PGR maximizes mowing efficiency

A combination of efficient equipment, grass growth regulators and schedule prioritizing during the past three years has vastly improved the landscape management of approximately 200 properties owned by Kansas City Power and Light Company (KCPL). Since the early '80s, the mowing has been assigned to contractors, and for the past several years, Asplundh has handled the job through its Lenexa, Kan., branch.

KCPL's sites include maintenance facilities and regional service centers with up to 10 acres or more of land, mostly electrical substations scattered throughout the 4,600-square-mile area that the utility serves. Most of these substations have no more turf than a large residential lawn, but some have an acre or more. Some smaller, remote sites include about 20 microwave tower sites and about that many vacant properties.

A new contract supervisor In 1996, KCPL assigned the responsibility for specs and supervision of the mowing contract to Robert Schmidt, a facilities engineer employed with them since 1979. Schmidt, already familiar and comfortable with growth retardants, was open to evaluating their potential for reducing mowing during the peak spring growth period. Tree growth regulators (TGRs) have been used for years by utilities, primarily by tree injections, in line clearance work.

Previously responsible for KCPL's pole mill and line maintenance, among other assignments, Schmidt is an industrial engineer. During the past four years, he and Asplundh jointly developed plans that have dramatically reduced the labor needed to keep the turf looking neat and trim.

Changing for the better One of their first objectives was to replace walk-behind mowers with larger, riding units. These include four 60-inch zero-turning-radius Country Clippers and a Hustler Rangewing, Excel's 12-foot batwing design. Schmidt says these mowers and their operators can cover an immense amount of ground in spite of excessively tall grass, temperatures above 90oF and extra-long days of work following delays caused by wet weather. For rocky, uneven, low-maintenance areas, a 6-foot Bush Hog and tractor are used.

Next, Schmidt and Asplundh worked to prioritize the mowing schedules. There are about three dozen high-visibility properties, including locations regularly visited by the public or where employees are based. Some of these sites must comply with municipal codes. Mowing is scheduled at 10-day intervals, but the grass is cut weekly if needed.

The largest group of sites, where appearance is less critical, is on an every-other-week mowing schedule. The most remote and least visible sites are scheduled to be cut at three-week intervals.

KCPL and Asplundh then studied plant growth regulators (PGRs) and their ability to reduce mowing. In 1997, they established comparison plots at the utility's Southland Service Center in Kansas, where there is a mix of grass species, but tall fescue appears to be dominant. They applied three growth regulator products, each tank-mixed with a broadleaf weed herbicide. Based on this screening, one PGR was ruled out because of turf discoloration and possible injury to the grass. Another proved too costly and also was weak on seedhead suppression. Turf growth was suppressed most effectively, with mowing postponed for nearly two months, by Stronghold PGR. It contains mefluidide, imazethapyr and imazapyr.

Don't forget the herbicide In 1998, nearly half of the Southland site (a 10-acre field for possible future expansion) received a spring application of Stronghold, as did approximately 2 acres of steep embankment at a substation in North Kansas City, Mo. At each location, mowings again were postponed for about two months and the PGR eliminated virtually all of the stems and seedheads.

However, in an attempt to reduce costs, these applications included no broadleaf herbicide. This proved to be a mistake. The sites clearly demonstrated that when turf is suppressed, weeds tend to take over unless a broadleaf herbicide also is applied.

In April 1999, the PGR and PBI/Gordon's Brush Killer 800 herbicide were applied on five high-visibility lawns, mostly at regional service centers that are normally mowed at 10-day intervals. The growth regulator saved an average of six mowings per site. Seven mowings were eliminated at the biggest site, Southland, which consists of 21 acres. Time is money

The amount of time mowing crews spend getting to and from the job, as well as unloading and reloading their equipment, affects cost significantly when there are 200 locations to be mowed. Reducing transit and prep time, as well as wear and tear on the equipment, are added benefits. Likewise, use of broadleaf herbicides (not used on these properties, at least in recent years) is viewed as an added value. It helps improve turf quality.

This year, starting in mid-April, the PGR and herbicide were applied at more than 80 KCPL sites. The spray was walked on with handguns at a rate of l pint of Stronghold and 2 pints of BK-800 in 30 gallons of water per acre. Equipment acquired for the job includes two new FMC spray rigs with 300-gallon stainless-steel tanks mounted on 4x4 F450 Super Duty Ford V-10 diesel trucks. Each has John Bean pumps gas-powered by Honda and two 250-foot hose reels.

The overall program is credited with reducing manpower requirements by more than two-thirds compared with four years ago. Even with fewer operators, mowing schedules are more realistic and reliable, thanks to the high-volume equipment, improved worker morale and better skills. Wet weather, absences and equipment downtime create less havoc than in the past. Most important, more locations boast a neat and trim appearance more of the time.

Hal Dickey is an advertising associate with PBI/Gordon Corporation (Kansas City, Mo.).

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