Tiptoeing on turf

Compact utility loaders and mini skid steers have been highly praised for their adaptability, productivity and utility. The variety of attachments available for these machines has made them a favorite with contractors. But attachments are just part of what makes these versatile machines so appealing. Mini skid steers and compact utility loaders allow mechanized, productive labor on sites where, before, only manual labor was possible. With machinery moving into these more sensitive areas of the landscape, turf managers' attention has turned to the importance of treading lightly on turf and other sensitive landscape surfaces. Quick to respond to the needs of turf managers, manufacturers are offering them the best of both worlds: machines that will get the tough jobs done while being easy on turf. Both wheeled and tracked models of various shapes and sizes are out there; but you need to be able to choose the one that best suits your purposes. There are many alternatives to larger, traditional skid steers that make a light impression on the landscape. Learn what equipment is available and how it can help you efficiently accomplish the tasks more productively and profitably.

Strong, yet sensitive

Landscape contractors working in established landscapes are keenly aware of the impact machinery has on turf and other sensitive landscape surfaces. The homeowner may be delighted with his new fence or water feature, but he will not be happy if his lawn is compacted, rutted or damaged by equipment. Established landscapes, cemeteries and public parks are a few areas where grounds maintenance must not interfere with public use, and contractors must choose and operate equipment wisely. Ball fields and golf courses have higher standards for turf quality, and it is essential that you tread lightly while providing services in these environmentally sensitive areas.

But is it really easy on turf?

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What does it mean to be “easy on turf”? Is there an industry standard? What ground pressure is acceptable? There is no single answer to these questions that applies to every situation; it depends on the task at hand. For maneuvering in a finished landscape, less weight is essential to avoid costly turf repair, not to mention homeowner dismay. Public parks, ball fields, cemeteries and public beaches all require a light footprint from equipment. Generally, the tracked models exert 2 to 4 psi of ground pressure. The models with tires — especially those with the larger floatation tires — will exert about 7 to 12 psi of ground pressure. For reference, an adult standing on the lawn would exert about 6 to 8 psi of ground pressure. A lightweight machine will decrease damage to turf, period.

However, the effect on turf is not limited to ground pressure alone. The number of contact points equipment has with the ground and the material tracks and tires are made of (rubber, metal) also help determine turf impact. In Clearwater, Fla., city crews use rubber-tracked machinery to work on the beaches. In the past, they used small skid steers. Jay Lemke, spokesperson for ASV (All Season Vehicles), says “even those exerted enough pressure to kill turtle eggs buried inches under the surface of the beach.” However, a smaller machine (in this case, ASV's RC-30) runs aptly over the beach for clean-up or digging, but does not harm turtle eggs — even when you drive directly over them. This extreme degree of “treading lightly” is not required in every situation, however, and the range of equipment choices in this area matches your various opportunities for using it.

How to spot turf-friendly equipment

Marc Bowers, marketing manager for Toro's SiteWork Systems (the Dingo product line), describes the difference between traditional skid steers and more turf-friendly compact utility loaders as “the difference between a butcher knife and a Swiss Army knife. The butcher knife (skid steer) is built for one solid function. The compact utility loader, like the Swiss Army knife, can operate many attachments and travels lightly on turf, which the larger machines just cannot do.”

Ken Lange, Ramrod product specialist, says that you may lose some power in exchange for treading lightly on turf. “While the mini skids don't have the power of a (traditional) skid steer, they are smaller, more maneuverable and lighter, causing little disruption to turf, greens and landscaped areas,” he says. “The articulated models also prevent possible damage from the twist-and-turn motion of a traditional skid steer.”

Again, low-weight ground pressure is not the only factor affecting sensitive surfaces. Operator comfort can affect turf damage, and fatigue or decreased visibility can affect performance. A “turf-friendly” aspect of walk-behind models is operator position, offering a clear 360 degrees of visibility. Bowers says this helps operators determine whether they are damaging turf. “The operator can clearly see the tracks and the ground to ensure that turf damage is not occurring,” he says. “The wheeled models are almost all ride-on units. They are small and responsive, but the operator takes the same bumps as the machine does.”

