Mowing Matters

A long-time lawn mower dealer in Maryland said he could remember the days when homeowners got out their push reel mowers and mowed their lawns every Saturday. These days, most reel mowers are powered and you're more likely to find homeowners cutting their grass with a riding mower. If it's a larger acreage, they might even be using their own zero-turn riding mower.

Commercial mowing is big business these days. Besides homeowners, facility managers — homeowner associations, apartment complexes, developers and industrial site managers — frequently contract out mowing and grounds maintenance tasks. It means the facilities don't have to buy and maintain their own equipment and it lowers their “in-house” labor expenses.

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The growth in commercial mowing operations has led to a big increase in the number and types of mowers available. Competition has led to new designs and improvements in mowers and more choices for the mower buyer. At the same time, customer expectations for quality of cut have increased. For the commercial cutter, this means using newer, improved equipment and, at the same time, trying to control operating costs, such as fuel and labor.

The keyword has become “productivity” — more efficient mowing, done in less time. It tends toward a “Catch 22” situation, but golf course superintendents, site managers and landscape operators are finding newer mowers built better and delivering a better job.

THE REEL STORY

The original mechanical lawn mower, built by an Englishman in about 1830, was a reel mower, and reel mowers have continued to be an important part of the mowing business. In fact, with small urban yards and a renewed emphasis on fitness, push-type reel mowers have made somewhat of a comeback. Estimates are that homeowners buy about 200,000 of them each year.

Commercially, however, reel mowers are generally the mainstay for golf course and sports turf managers. Commercial reel mowers are engine-powered and many are used in gangs of three to five sections. Although reel mower design is essentially the same as it has been for many years, the design and manufacture of the whole machine have seen marked improvements.

Trim work around golf course bunkers and tee banks usually is a walk-mowing job, to get grass edges cut properly. New, ground-following rotary mowers are being used in some cases, both for trim work and rough mowing. The newer rotary mowers make workers more productive and require less maintenance for such applications.

Tamara Youdbulis, turf product manager for Kubota Tractor Corporation, says it's F-series front mowers are seeing wider use on golf courses, as well as parks, schools and cemeteries. Equipped with Kubota diesel engines (22 to 30 hp), the F-series mowers have auto-assist 4-wheel drive that works in both forward and reverse, and automatically controls wheel drive loads to lessen chances of turf damage.

“We are seeing more interest in zero-turn mowers for golf courses, because of their speed and maneuverability around sandtraps, trees and shrubs,” says Youdbulis. “Kubota offers the ZD series, with 18- to 28-hp diesel engines, and the ZG series, with 20- to 23-hp gasoline engines.”

Although newer design rotary mowers can find uses on certain golf course areas, the fine, close cut required for greens and tees still dictates the need for reel mowers. Jeff Johnson, superintendent at The Minikahda Club in Minneapolis, Minn., keeps greens clipped to about ⅛ inch. Tees are cut at just under ⅜-inch and his fairways are cut with reel mowers to about 15/32-inch height. “We use four fairway mowers because we pick up clippings on the fairways,” says Johnson.

Minikahda has been a predominantly Toro user for many years. The 106-year-old course sees about 25,000 rounds every year. “Today's mowers are more user friendly, especially when it comes to making adjustments,” he says. “Time saving, though, is still based on getting your crew routed around the course efficiently.”

MANY CHOICES — ONE GOAL

The “paradigm” today for commercial landscapers and site managers is “productivity.” That creates a challenge: How to do the best mowing job in the shortest amount of time and, at the same time, keep the increasing costs of operation as reasonable as possible.

There is no lack of equipment choices for commercial mowing. There are more than 45 companies manufacturing and selling riding mowers, most of them zero-turn radius models. And growth has increased dramatically every year since the first ones came on the market in the early 1990s.

Not that many years ago, a “manicured lawn” was pretty much the domain of trendy resorts and high-end country clubs. These days, everybody wants one. You even hear radio commercials touting consumer mowers that leave that “manicured look” on homeowner lawns. Someone observed that owners will be satisfied with a “decent mowing job” if they do it themselves, but they want “the best” if they hire it out.

“A zero-turn radius mower is kind of the ‘Harley-Davidson’ for the yuppie crowd these days,” says Dan Dorn, product sales manager for Exmark Manufacturing. “It's a status symbol, but what they are really doing is buying back their time. The faster they get their lawn mowed, the quicker they can get on to other activities. That's the reason so many of them are hiring commercial cutters to mow their yards. They don't want to spend time mowing when they could be on the golf course.”

The offsetting factor is that owners expect a higher quality of cut when they pay someone else to do it. Dorn says Exmark has invested a lot of time in gathering data from owners and commercial landscapers on what they expect in mowing performance. “Exmark has pioneered cutting deck technology with specific baffling designs to improve cut quality. We also have focused on improving operator safety and comfort, with ROPS, ergonomic design and other measures to make it easier for the commercial operator to deliver the quality of cut customers want.”

