Tired of Tires


Do you know how many pneumatic rubber tires you own? I bet when you count them up, you’ll be surprised. Even on my little one horse farm, there are 40 tires in use, not counting the ones on the car. And ten percent of them are flat at any given time. This is partly because most of my tires were vulcanized in the late Middle Ages or thereabouts. But it is also because there is something unsustainable and unnatural about riding around on air wrapped in a substance that comes from trees that grow half a million miles away.

This is the time of year when I fare forth to another season of mowing and planting. I know without looking, that my first chore, after getting all the motors (6) running, will be fixing flats. I thought maybe this year would be an exception. The green tractor started right up and the hydraulic system on it worked fine. I backed up to the disk to hitch up and the hole on the disk tongue lined up with the drawbar hole perfectly on the first try. Oh perfect joy.

One pass across the field and behold, the left tire on the disk was as flat as a pancake. I pumped it up (by hand) and proceeded on to the gardens which were actually dry enough to disk (the corn ground wasn’t) and worked up two of the plots before the tire went flat again. Pumped it up again and it lasted until I had finished the other two plots. I would not have been so stubborn about it except rain was threatening and it might be another two weeks before the soil was dry enough to work again.

Have you ever stopped to think just how dumb it is to have pneumatic tires on a disk? They are only in use when the disk is not disking and that would mean, in my “operation”, about three hundred feet a year at a speed of not more than two miles per hour. Those tires could easily be made out of metal or even some high grade plastic. I should never have gotten rid of my really ancient disk which had no tires at all, but an adjustment to swivel the disk blades straight enough so they wouldn’t cut into the dirt as they rolled along.

Yes, I know, I know. Modern farming requires many acres scattered over ten townships or so, with more time spent moving on the road than actually working in the field. But how about us small timers and slow timers, or how about garden tillers and lawn mowers that will never move off the homestead and rarely move faster than 3 mph?  How about my two-bottom plow once owned by Daniel Boone’s grandfather, or my manure spreader, wheelbarrows, and pull-type sickle bar and rotary mowers? The only piece of farm implement I own that exhibits intelligent design is a side delivery rake. It mercifully has steel wheels.

None of my garden and farm implements need tires made of rubber with air inside them. Nor my tractors. Sometimes I even wonder why science has not found better things for cars and trucks to ride on than air. We had to replace all four tires on our 2005 car because of faulty valve stems. I hear other people complaining about car tires too— they refer to “bad batches” of tires where the outer tread slips loose from the inner tread.

The most ludicrous of all are pneumatic wheelbarrow tires. They are, in my experience, very cheap and go flat almost before you get them home from the hardware store. I have seriously thought of sawing off nice round discs from a red elm log of the right size to make wheelbarrow wheels. Or why does a rear end garden tiller need pneumatic tires? My tiller’s tires like to annoy me by taking turns going soft. They could be made out of metal easily enough.

I am very much in accord with those Amish sects which allow their members to use tractors so long as they aren’t equipped with rubber tires. One Amish community I know decided it was okay to cover their steel wheels with rubber mat treading so they wouldn’t tear the road up too much. When the bishop was teased about this minor transgression of the rule (I tell this story in one of my books), he replied:  “We prayed over the matter and finally decided it was not the rubber itself God was against, but riding on air. Only angels should ride on air.”

During spring flat tire fixing time, I heartily agree. And the next time someone tries to get me on an airplane, that’s going to be my answer.


I have a Farmall F-12 with both steel wheels and rubber wheels. A farmer hasn’t farmed till they’ve spent about 4 hours on a steel wheeled farm tractor…..

Inspiring! I have a wagon-type deck fitted with skis that works well for hauling straw, sap buckets, etc. in the snow. Four little tires to turn it into a garden cart would cost as much as a garden cart. I think I’ll fit it with bicycle rims! I’ve really enjoyed telling people they should read “Holy Shit” in polite settings, public talks and the like. Good planting!

Russ, your amusing story reminds me of one of mine. You are not going to believe this but once I visited a house on the market that had around the base of a yard tree, a farm tractor tire. This kind of lawn decor is admired in these parts. Anyway, the tire looked in better shape than the one on my AC and the right size, so I enquired of the realtor if I might have it. He was only too glad to get rid of it. I put it on my tractor and it lasted about a year. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Gene

My place (and the last place I owned) is covered with honey locust and osage orange. It became absolutely impossible to keep the front tires on my tractor inflated. In one case I took it in for a new tube and was told it had 18 thorns in it — the guy was so amazed he counted them as he took them out. I got the new one, took it home, did about an hour of bush hogging and they were flat. Intertubes were costing me more than diesel.

I had them solid filled. Quite pricey but (after some initial frustrations and a free replacement from the tire place) now I haven’t had a flat tire on the tractor in over a year. It also adds weight down low which is nice in this hilly terrain. I see two problems though. Pneumatic tires are softer and don’t cut into the ground as much, and the steer better. I don’t know exactly what’s at work but the solid one will scrub sideways more in a turn than the pneumatic ones did. In some cases it can be a little disconcerting to be trying to turn but going straight anyway.

If I could afford it I probably would have the rear wheels filled too, but there are two huge drawbacks. The first is sheer cost. The second is that with CaCl the weight always stays at the bottom of the wheel as it turns, keeping the center of gravity low. In a solid fill the weight is distributed through the tire, raising the center of gravity and raising the center of gravity of a tractor is the last thing I want.

I’ve seriously thought of switching to a tracked tractor but have been warned that while ongoing maintenance and hassle are less, long term costs are very high.