Design and geometry of equipment also help keep ground pressure and turf damage to a minimum. Large, turf-type tires are an example of turf-friendly design. Other turf-friendly factors include a narrow machine width for efficiency in small areas. Carol Dilger, corporate marketing services manager for Ariens (makers of Gravely equipment), stresses the importance of balanced weight distribution and the use of turf-type tires work to minimize damage to turf.

Alan Porter, president of Kanga says, “Wheeled vehicles approach the floatation and distribution advantages of tracked vehicles without drawing power needed to run attachments. While over-the-tire tracks can be added as an accessory, extra power is required to run the tracks, and tracks make a rougher ride for the operator.” With such a large footprint, additional tracks may not be necessary.

Regardless of however light, maneuverable and turf-sensitive your equipment might be, a careless or unskilled operator can do damage to turf even in a machine designed to minimize damage. Porter points out that “a careful operator will always, if possible, choose a long-radius turn over a zero-radius turn to avoid turf damage. And a tracked vehicle can cause more damage than tires in the hands of a careless operator, simply because it has more contact with the ground.”

Tracks vs. wheels

While manufacturers cannot agree on whether tracked or wheeled equipment is easier on turf, they all stress the importance of selecting which equipment best fits your needs based on the job you need to do with it. Obviously, you may prefer wheels or tracks depending on a variety of other factors, too.

Tires, no matter how large, have only four points of contact with the turf. But if you routinely work in wet or muddy conditions, you may want tracks, which provide superior floatation. Rubber or Kevlar tracks will do less damage to soft ground than steel tracks with metal lugs. However, wider tires are available for almost all wheeled skid steers and can reduce ground pressure to about 11 psi. Many contractors like the generous tires because they approach the floatation and distribution advantages characteristic of tracked vehicles without drawing power.

“Machines with tracks will distribute the weight of the machine over a larger footprint, minimizing damage to turf,” explains Dilger. “However, tracks will tend to increase the possibility of damage if the contractor is working in a confined area where zero-turn technology is needed.”

Lynn Roesler, loader product manager for Bobcat, says that he believes in the benefits of tracks. “Generally speaking, a rubber tire will leave more of a footprint than a track,” Roesler says. “Steel tracks tear up turf more than rubber or Kevlar, but are better on hard surfaces.”

Traction, drive and steering features

  • Steering. Some mini skid-steer or compact utility models offer an alternative with articulated steering, meaning that the machine is “hinged” in the middle and turns by angling toward the direction of travel. The wheels are always rolling but not skidding or pivoting. These articulated models are “probably the most turf-friendly machines on the market,” according to Kristie Asbury, vice president of marketing and sales for Power Trac. “Skid steers twist and skid from side to side causing damage to the turf.” Articulated steering means no scuffing of the turf, because the wheels do not scoot across the turf; they stay in motion and the front tires track the rear tires. Many articulated models also pivot to keep all four wheels on the ground.

    Richard Burckardt, marketing services manager for Gehl, says that, although the articulated models don't have the lifting capability of the more powerful skid steers, the versatility and maneuverability are huge advantages. “A (traditional) skid steer is well-suited to landscape contracting, farming and construction,” he says. “The articulated models are more maneuverable with good traction and easy operator handling, making them well-suited for grounds-maintenance applications such as golf courses, landscaping and ball fields.”

  • Traction. Even though you want to be easy on turf, you still need power and traction to get the job done. “In some tracked machines, traction is determined by having large lugs, which tear up grass,” says Lemke. “On the ASV RC-30 track loaders, traction comes from the 24-wheeled contact points within the rubber-tracks. The outside of the track does not have large lugs. The contact point transfers the weight of the machine through the track to the ground, so the ground pressure is as low as 2.5 psi — similar to that of a child.”

