Grasslands and pastures look like they’d be simple to maintain, but depending on where you live, keeping your open acres open and free of weeds can take serious planning and management. Even if you use animals to help harvest the forages on those areas, you will do well to employ the help of a couple of tools, in addition to prescribed burning and other strategies. No matter how large or small your open acreage, there are tools sized perfectly to the task at hand — and to your budget.
In this day of power equipment and plentiful petroleum, it’s easy to overlook the scythe and other hand-powered tools to keep your field mowed. However, if you only have an acre or two to keep looking great, and you already have a gym membership or are thinking of purchasing one, the scythe may be for you. Scythes come in a couple of different patterns — my favorite is the European or Austrian style, which is sharp, effective and light. The alternative is the American style, which is heavier, less prone to damage if you attempt to split a rock with it, and arguably might cut through slightly heavier brush without complaining.
In both cases, be sure to get a scythe with a snath (handle) that’s fit to your build, or one that’s fully adjustable. Watch a couple of videos on the process and get ready to mow. Even though I no longer use the scythe to make loose hay, I do use the tool to cut weeds in pasture corners and the garden at the end of the season, and whenever I just don’t want to fire up a machine to mow the road ditch.
Often called the brush hog or bush hog (trade name Bush Hog), these rough country mowers come in a range of sizes and capabilities, but they all consist of a vertically oriented spindle(s) that spins the often-hinged horizontal blades to get the cutting accomplished. Many have a heavy steel pan below the spindle hub that facilitates the mower riding up over stumps and other high spots, rather than driving the blades into them — which is easier on the blades, spindle and you, the operator.
If you just have a few acres to maintain, you might consider the walk-behind rotary cutter — sometimes called field and brush mowers. Depending on the model and brand, these self-propelled machines can knock down 6-foot-tall grass and reeds with relative ease and can motor their way through brushy patches where stems are generally not more than 21⁄2 inches or so. The downside to these machines relates to the relatively narrow cut — around 2 feet wide — so it can take you a while to trim up a few acres. The upside is that they are often powered with what amounts to a two-wheeled tractor that you can use for tilling, grading and many other homestead tasks on a relatively small scale.
If you already own an ATV or UTV, then you might go one step further and source a self-powered, tow-behind rotary cutter. These are available from a number of manufacturers and have cutting widths up to 5 feet or more. They may also be able to mow through brush with the occasional 3-inch-diameter trunk. These mowers will have their own engine, and the best of them have adjustable hitch systems so you can offset the mower to the left or right of the tow vehicle, which may not seem like much, but will make it so you don’t have to drive through the uncut weeds.
I used a DR Power pull-type, self-powered machine for several years to keep about 10 acres of pastures clipped and to reclaim several acres of pasture overgrown with sumac and other brush. I was impressed with the machine’s durability — I replaced blades and the drive clutch once. Once you’ve mowed rough country from the comfort of your UTV, it’s hard to step up to a tractor without a suspension seat, but you will want to consider it if you have a lot more land to maintain.
If you have a lot of acres to cover and you have a tractor with a three-point hitch (you can still find pull-type tractor PTO-powered mowers) and PTO that you can press into service, the tractor-mounted rotary cutter will do what all the other versions can do (except slip into very tight spaces), and they will do it all day long and come back tomorrow to do it again. In general, tractor-powered rotary cutters will range from around 4 feet wide to more than 12 feet wide — yes, you need a big tractor and plenty of hydraulic capacity to mow 12-foot swaths of highway median at once. And better yet, rotary cutters that are designed as tractor implements come in at least three duty grades to suite your needs.
Choose light-duty models if you mow only a few acres and your ground is smooth, rock- and stump-free, and the woody stems you encounter are less than 2 inches or so in diameter. Lighter-duty mowers tend to be built with lighter steel and lighter-duty gearboxes. I’ve seen light-duty rotary cutters that were routinely used in heavy conditions show denting caused by rocks or pieces of wood flying around underneath the deck. I’ve also welded cracks and rewelded broken welds on a number of light-duty units that were pushed beyond their rating.
Medium-duty rotary cutter attachments will cost more, be heavier, and have stronger gear boxes than their lighter-duty brethren. These make a great choice for the homesteader or small holder since there are plenty of sizes and makers to choose from, and they are designed specifically for the compact or subcompact tractor you may already own. These mowers will give you longer trouble-free service than the lighter versions, but may not be the most cost-effective choice if you plan to make a business out of rough country mowing. In that case, or if you have a score or more acres of brushy country to reclaim, money spent on the heavy-duty models will be money well spent.
If you happen to have a skid-steer loader or compact track loader at your disposal, or even a four-wheel-drive utility tractor with a loader and sufficient front auxiliary hydraulic capacity (and sufficient counterbalance weight in back), you might consider a loader-mounted, hydraulically powered rotary cutter. While these machines tend to be expensive, they are up to the heaviest of tasks, and without the mechanical connection to the tractor’s power system through the PTO, they can be easier on the tractor’s driveline. And since the whole cutting apparatus is extended out in front, you can mow under trees and some fence lines more easily without looking over your shoulder periodically to check your implement.
Flail mowers have been around for cutting lawns, shredding crop debris, making hay, and maintaining highway right-of-ways and fields for years, but too often when folks turn to rough-country tasks, they overlook this workhorse. Flail mowers make the cut with many hinged flails (usually L-shaped or Y-shaped) that dangle from a heavy, horizontally oriented platen. When the platen is powered up and running hot, the flails are extended, and when they encounter vegetation, they cut it. If they encounter something too hard or heavy, they hinge back, rather than damage the platen. Flail mowers are often more expensive than medium- and light-duty rotary cutters of the same cutting width, and they have many more small blades to replace or sharpen, but they have an advantage: Flail mowers don’t expel the cut material out to the side or rear. Instead, they tend to send it directly to the ground or back into the path of the flails again. Flail mowers are great at pulverizing grass, weeds and brush, and creating a mulch of sorts that will break down much more quickly than the larger pieces produced by a rotary cutter.
Mounted or tow-behind (PTO or hydraulically powered) flail mowers are available for everything from two-wheel tractors to some of the largest farm tractors out there. Many are sized appropriately for the compact tractors typically found on smaller acreages and homesteads.
Front-mount and loader-mount flail mowers are also available for skid steers, track loaders and tractors. If you have lots of thick vegetation to shred and you want to avoid windrowing the mower output, while creating something that will be incorporated into the soil more rapidly, then the flail mower is an excellent choice.
Learn how to maintain the precious prairie ecosystems on your property: Make Tough Jobs Easy: Maintain Prairie Ecosystems (Video).
Editor-in-Chief Hank Will maintains 120 acres with the help of a scythe, a pair of rotary cutters and a hay-making drum mower, along with his flock of Katahdin sheep and a few Highland cattle.
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