Improved productivity has been the driving force in the continued development of Deere's Quik-Trak stand-on mowers. “The Quik-Trak fills the gap between traditional zero-turn radius mowers and walk-behinds,” says Wes Freeman, commercial mower brand manager for John Deere.

“For many mowing jobs, a stand-on mower is ideal, especially in tight landscaped areas that normally take a lot of finish-up trimming. The operator actually has better visibility of his cutting area, and can maneuver the mower to cut closer to trees, shrubs and other objects.”

While stand-on mowers are still relatively small in market share, they are gaining a good niche among landscapers who mainly mow residential properties. “We have actually had operators say they are less fatigued after operating the Quik-Trak all day than they are on a sit-down mower,” Freeman says. “Loading and unloading on a trailer is not only easier, but the stand-on unit takes up less space.”

Deere offers three Quik-Trak models, with 48-inch, 54-inch and 60-inch decks.

Roy Dust says mower productivity is the primary reason the 4-wheel independent suspension on Ferris Industries' zero-turn radius mowers is becoming more popular. Dust is a mower product specialist for Ferris and recently returned from visiting dealers and commercial landscape firms in the Southwest.

“Municipalities are more conscious of labor hours and how to better manage those hours, because municipal budgets have tightened up a lot. Commercial cutters face the same challenge — how to get more productive hours in a day.” He says purchase price for new equipment is not the most important aspect of selling commercial lawn mowers. “Productivity is the driving force today. If an operator is less fatigued on the last job of the day, he's going to do a better job.”

Dust says the suspension feature on Ferris mowers is easier on machines, as well as operators. “Long-term, the owner will have less maintenance and fewer hours lost to downtime.”

While mid-mount zero-turn radius mowers have been the sales leaders for the past few years, Mark Eby thinks out-front mower decks are poised to grab more market share. Eby and his wife, Cindy, operate Pro-Power Mid South, a Walker mower distributor for Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana.

“Front deck zero-turn mowers may not mow quite as fast as mid-mounts, but it's a proven fact that operators can save 60 to 80 percent trim time with an out-front mower compared to a mid-mount,” Eby says. He says the new Walker Model MB is a good example of a competitive, front-deck zero-turn radius mower.

“The operator can get in under tree branches or shrubs and mow a lot of the grass that a mid-mount would miss. The MB design leaves a nice, clean cut, too.” Eby says the Model MB comes with a choice of 36-inch, 42-inch, 42-mulch or 48-inch side discharge decks. “The mower has a low center of gravity for good hillside stability, and the basic body and mechanical design is very simple and easy to maintain.”

WHAT'S NEW: A BRIEF ROUNDUP

We've only touched on a few of the mower choices and developments available to the commercial operator and the facility manager. There are many more; here is a brief look at some of them:

  • There's still a need for trim mowers, and Honda has introduced its first new commercial mower in 15 years with two models: the self-propelled, hydrostatic drive HRC216HXA and the HRC216PDA push-type. Both feature the 21-inch Honda Micro-Cut twin blade system.

  • Jacobsen sells its Z-Fast Cat Plus ES mower to both commercial cutters and homeowners. It's one of the only commercial zero-turn mowers to offer PowerLink, a mobile power generator capable of supplying up to 1,000 watts of continuous 120 AC power.

  • Cub Cadet Commercial has introduced its Z-Wing 48-inch zero-turn radius mower. The operator flips a switch to raise the wings so the mower can negotiate a 36-inch gate.

  • Encore brought out its new X-treme mower with 23-hp Kawasaki engine, 52-inch deck and bigger tires. The operator can adjust cutting height from 1-inch to 4-½ inches with a foot pedal. The Encore X-treme will mow at up to 11 mph, according to the company, and comes with a 10-year deck warranty.

  • Wright Manufacturing, long-time pioneer of stand-on mowers, now has a 32-inch deck Stander for mowing in tight spaces, and has introduced the Sentar, a compact sit-down zero-turn mower that can be switched to a stand-up mower by folding up the seat.

  • Newcomers are still joining the market. A Nebraska firm, Auburn Consolidated Industries, Inc., brought out its EverRide Warrior zero-turn radius mower two years ago and introduced the smaller EverRide Hornet last year. The line is already available at more than 300 U.S. dealerships.

Gary Burchfield is a freelance writer who resides in Lincoln, Neb.

Scott Speiden has worked at Itasca Country Club for 20 years, the last 11 years as director of grounds. The 18-hole private course is just 10 miles from Chicago's O'Hare Airport and is surrounded by several world-renowned golf courses, such as Edina Country Club, Butler and Butterfield.

When the membership bought out Itasca Country Club two years ago, the board asked Speiden to upgrade the club's maintenance equipment, which averaged eight years old. “We researched all the major brands, including Jacobsen, Deere and Toro,” he says. “Ultimately, it came down to who offered us the best long-term financial contract.” Itasca went to an all-Toro lineup.

“This new equipment has increased our efficiency so much, and the reliability has been incredible,” Speiden says. “We went with all diesel engines and that has literally ‘changed the world’ for me as a superintendent. As long as we keep up on proper maintenance, the engines just keep going and going.”

