EQUIPMENT OPTIONS: 2001: A mulching odyssey

The case for mulching grass clippings is compelling.

Save time. Save money. Save landfill space.

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Grass recycling is not a universal practice in the grounds-care industry; however, new advancements on several fronts by outdoor equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and aftermarket developers make it harder to ignore.

According to experts at The Pennsylvania State University Agricultural Information Services (http:aginfo.psu.edu/news), many professional turf managers have held off on mulching as part of their regular mowing routine because past efforts have resulted in clumping and streaking. What's more, whenever they stop or change directions, a nice little pile of clippings is left to mark the event. “Clearly, clumping is the main reason professionals don't mulch,” says David Livingston, a researcher in turf studies at Penn State.

These conditions occur most frequently in wet conditions, such as those caused by early morning dews or after midday showers, and are particularly challenging in the spring when turf grows lush and fast. Leave-behinds are unacceptable to most turf managers, and they will do whatever it takes to eliminate them because the final appearance is, ultimately, what is important to customers, Livingston emphasizes.

But smart turf managers also know that collecting grass clippings is a drag on time and profits. Stopping to empty a grass catcher or bag can extend mowing time by up to 40 percent, say the experts at Penn State. Mowing over the clumps again also adds time and decreases productivity. Transporting and disposing of the clippings is a significant time and cost drain as well. About 25 states ban garden waste in landfills, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and many local landfills impose their own bans in states that still allow it. Clearly, the trend in disposal of organic materials is moving away from dumping.

Several advancements in mowing technology now give the professional turf manager the tools to mulch in virtually any conditions, including Monday morning's dense, wet grass that should have been mowed Friday. More power, wider mowing units, better grass flow in the deck and a new generation of blades that turn turf clippings to dust lead the 2001 turf-innovation odyssey.

Free fertilizer

Mulching, often called grass cycling by turf agronomists, is an excellent source of nutrients, reducing the need for fertilizer. When you mow turf on a regular basis, clippings, which are mostly water, break down easily, returning nitrogen and other nutrients to the soil. If you leave the clippings on the lawn, you can reduce fertilizer needs by as much as one-third, plus save time by not having to make as many fertilizer applications.

A myth persists that thatch accumulation is a result of clippings. This is not the case. Clippings decompose readily and contribute little to thatch, which is caused more by stemmy parts of grass plants. Turf experts advise to never cut off more than ⅓ of the leaf blade at one time. This may require mowing more than once per week during peak growing times.

More power

Mulching decks have been popular in 62- and 72-inch widths for several years, but the power barrier prevented manufacturers from incorporating grass cycling into wider decks. Wet, thick turf demands more power for proper mulching without unsightly clumping. To achieve better mulching results, turf operators had to mow more often or walk slower, all the time dreaming of bigger engines and better technology. That is, until this year. Manufacturers have stepped up with more power (some offering mowing units with 50-plus horsepower) and new deck designs, because how the grass is managed under the deck is just as important as power when it comes to mulching.

Recycling-deck construction is important for efficient use of power that can result in a quality mowing job. Some mowing decks call themselves “mulching decks” but do nothing more than close off the discharge chute. With this type of deck, all the clippings are still being moved from one side of the deck to the other and can't escape. The longer that clippings are suspended under the deck, the greater the drain on the power, reducing torque and the deck's effectiveness. The result, of course, is unsightly windrows or clumps. Often, the deck may even stall in wet, heavy grass situations.

A well-designed mulching deck cuts grass into smaller clippings — for faster decomposition into the soil — and then moves them down as rapidly as possible. Traditional mulching mowers manage clippings efficiently under the deck. Recycler decks use kickers and blades designed to lift up the grass and keep it suspended for repeated cutting before allowing it to fall back down to the ground.

Better blades

Turf professionals who want to mulch can now use specially designed blades that pulverize clippings. For example, some blades have jagged teeth instead of a traditional-looking cutting edge. Others have multiple cutting edges. Many employ kickers or tails that force blades upward for repeated chopping.

