We know what a well-groomed landscape means to a client. Often, that landscape is the first thing seen when looking at someone?s home or property. We also know that there?s rarely a moment of thought for the landscape contractor who created that look, and even less of a thought of the landscape architect who may have designed it.
Certainly, no thought goes to the machines that make that property look the way it does. But then, there is that one tried-and-true piece of equipment that is always on hand ? the mower. The one most of us remember while growing up, dreading the weekends when we would have to take it out of the garage or tool shed, and push it in as straight a line as was possible, back and forth, around the trees, and then rake what we thought were tons of shredded leaves and grass into a bag.
Fortunately, time and technology have changed over the past 30-plus years. The lawn mower, undoubtedly one of the most useful and required tools in the landscape contractor?s tool shop, is no longer the manual-powered rotating blade that did the job way back when. The array of machines available on the market today have come a long way. What models suit your needs and how many different models do you need to get your jobs done? Bob Walker, president of the Walker Manufacturing Company, in Fort Collins, Colorado, explains, ?There is a balance to consider when designing a mower. The elements of this balance are weight, ease of use, productivity and safety. It?s an ongoing challenge.? Surely, you want a mower that is cost-efficient, not just on sticker price, but one that gets high marks for its ease of operation and maintenance. Since, as you?re well aware, reduced man-hours on each job is a primary way of increasing profitability, your choice of equipment directly affects your bottom line. Types of mowers
The traditional walk-behind mower has been the industry standard for decades. It?s safe to say that every contractor, regardless of their company?s size, has one. While the walk-behind offers the lowest price, there?s the wear-and-tear they put on the operator. Fortunately, the larger models, usually starting at 36 inches, come with a self-propelled option. The walk-behind is relatively light weight and offers the widest array of cutting widths, from the smallest at approximately 21 inches, up to 72 inches on the self-propelled units. Some landscape contractors feel that what can?t be reached with a larger zero-turn radius model can easily be handled with a walk-behind. Because they?re easy to handle and control, walk-behinds offer additional maneuverability and control on hillsides. You certainty don?t have to worry about roll-overs, as you would with riding mowers. On some units, self-propelled and hydraulic ?floating? decks and ?sulkies? reduce worker fatigue. Wes Freeman, brand manager, commercial mowing division, for John Deere in Cary, North Carolina, says, ?In the last five years, fully floating decks that follow the ground contour are probably one of the major innovations we?ve seen.? ?Most every contractor will have a commercial walk-behind unit,? says Freeman. ?They are a good option for start-up operations that may have cash flow concerns, because they?re the least expensive piece of mowing equipment. Once landscape contractors have a commercial walk-behind in the fleet, they usually keep it because these units have exceptional hillside mowing capabilities.?
The zero-turn radius (ZTR) mower seems to be the landscape industry?s current favorite. It provides speed, maneuverability and productivity, along with ease of maintenance. The reason? Because ZTRs fall under the categories of both self-propelled walk-behind and riding mowers. By having front wheels and a mowing deck that can literally ?turn on a dime,? ZTRs quickly navigate around bushes and trees, are less demanding on the workers, and compared to the ?traditional? walk-behind and riding units, they can also get into places the others can?t. According to Jennifer Loran, marketing manager for Ferris Industries in Munnsville, New York, ?In the last five years, independent suspension for the riding mower has been the greatest innovation.? She should know. In 2000, Ferris developed the first and only 4-wheel independent suspension for the commercial riding mower. ?Independent suspension maximizes ground contact by providing downward pressure on the drive wheels. The importance of traction is undisputed in the mowing industry. Breaking contact, especially on hillsides, can result in hazardous slippage, even rollovers. Traction is especially important when driving a zero-turn mower, which relies entirely on the drive wheels for steering.? Freeman adds, ?Zero-turn radius mowers offer the operator comfort. Transport speed between jobs is fast, and wider widths of cut, along with higher horsepower, enable landscape contractors to process more grass in less time.? Zero-radius turning allows the operator to easily cut and trim without wasting time and going through the motions of wide turns, or by dealing with foot pedals and shifting gears. By cutting the time and effort associated with jockeying into position on turns and trimming, the operator is more productive, resulting in more time and energy to take on additional jobs. This is emphasized by Ruthanne Stucky, marketing director for The Grasshopper Company, Mound-ridge, Kansas. She notes, ?The zero-turning radius mower justifies its cost through a number of factors related to productivity and ergonomics. By improving productivity by 50 to 70 percent, a contractor can increase his number of contracts while decreasing his costs-per-acre to perform the work. The zero-turn radius unit will also provide a good quality of cut. With less effort required and less operator fatigue, more work gets done and the operator doesn?t have to be worn out to do a job well.? These mowers offer the option of either air-cooled or liquid-cooled engines. They are said to be reliable, compact and versatile. They are offered with either front or mid-mounted cutting decks, in widths up to 72 inches, to coincide with the various engines.
