul traverses from McMurdo, racking up about 450 engine hours in a single trip. After tractors have logged about 7,500 total hours, they are placed in the local-use fleet. “The individuals (operators) are then at no risk, because someone can come and help you if it breaks down,” explains Blaisdell.
Despite the fact the expedition has access to machines ranging from steel-tracked crawlers to dedicated snow vehicles, the ag tractors remain the vehicle of choice for long-haul traverses. Blaisdell sums up the reason this way: “It turns out that goal of low compaction — that combination of a light foot print and high traction — is ideal for snow, too.” †