What's New: Large-area mowers

Mowing large turf areas efficiently is challenging work. You must make many decisions when bidding and planning your strategies for managing large turf areas. For example, you need to consider the area's use, what design concepts affect your management programs for the site and what types of equipment you'll need to implement these programs.

Determining the appropriate types of equipment for the specific areas of a large site is key to creating a usable turf area while also ensuring profitable results. Look closely at the different types of terrain with which you'll be dealing. Does the site vary in grade? Does it have picnic tables and trees? What types of access do you have for getting in and out of the site? Are light standards placed at close intervals? For what purpose is the turf area being used? These are just some of the questions you'll need to ask yourself in the planning process.

Choosing the appropriate equipment Many different equipment options exist that can help you meet the challenges you'll encounter in maintaining large sites. * Multi-decked rotary or reel gang mowers. For large, open, unobstructed areas consisting of more than 4 acres, using a mower smaller than a 72-inch-wide rotary deck is impractical. You're best off cutting larger areas, such as fairways and open parks, with multi-decked rotary or reel gang mowers. Choose equipment of this type that mows no less than 3 acres per hour. Gang mowers can offer cutting widths up to 20 feet and are both flexible and forgiving. For example, if the turf area has many undulating hillsides and mounds, you can avoid scalping by using this type of equipment. This is because each gang is separate from the others and actually hugs the terrain.

Reel mowers have a slicing action that often gives a cleaner cut. Unfortunately, these mowers' overall maintenance is extremely high. Also, you cannot use them on rough, rocky ground, and they have limitations on how high you can cut the turf with them, which prevents many commercial mowing operations from using them.

Most large mowers in the 72-inch range require a minimum of a 28-hp diesel- or a 45-hp gas-powered engine. Some contractors prefer diesel-power engines for their longer life and the fewer repairs they require. Keep in mind, however, your up-front cost with these units. Typically, mowers with diesel-powered engines run about 25 percent more in purchase price.

Another consideration with purchasing these units is looking at their fuel-tank size and fuel consumption. The larger an engine is, the larger its fuel tank should be. Make sure you always carry enough fuel to handle the equipment's daily needs.

A drawback to gang-type mowers is their size-which also is one of their primary advantages, of course. You typically need a tractor to pull gang-type mowers, and they are more difficult to transport.

* Riding mowers. Say you've got a large area-but it's not as large as several acres. You can mow these "smaller" large areas, which typically have varying terrain and more obstacles, using a variety of other mower types. Riding mowers, for example, come in sizes such as a 56-inch rotary deck, along with many styles and options. For hilly terrain, you'll want a mower with a wider stance and 4-wheel drive. This choice will provide the best traction and the safest ride. In some cases, you'll need roll-over protection structures (ROPS), as well.

Another hot item many grounds managers use in "smaller" large areas with multiple obstacles are zero-turn-radius riders. These have deck sizes ranging from 36 to 62 inches. They are replacing intermediate walk-behind mowers in many equipment fleets. The units are extremely maneuverable in tight situations such as picnic grounds and areas with many trees and utilities. They are set up for quick, tight turns without causing scalping or tire damage. The engine and deck size you choose should depend on how your turf areas are set up. Most zero-turn-radius mowers are equipped with floating or articulating decks and rollers to reduce scalping on mounded areas. Engine sizes vary from 14 to 28 hp. A disadvantage to those units is that some of the smaller-horse-power engines tend to bog down in wet or long turf. Most of these smaller riders can mow at speeds up to 8 miles per hour and cover more than 25 acres a day under ideal conditions. However, don't expect this type of production routinely as you'll rarely find these conditions.

* Intermediate walk-behind mowers. These are the last mower type you should consider when faced with maintaining a large turf area. Basically, you should only consider them in extremely tight situations where you can't operate larger mowers. These are the least-productive machines for these situations. Deck sizes range from 36 to 62 inches. The larger the deck, the larger the engine should be. The smaller engine sizes typically are under-powered in most large-area situations.

If choosing this type of equipment for a large area, select hydraulic-drive systems over belt-drive. Hydraulic systems provide more positive response on hills and in tight situations. Belt-drive systems tend to slip in hilly or wet situations. They also are more difficult to keep in adjustment and require more shop time to keep them in proper operating condition.

Keeping your operator comfortable You can't forget operator comfort and control when mowing large turf areas. Your operators, more than likely, mow with these units up to 8 hours per day. Therefore, the operator platform should be set up ergonomically. In other words, the seat and control systems must be set up for comfort, stability and safety. This is important because a satisfied operator is going to mow more acres per day than an operator who's uncomfortable. Make sure the operator fits comfortably in the seat with all the controls at his or her reach. Fewer movements during operation reduces the degree of fatigue during the day.

Managing changes in grade The smoothness of the overall grade in a large turf area can greatly affect its maintenance. If conditions exist that require the operator to slow down, consider filling in the low areas to provide a smoother mowing surface. This can be a particular problem in parks with many trees. Surface tree roots not only slow mowing, but they also damage equipment and produce operator fatigue and injury. Often, you can correct the problem by shaving tree roots or grinding them down to grade, or you can mound soil over them. Before taking any steps such as these, however, consult with a certified arborist. Doing so will help you avoid permanent injury to an established tree.

Another tip to increase production in large turf areas is to enlarge the mulch wells around tree trunks. This move reduces the possibility of mechanical injury to tree trunks and also helps eliminate tight turning around them. By widening tree wells, you also reduce competition for water and nutrients between the tree and the turf.

You should analyze each and every factor closely when establishing a large turfgrass mowing operation. This will not only save time and money, but it will help in achieving the ultimate goal: customer satisfaction.

Kevin Davis is exterior operations manager and Paul Swanson is field supervisor at Gardeners' Guild Inc. (San Rafael, Calif.).

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