    The Actio system of full-chassis oscillation is an innovation used by Antonio Carraro. Jeff McGinnis, spokesperson for Redexim Charterhouse and Antonio Carraro, says this feature optimizes traction. “The chassis is optimized on all four large wheels, guaranteeing maximum grip on all types of ground,” he says. “Our TRX model also moves and operates in both directions, making it a good fit for those tight spots, while being easy on turf. Precision steering on a tight-turning circle allows easier steering, movement and turning on turf.”

  • Drive. Part of fitting into tight spaces is having the drive and propulsion to get there. Finn Sales Associate Pat Holubetz says a narrow width is, obviously, an important feature on equipment you'll be using in tight spots. “Finn's Eagle 250 can easily fit through 48- and 36-inch gates for access to sites not accessible to larger equipment” says Holubetz. “That's an important consideration for situations where leaving a light footprint is necessary” With skid, pivot (zero turning) and differential steering, compact machines are designed for maneuvering easily in tight spots while creating little ground pressure. Some stand-behind wheeled models can be fitted with tracks to provide floatation and minimize damage to wet ground.

Match the equipment to the task

Larry Foster, John Deere product manager, emphasizes the importance of qualifying the task and choosing the right equipment when determining how to tread lightly and get the job done efficiently on delicate landscape surfaces. “Traditional skid steers are the choice for small renovations, trenching, leveling grades, moving material and conditioning soil,” he says. Although the increased width will not fit into some tight spots, some heavier jobs will require the additional power and lifting capability while still necessitating treading lightly on turf. With the addition of specialty tire combinations, these machines can make an easy pass over sensitive ground surfaces. A low center of gravity and long wheelbase add to stability. The footprint of the equipment can be lessened, while traction and stability on slopes is improved with the addition of tracks over the wheels. On the larger skid steers, the addition of tracks over the tires does not contribute to performance or power problems. “There are many more factors than dimensions and weight to consider,” Foster adds.

Kent Pellegrini, skid-steer product marketing manager for New Holland, says that New Holland is looking toward stepping up to more versatility in the future with smaller, more maneuverable units that use attachments efficiently and negotiate tight spaces cleanly. “For the landscape contractor seeking less ground disturbance, the lighter the machine and the more the weight is evenly distributed, the better-off the condition of the turf after the job,” says Pellegrini.

What about operator safety and ergonomics?

The mini skid steers and compact utility loaders are already well-known for being extremely easy to learn to operate. Universal faceplates allow for easy use of attachments. Walk-behind models allow increased visibility and the operator to separate from the machine for safety in uncertain terrain. Many sit-down models are equipped with seat belt, roll bar and other safety features, and still allow a high degree of visibility surrounding the machine. While considering all the available attachments, traction, drive, steering, tracks or wheels, don't forget to consider the nature of the landscape where you will be using this equipment, as well as considerations for the operator when choosing equipment to make a light and environmentally sensitive footprint on turf.

Wendelyn Crosby is a freelance writer, photographer and graphic designer.
You can visit her web site at www.wcrosby.com.

All Season Vehicles (ASV), Inc.

RC-30

This all-surface loader is track-driven on an R-Series Traction and Support System that gives it a ground-pressure rating of 2.5 psi. It is powered by a 31.5-hp Caterpillar 3013 diesel engine and has a 10-gallon fuel tank, operator cage, skid-steer-like controls and quick-connect attachments. It is 46.5 inches wide and 91 inches long.
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Antonio Carraro

TRX and TTR series

These vehicles offer greater balance through full-chassis oscillation (ACTIO), which allows traction to be optimized on all four large wheels, guaranteeing maximum grip. Their wide, low-pressure tires create ground pressure of 8.5 psi. TRX and TTR models are powered by a direct-injection diesel engine and feature a reversible control tower.
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Bobcat

T190

With its dedicated rubber track system, the T190 offers enhanced flotation and traction designed for minimal ground disturbance, with 5 psi ground pressure that improves productivity in soft, wet, muddy or sandy conditions. It has a 56-hp Kubota diesel engine and is 66 inches wide. Standard features include automatic shutdown and auxiliary hydraulics.
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Finn Corporation