Mulching blades tend to lift the grass up, giving it a clean, even cut, and provide finely chopped clippings. Incidentally, the high lift also makes using these blades in bagging operations an excellent choice. If you still prefer to collect the clippings (many mowers can be used either way), these blades reduce your clippings to a fraction of their normal size, resulting in fewer stops to empty the bag. The miniscule clippings may also decompose quicker you compost them or use them as mulch around trees and shrubs.

Mulching blades also make it more practical for you to mulch tree leaves on turf. Research has shown that light to moderate amounts of leaves do not harm mature turf when mulched in place. Mulched leaves contain less nutritional value than green clippings, so the main value is in reducing your need to dispose of huge volumes of leaves in the fall.

Make the most out of mulching

More power and wider decks, better blades and innovative under-deck designs now make mulching a preferred mowing practice from an appearance, productivity and environmental point of view. Here are some points to remember about grass cycling that will improve your turf management:

  • Mow when the grass is dry, if possible.

  • Remove only one-third of grass length per mowing.

  • Mow more often in the spring — every 5 to 7 days, if needed — to reduce clumping and leave-behinds. Turf researchers at many universities recommend this. If this becomes a burden, consider raising the mowing height to hide clippings better and to make a healthier turf.

Turf management today demands more productivity and cost containment. Mowing times need to be reduced. Collecting clippings is time consuming, and disposing of the clippings is expensive. The latest technology incorporates power with new designs under the deck to help solve these problems.

Don St. Dennis is managing director of corporate communications for The Toro Co. (Bloomington, Minn.).

Who: Bobcat

What: Midsize walk-behind mowers

Description: Choose from gear- and hydrostatic-drive versions. Recent updates include a range of full-floating and fixed decks. Three Kawasaki gas engines in 15, 17 or 21 hp, plus a 12-hp Briggs & Stratton gas model, are available as power options. Suspended, full-floating decks come in 36-, 48-, 54- and 61-inch widths and feature anti-scalp rollers with large caster wheels for handling stability. An add-on kit is also available for converting cutting decks into mulching decks.
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Who: Bunton

What: Midsize walk-behind mowers

Description: These mowers offer expanded engine choices, larger cutting widths and a choice of fixed or full-floating decks. Standard features include an electric clutch and a top-mounted cutter spindle with a larger mounting pad. Hydrostatic-drive models feature redesigned steering controls and a new single-lever speed control. Choose from three Kawasaki gas engines in 15, 17 or 21 hp. Fixed decks come in 36- and 48-inch widths with an optional add-on mulching deck.
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Who: Cub Cadet Commercial

What: HF1748

Description: The HF1748, a dual hydro wide-area, walk-behind mower, has a 17-hp Kawasaki, V-twin, OHV engine and 48-inch Command Cut System deck. An extra-deep deck design maximizes flow for smaller grass clippings; a 1.7-inch overlap of the mower's Marbane blades results in a cleaner cut. Computer design adds a 1.5-inch lip on the underside of the deck to aid in mulching. It prevents grass blowouts and keeps grass under the deck for multiple cutting and re-cutting.
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Who: Dixie Chopper

What: LX1901-42

Description: Dixie Chopper mowers are equipped with standard features including a welded tube frame, front caster taper roller bearings, two-piece mower deck construction and foot-operated deck height adjustment. Low-pressure ATV-type tires give the mowers a smoother ride. The “quad-loop” cooling system constantly flushes and replaces high-pressure drive oil with cooled, filtered oil. An operator-controlled discharge chute/mulcher plate make mulching more convenient.
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Who: Encore

