Minnesota farm equipment is getting larger and heavier, causing strain on rural bridges. However, there are no nationally recognized specifications for what size and weight of tractors can safely travel over them.
Currently, bridge load limits are based off semi-trucks, not farm machinery, which have much different axle configurations and wheel dimensions.
“Their geometry is atypical; their length, widths are different; they have different suspension characteristics,” explains Brent Phares, director of the Bridge Engineering Center at Iowa State University.
A new pooled fund study led by the state of Iowa is attempting to determine how much stress heavy farm vehicles put on bridges. This data will be used by local agencies to develop weight restrictions specifically for farm equipment.
“It will help limit the confusion of current load posting signs for farmers,” said MnDOT bridge load rating engineer Moises Dimaculangan.
Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Illinois, Kansas and the United States Department of Agriculture are also participating in the study, which is examining three types of local bridge superstructures: those with steel girders and concrete decks; bridges with steel girders and timber decks; and timber bridges with timber decks.
Through physical testing and modeling, the study will determine how different types of farm machinery distribute their loads on the bridge superstructure.
About a half-dozen farm vehicles were tested on 20 different bridges which were representative of those tending to be the most problematic for farm equipment traffic on secondary road systems, Phares said.
Instrumentation measured the response of the structures to the vehicles. This data was then used as a baseline to calibrate analytical models, which could be applied to 250 different bridges and 121 different farm vehicles.
Researchers will develop a generic tractor profile, which represents the worst-case scenario, for use in determining load limits. With the information developed, signs might be able to be added to the bridges, which show a tractor and the weight limit.
“I get a number of pictures emailed to me of bridges that have failed with a tractor implement of husbandry on top,” Phares said. “That’s the problem that people are looking to avoid; the goal isn’t to restrict the size of farm vehicles, but to develop better tools for engineers to make sound and solid analyses for the bridges, so they can provide that information to the people who need to have it.”
Phares said a couple previous studies have also looked at farm machinery weight restrictions. One study, from around 2004, took a high level look at the impact of farm vehicles on bridges. A more recent pooled fund study analyzed the impact of machinery on pavements.
Research in Progress: Study of the Impacts of Implements of Husbandry on Bridges