Eagle 250

This compact skid steer features a 25-hp Kohler engine and 13.25 gpm hydraulic flow rate. Full power is delivered to wheel and tools simultaneously, with no flow divider required. Features include dual fuel tanks (11-gallon), ergonomically designed controls with more than 40 attachments and a universal faceplate that fits standard compact skid-steer attachments.
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Gehl

AVANTAGE series

Gehl offers a skid-steer model with lift capacity of 700 pounds and an articulated-steering model with lift capacity of 910 pounds. Both feature full-time 4-wheel drive, hydrostatic breaking, auxiliary hydraulics with dripless couplers and are available with 20-hp diesel engines. Traction or turf tires are optional.
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Gravely (by Ariens Company)

Skidster 200

The Skidster is 37 inches wide, 74 inches long and can fit between fences, close buildings and other limited-access areas. It has a soft-touch control system allowing easy maneuvering, and an optional EZ-on/EZ-off weight kit allows you to add weights to complete tougher jobs. It's lightweight design and balanced weight distribution make it easy on turf.
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John Deere

240 and 250 skid steers

Both models are compact and feature a low center of gravity and high ground clearance. The 240 model is 64.1 inches wide with ground clearance of 8.2 inches. It is powered by a 53-hp John Deere 3029D engine with cast-aluminum pistons. The 250 model is powered by a 64.4-hp John Deere engine and has ground clearance of 9.6 inches. Both models feature a breakout force of 5,500 pounds.
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Kanga Loaders

Mini loader

Large turf-pattern tires give the Kanga a large footprint that is not damaging to turf. Choose from Honda, Briggs & Stratton or Kubota (diesel) engines that are 20 hp. Standard equipment includes 4-in-1 bucket, electric start, multi-fit chassis, self-leveling bucket, non-slip rear step and enclosed drive chains.
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New Holland

LS170

Ground disturbance is minimized due to operating-weight displacement, which also enhances the skid steer's balance. Increased visibility allows you to see the area you are working in, so that you can better-prevent possible damage. The skid steer is powered by a 52-hp, liquid-cooled engine. It is 64.7 inches wide with ground clearance of 7.9 inches.
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Power Trac

PT-425 and PT-422

Both vehicles articulate plus-or-minus 45 degrees to provide firm traction without damaging turf. The 422 is powered by a 22-hp engine while the 425 uses a 25-hp engine. Both models are 4-wheel drive. More than 40 attachments are available that fit both machines.
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Ramrod

Taskmaster series

The 750 and 550 T-G skid loaders have a 16-hp gas engine, 4-wheel hydraulic drive and self-leveling load. The 750 is 36 to 42 inches wide and has a 750-pound capacity while the 550 is 31 inches wide and has a 550-pound capacity.
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Toro SiteWork Systems, Inc.

Dingo series

The TX420 model rolls on dual Kevlar-reinforced rubber tracks that won't damage turf. Its overall weight is 1,830 pounds and its ground pressure is rated at 3.4 psi. The Dingo 222 is wheel-driven and steers like a skid steer. It weighs 1,430 pounds with 11.9 psi ground pressure. Turf tires or rubber-over-the-tire tracks are available and decrease ground pressure to 5.1 psi. Both models are designed to give the operator 360-degrees of visibility.
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DECREASE THE DAMAGE

When operating equipment on delicate landscapes such as turf or seed beds, a few simple rules can help minimize damage and improve productivity. Always keep an eye on the tracks or tires to make sure that spinning or sinking is not occurring. No matter how turf-friendly the machine, operator awareness is essential. When moving forward, backward or turning, make sure that all wheels or tracks are moving at all times. If a tire is not rolling, it will “skid” on the turf and tear the roots, causing the turfgrass to die. When turning, make wide turns, this will reduce stress on the surface leaving the turf healthy and fresh.
Source: The Toro Co.

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