What: Premier Pro-line walk-behind mowers

Description: Available in both gear-driven and hydrostatic models, all units feature a removable fuel tank. Use the mulching deck, side-discharge deck or grass catcher. Decks have a reinforced, 7-gauge support channel under the belt shield and a front-to-back deck stabilizing Z-bar to minimize vibration and increase deck strength. A square 1.25-inch tubular steel bumper adds more front deck stability between the casters and protects the mower from front-end damage.
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Who: Exmark

What: Micro-Mulch system

Description: Exmark's precision-engineered Micro-Mulch system is designed to fit most Exmark side-discharge mowers and features 18,500 fpm blade-tip speed and uniquely angled blades with longer cutting surfaces to slice clippings into a fine mulch. Aerodynamically designed deck, baffles and blades create airflow patterns that circulate the clippings for repeated cuttings and even dispersal. Mulching baffles enclose each blade in an individual cutting chamber. Grass is kept in the chamber for fine chopping.
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Who: Grasshopper

What: M1 mid-mount mower

Description: These mid-mount mowers feature straightaway ground speeds of up to 10.5 mph and 5.5-inch-deep DuraMax decks. Available in 52-, 61- or 72-inch widths, DuraMax decks offer enhanced airflow for even dispersal of high-volume clippings at faster mowing speeds. Choose from air- or liquid-cooled, gas or diesel models with 20- to 28-hp OHV horizontal crankshaft engines and 10-gallon fuel tank.
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Who: Howard Price Turf Equipment

What: Blazer 360Z

Description: The “Step Cut” mulching blade combined with special baffling is the heart of the mowers mulching operation. Grass circles the top of the deck and is sucked down to the center of the blade and re-cut. The grass is then blown down into the turf, leaving a manicured appearance. Recycling deck is designed to improve total cutting performance: no grass clippings to remove, no landfill costs. Floating front axle follows turf contours for a smooth ride. Absorbs ground shock and prevents frame breakage.
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Who: Hustler

What: UpperCut deck

Description: The UpperCut mulching deck does not rob horsepower by suspending the cut material under the deck. Material is kept moving so that there are no clumps when you stop or turn. It is a rear-discharge deck that offers a quality cut and discharge, leaving no windrows. A new blade design enhances airflow and produces an even finer mulch.
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Who: Ingersoll Equipment Co., Inc.

What: Mulching kits

Description: Ingersoll offers mulching kits to fit any standard 44-, 48-, 52- or 62-inch side-discharge deck. The kits feature three specially designed blades and a baffle that can be quickly installed.
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Who: Jacobsen

What: HR-5111

Description: Capable of cutting up to 65 acres per day, the HR-5111 is a high-production mower for golf courses, parks and other large green spaces. Three adjustable-height, floating decks and 4-wheel drive help it produce consistent results on uneven terrain. It cuts a swath 11.33 feet wide and features hydraulic drive. Power steering, tilt wheel and a differential lock for hill traction are all standard features. Available options include two-post rollover protection structure, full cab and an add-on mulching deck conversion kit.
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Who: John Deere

What: 7-Iron mower decks

Description: The 7-Iron commercial mower decks provide commercial cutters with thick, durable mowing decks without sacrificing cut quality. These decks are stamped from a single sheet of 7-gauge steel, providing a smooth underside to reduce material buildup. High-lift blades cerate a strong vacuum keeping grass clippings in circulation for mulching, and increased blade overlap ensures that every piece of grass is cut.
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Who: Kubota Tractor Corp.

What: ZD-Series mowers

Description: The new ZD-Series includes the ZD18 and ZD21 zero-radius turn mowers, both built around a unitized chassis assembly that incorporates the transmission as an integral part of the sub-frame. The chassis and suspension design provide a wide stance for improved stability and a smooth, more comfortable ride. The front-suspension system utilizes a pivoting front axle that follows ground contours over uneven terrain. Mulching kit is optional.
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Who: Progressive Turf Equipment

What: Pro-Flex 120 mulching kit

Description: Installing mulching kit 600501 transforms Progressive Turf Equipment's Pro-Flex 120 into a contour mulching mower. This mulching kit is designed primarily for spring and fall clean-up and leaf mulching.
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Who: Ransomes