As the years have progressed, so have the innovations, as noted by Grasshopper?s Stucky. ?About ten years ago, combination decks were introduced that truly performed well for all three functions: mulching, collection and side-discharge. About five years ago, it became possible to raise front-mount mower decks vertically without detaching them from the power unit, for a new level of service ease. A patented new deck from Grasshopper that actually raises itself vertically with the flip of a switch is now available. With this zero-turn radius mower, it?s possible to change deck sizes in just a couple of minutes if a smaller or larger mower is needed for the job.? Cost is a big factor when choosing what type of mower to buy. Stand-on mowers are relative newcomers to the landscape industry. They have mowing decks that range from 36 inches to 62 inches, they are less expensive than riding zero-turn radius mowers, they get the job done fast, and once the operator learns how to maneuver them, they?re easy to handle and operate. According to some, the stand-on mower is the best all-around mower on the market, but it really depends on the area you?re cutting. ?We?re seeing more contractors add stand-on units to their fleets because of the increased productivity,? claims John Deere?s Freeman. ?They can mow at twice the speed of a walk-behind. And, if you have to do a lot of cleanup on the job site, they tend to be more productive, because it?s quicker to move from a standing to a walking position rather than from a sitting position to a walking position. With a stand-on you also have good sight lines when mowing around obstacles.? Competitively priced between the walk-behind at the low end of the scale, and the riding mower at the high end, the stand-on mower, at $5,000 to $7,000, has carved out its niche in the middle. The advancement and improvements in plastics and molding processes over the years have given hover mower manufacturers the ability to add strength and reduce their weight, making them a recent favorite with landscape contractors in the states. With the absence of wheels, the hover mower?s handlebars are used for carrying and moving the unit. They provide a clean professional cut in hard-to-reach places, such as slopes, wet areas, steep banks, retaining walls, etc. With their longer handlebars, they?re able to reach under shrubs, bushes and into ditches.
For cutting large landscaped areas, the riding mower seems to be the mower of choice. It is easier on the crew, and comes in many shapes and sizes. It is available with a variety of cutting decks and sizes, and rapidly covers a lot of terrain. As noted earlier, a riding mower can also come with a ZTR. By utilizing the ZTR?s central cutting deck, the riding mower has a lower center of gravity, making it more stable on slopes and steep hillsides.
?Walk-behind mowers will continue to have a place in the landscape contractor?s arsenal. Many landscapes require hill work, and the walk-behind does well there,? says Walker. ?But riding mowers will continue to dominate, based on productivity, operator comfort, and ability to cover a wide range of applications.? ?I think the industry has seen cut-height adjustments become easier than ever, especially as the need for increased productivity and operator comfort has risen,? says Freeman. ?John Deere now has a foot-assisted lift with ?dial-in? height-of-cut adjustment that is the easiest in the industry. Operators simply depress a foot lever to raise the mower deck, turn a dial to their specified cutting height and use the foot lever again to lower the deck back to its normal position . . . all from the operator?s seat.? Matt Land, national sales manager for Dixie Chopper, in Coatesville, Indiana, says of their Flex-Deck, designed for its riding mower, ?It?s the latest addition to our line of accessories. The Flex-Deck provides all the advantages of an out front mower in a belly-mount machine. Adding one to a Dixie Chopper is literally like hiring an extra man for your trim crew. Those who use them report cutting trim crew man-hours in half. Adding the Flex-Deck to your 60 inch mower will increase the productivity by 25 percent. For the same sound reasons that the ZTR mower has become a standard in today?s industry, the Flex-Deck will one day hold that position,? said Land. Maintenance and safety. . .
first and last
In the end, whether you?re working with a 21-inch walk-behind, a 48-inch self-propelled, a stand-on, or a large riding ZTR mower, the key to keeping these machines and their operators working is proper maintenance. Choose a machine that is easy to work on and easy to maintain; then plan to perform a few minutes of regular maintenance. Remember, this can save you hours of unscheduled downtime when parts fail due to neglect. Also, spend time with your operators and train them on the safety aspects of the unit, because, above all, safety is paramount. The future of mowers
The most interesting of those who looked at the future of lawn mowers was Loran of Ferris Industries, and it didn?t include lawn mowers at all. When George and Jane Jetson finally retire (at the age of 42) and move from their very-high high-rise to a little place of their own at ground-level, they will look out their window and watch as a rotor-like apparatus rises about two inches from the ground. The device will spin and make a quick survey, then emit a noise-and-pollutant-free laser to shear the blades of bio-engineered grass to an even level. Not only will the amplified beam of light know the difference between grass and Astro II (that?s the dog), thus being safe around animals and children, but the underground electronic fence will prevent the laser from shooting over into Mr. Spacely?s property.? You gotta love that.