Itasca operates two Reelmaster 5200-D fairway mowers and three Greensmaster 3250-D tee mowers, plus a big 4500-D rough mower. “In the old days, I used to send mowers out all week long to keep the roughs mowed. Now, I send out the one mower and he cuts all the roughs in two days.”

Although they are gas powered, Speiden uses eight new walk-behind mowers to cut the greens, and a 3500-D equipped with Toro's Sidewinder System to cut around bunker edges, greens banks and tee banks. “Shifting the mower decks right or left each time keeps the mower wheels from wearing tire tracks.”

With the club members' observations of the improved course turf and quality of cut, their expectations have gone up, too. “They gave me the go-ahead to upgrade our equipment so that we keep the course playable every day. That's what we're doing,” says Speiden.

Reel mowers usually predominate on fine cut turf like ball fields. At Ohio State University, Brian Gimbel, superintendent of athletic grounds, uses a combination of reel and rotary cutters to keep varsity athletic facilities trimmed.

He uses a Toro 3-gang reel mower with the Sidewinder Cutting System to mow the football field, which is 100 percent perennial ryegrass. The sand-based field has a polypropylene fiber stabilizer mixed into the upper 1-½ inches of the soil profile, which keeps the sand from shifting. “The perennial rye allows us to cut the field a little shorter, which makes it play faster for the football team. We cut the field at about 1-inch height all season.

“The sidewinder system lets us shift the cutting units up to 24 inches left and right to prevent tire compaction when we mow between the yard lines. One time we'll set the mower to the left, next in the center and then to the right, so the tires aren't always following the same track.”

Gimbel's crew uses a rotary mower with the sidewinder system to cut the football practice field, and uses Deere reel mowers at the baseball field and soccer stadium.

The first time Chris Urbauer and his Lawn Pro crew mowed the Forrest Lake Estates development in Lincoln, Neb., it took them 8 hours. Now, they mow and trim the upscale home development in 3 hours or less. “We've had to make our mowing time more efficient in order to recoup our fuel and labor expenses,” says Urbauer.

Like most young start-up lawn care operators, Urbauer started Lawn Pro with a 21-inch walk mower and an old F-150 pickup. His first job was mowing the yards at his grandparents' rental properties in Lincoln, Neb. That was 1999. Today, Lawn Pro services 140 accounts, about 80 percent of them residential and the rest commercial accounts, including apartment complexes and homeowner associations.

Early on, he bought two gear-drive walk-behind mowers with 36-inch decks. Last year, he upgraded to four Scag hydraulic walk-behind mowers, with two 48-inch decks, a 52-inch and a 36-inch deck. “We switched because they hold hillsides better, leave a cleaner cut and the operators aren't as fatigued by the end of the day. And, we figure we cut our mowing time by 25 percent.”

Last December, Urbauer added a zero-turn rider to his lineup. He figures the new Lazer Z HP from Exmark eliminated the equivalent of one person for his mowing crew. “The 48-inch deck is just perfect for landscaped areas, and the bagger accessory works great for picking up leaves. We can get most of them in one pass.”

Urbauer raised his rates modestly last fall, but he says the real key to success is quality of cut and efficient use of time. “Customers are more quality conscious today. They will come out while we're mowing and check the cut; they do like the striping effect.”

At the same time, he continuously works at ways to save time, both with careful scheduling and better equipment. “Yesterday we did 22 yards, including mowing, trimming and blowing, and we were done by 4:30.”

Wayne Talley has operated The Lawn Ranger, Inc. in Richmond, Va., for 21 years. His business is 95 percent commercial, but his seven mowing crews still do a number of residential properties.

“We were using three or four 48-inch walk-behind mowers on the residential lawns,” says Talley. “The operators were walking 6 or 8 miles to mow and were exhausted at the end of the day. We replaced a 52-inch deck mid-mount mower and a 44-inch walk-behind mower with two John Deere Quik-Traks, with 60-inch and 48-inch decks. We gained more than 8 percent in productivity for that three-man crew. The main saving was in our load and unload times. We actually added two more jobs on that route because of the time saving.”

Talley says the stand-on mowers cut down on pre-policing job sites, too. “It's so easy to step off and back on, the operators do their own policing while mowing.” Talley believes commercial lawn care operators have to work “every way you can” to make a profit these days. “The key is productivity of your people. As long as we do a good job, the customers will be satisfied.” Talley says the Quik-Trak is perfect for lawns from 5,000 square feet up to 4 acres.

Sales of commercial riding mowers jumped 39 percent last year, according to the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute. OPEI forecasts riding mower sales will grow more than 10 percent in 2005 and more than 14 percent in 2006. Commercial walk-behind mower sales typically range around 50,000 units per year, although they increased 7 percent last year.

OPEI says outdoor power equipment now amounts to an $8.3 billion industry. The Department of Commerce estimates $867 million worth of outdoor power equipment is exported every year, with $359 million imported. The industry provides more than 28,000 jobs in original equipment manufacturing plants.

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