What: Front Line 700 Series

Description: The 723D features a 23-hp, liquid-cooled Kubota diesel engine while the 728D is powered by a 26-hp Kubota diesel engine. Both have 2-wheel-drive hydrostatic transmissions. Deck options for both models include 63- and 72-inch side-discharge, 60- and 70-inch rear-discharge decks as well as a 72-inch Envirodeck mulching deck.
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Who: Scag Power Equipment

What: Cougar Utility Mower

Description: The Cougar Utility Mower will side discharge or mulch grass as well as haul fertilizer, seed or other landscaping materials. It is equipped with the Advantage cutter deck that can cut up to 23 acres per day. The Mulch Master system is also included for mulching clippings into ultra-fine particles that virtually disappear. A utility tray feature, measuring 24×37.5 inches, allows you to carry and transfer all your landscaping supplies. The mower is powered by a 25-hp Kohler or 27-hp Kawasaki liquid-cooled engine.
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Who: Simplicity Manufacturing, Inc.

What: Mulching mower deck

Description: A mulching mower deck is available on the 17-hp Regent lawn tractor. A domed design helps prevent clumps of grass from building up inside the mower deck that could interfere with the mulching process. The counter-rotating, timed blade system promotes a smooth cut, which includes picking up and cutting grass that has been laid down by the tractor's front wheels. The side-discharge broadcast option allows you to cut longer grass and disperse it throughout the yard where it can later be mulched.
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Who: Snapper

What: SPLH171KW

Description: This mid-sized walk-behind mower is powered by a 17-hp OHV Kawasaki engine and features a full floating deck with height adjustment and 7-gauge steel deck construction. It also utilizes Accutrac on-the-go fingertip hydrostatic drive control with comfort-loop steering and a field-serviceable spindle assembly. Snapper's Ninja Mulching System can be added to the deck to leave lawns looking manicured without bags of grass clippings.
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Who: Steiner

What: ZTM325

Description: A 25-hp engine delivers ground speeds of up to 9 mph. The mower features a foot-operated electronic height adjustment, a single park lever and twin hydrostatic hand controls, multiple anti-scalp rollers and a high-volume deck discharge. A mulching option is also available.
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Who: Swisher

What: Zero-turning radius riding mower

Description: Its patented front-wheel drive and zero-turn capability allow you to cut cleanly around trees and shrubs. It features an 8-hp Briggs & Stratton electric-start engine. The 32-inch cutting deck with heavy duty high-lift blades is designed to enhance cutting performance, with a quick-change chute for mulching or side discharge. The single-lever height adjusting deck is made of ⅛-inch steel with anti-scalp rollers. Wide wheels offer increased traction.
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Who: The Toro Co.

What: Groundsmaster 4000-D

Description: The most powerful 11-foot rotary in the market, the Groundsmaster 4000-D features three cutting decks that operate independently of each other, providing you the ability to handle wide-open areas. It is powered by a Kubota 58-hp, turbo-charged diesel engine with torque output of 117 foot-pounds at normal operating engine speed. Rear-discharge cutting decks provide even dispersion of clippings for a clean after-cut appearance. Decks are convertible to fully enclosed Guardian Recycler decks that mulch for even cleaner slipping management. This is the first mulching mower to be available in a deck configuration with a cutting swath more than 6 feet.
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Who: Woods Equipment Company

What: F-Series Mow'n Machine

Description: Woods completely redesigned these commercial-grade, front-mount zero-turn radius mowers. They are available in four models with heavy-duty hydrostatic drive trains including Hydro-Gear pumps and Parker-Ross wheel motors. The cut-away design of the dual fuel tanks gives the operator a direct line of sight to the drive tires, which helps reduce turf damage because the operator can see traction problems and quickly correct them. The True-Float deck is designed to adjust to the contours of the terrain.
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