20 tires. 18 too many in my opinion! I never thought about that until your article. (I don’t want to give up the two wheels on my hay baler!)
I just bought an old Massey Harris side delivery rake with rubber wheels on it and was so excited that I didn’t have to drag the steel wheeled version down the roads anymore! Got it home and started repairing some small stuff and remembered that rubber tires go flat. (I’ve never been the brightest bulb on the tree!) I guess I’ll be able to work on my pit crew tire removal/installation speed on the rake next! I’ve got the tractor down to a science! The bad part, it’s always in the farthest field when she goes flat! I found a pair of truck tires that fit my front tire rims and they go on when it’s time to bush hog. Learned that the hard way. I’m seriously leaning towards horseshoes instead of rubber!

Well, I am overstocked on equipment but do love the old stuff. plus and counting a bicycle and motorcycle i dont use anymore i counted 70 tires! I’m not much on heights either. I dont even date tall chicks ! lol

Perhaps it is not pneumatic tyres per se that is the problem but the inappropriate (unnecessary?) uses they are put to and the shoddy, planned obsolescence manufacturing processes of today’s world that is the issue. Tyres can soften the soil compression impact of tractors on the field and certainly I would not like to drive a solid (steel or rubber) tyre on the road again as I did in my youth but I do agree that manufacturers these days have a one size fits all mentality – they are only aiming at the big boys with the big farms and the big bucks. The rest of us have to accept it or make up our own versions – and that is a lot of fun if you have the time and skills.

Checked my place out with your ‘tyre calculator’ and I am pleased to report that I have 10 and that includes the family car and it’s spare tyre. I can live with that.

Find myself hanging out for your next item Gene. Keep it up my friend.

Oh yeah- I should probably tell you: we once had a wheelbarrow with a pneumatic tire that developed an annoying leak, and we limped along until we could get a replacement by filling it with that Stuff in a can that you use to fill air leaks in your walls. It worked pretty well.

Six. Four on the car, one spare, one on the wheelbarrow.

I don’t like airplanes either.

“ten percent of them are flat at any given time.”

Wow, you’re doing better than me, Gene! Unless you’re excluding wheel barrows. I’d say 3/4ths of our barrow tires are flat at any given time — if you count the ones WITHOUT tires, because it’s generally easier to swap the axle-wheel assembly than fix the tube. But part of that is because a lot of our wheel barrows come from the dump — people will throw a perfectly good barrow in the dump when the tire goes flat! We also “rescue” old, rusted-out barrows from the dump, as long as they have a tire that will hold air, which generally gets transplanted quickly onto a better-off barrow.

One love-hate think about tractor tires is that, at least on our little two-cylinder diesel, they’ll do just fine without air if you don’t load them. So we can go all winter, pulling the trailer, and not know or care that the tractor tires are flat. But it always seems that the first time I put a vertical load on the tractor, on or more of the tires “tells me” it’s been neglected.

I’m with you. Where can I get non-inflatable replacements for all my tires? Tires and batteries are going to be the weak link in civilization as fossil sunlight goes into decline.

Well, Gene, you’re so very right. I have a lawn tractor with pneumatic tires that I use for mowing my prairie gardens every couple years and mowing my to-be fruit orchard area, in addition to mowing a disreputable lawn for the grass clippings I need for compost. But the right front tire somewhere got a hole in itself and leaks. So I put a tack in the hole and that helped a little bit. Then I decided to cement the tack in the hole with glue and that worked wonderfully well for several years. Of course last fall the tack came unglued so now I have to glue it back in again, as soon as this latest snowfall melts.

Hmmm, never thought of that, but I do have eleven tires, at least 10 pneumatic ones. Riding on air enclosed in material from many, many miles away in two directions: rubber and oil. That’s a pretty fair ecological footprint!

For all the aggravation that tires can cause, and I agree that they can, a tire was the source of a small victory for me last summer. When we moved to our farm in the 70’s, it had been a “tenant” farm for at least 30 years. Various tenants had left varyious objects scattered around the buildings and property. In the process of sorting and pitching over the next few years, there was the occasional tension for this happily married couple when deciding on pitch or save. I tend towards save and the better looking half is a world class pitcher. One of the things I saved was a 17 inch tire mounted on an old 8 lug split rim that looked like it had come off a 30’s era truck. 17 inch tires were uncommon in my experience at that time. Fast forward to 3 or 4 years ago and I am offered a flatbed hay wagon for $45 by a pair of bachelor brother dairy farmers that are quitting milking and from whom I had bought an old elevator. It had a good 16′ bed mounted on the remnants of some ancient truck chassis. It had one tire that was evidencing a weak spot in the sidewall. I used it successfully as one of my baling wagons till last summer when the tire finally blew with a load on it. That mounted tire that I had saved 35+ years came to mind and bolted right on that old hub. I didn’t even have to inflate it. I then took pictures so that the next time the smarter half says “pitch”, I can say “why don’t we wait 30 or 40 years before we make a final decision”.

And *that* is why I didn’t go for a transport disk when I recently bought our first ‘real’ disk. (Our other disk set is for our garden tractor – it’s really cute compared to the big one.)

OK, that’s not really why. I went to an auction and an old Oliver transport disk went for over $3000. Blew me away. At that point I decided the three-point disk at Tractor Supply looked like a good deal.

I count 33 pneumatic tires at our place (the odd one is on the sulky, and so far, it’s *always* flat!) Never thought about it before. Thanks. 😦

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