Acreage Mowers: Walk-Behinds, Tow-Behinds, and Tractor-Mounted Mowers
By Tim Nephew
Purchasing our own rural acreage was something my wife and I always wanted to accomplish. After a lot of searching, we were lucky to find the right piece of land and be able to swing the finances to make it work for us. I remember driving out to the property after we had signed the papers, and looking out at the field and open areas with a sense of pride. I also immediately noticed that there was a lot of land to mow, if I wanted to stay on top of the grass and keep the weeds from taking over.
I didn’t have any equipment to handle the mowing on our land. Our lot in town was small and could be managed with a good push mower, and I also had an old Sears riding mower that had seen better days. Both would be woefully underpowered to handle any large-scale mowing. My dad graciously offered the use of his 8N Ford tractor and sickle mower to get us started on maintaining the land, but after the first few mowing attempts, it became obvious that I would have to find a better alternative for mowing the hard-to-reach and uneven parts of the property.
The land we had purchased was hilly and wooded, with several 3- to 5-acre fields interspersed across 80 acres. I knew I needed a mower with a smaller footprint when getting to the backwoods fields. The sickle mower would work great on the flat field portions I had to mow, but the off-set bar did not leave a lot of room for the tight turns on hilly contours. And getting back into some of the smaller fields and meadows with the existing trails was almost impossible with the sickle mower mounted.
My first attempt to find an alternative to the 8N and sickle mower brought me to my neighborhood hardware and rental store. I had noticed in previous visits that they rented a self-propelled “rough cut” mower I was told was capable of cutting tall weeds and grass, brush, and saplings of up to 3 inches in diameter. The mower had a 26-inch cutting area with a 14-horsepower motor, with electric start. I could tell the mower deck and blades were heavily constructed, so I rented it for the day and loaded it on my trailer for the trip to the land.
As I started to mow an area of tall grass and thick thistle, I was very impressed at how easily the mower cut through the vegetation. There were areas of red willow brush that had crept into the edge of the clearings, and the mower easily cut through the brush in a 26-inch path. There were trails on our land that wound through the woods, but they had become overgrown with vines and small brush. The mower easily cleared the existing trails, and by using a chainsaw on the larger trees, I was also able to use the walk-behind mower to create new trails through the woods.
While I liked some of the features of the walk-behind mowers, such as maneuverability, ease of use, and its ability to conform to small areas, I found that a big disadvantage was the cutting swath of the mower. Although the mower is self-propelled, cutting even an acre of field requires a lot of walking, and a surprising amount of physical labor, to turn and manipulate the mower over rough and uneven ground. After spending the day cutting a 2-acre field, I felt like I had walked miles and was physically worn out. While I do believe the walk-behind mowers are good for trail clearing and some limited open-field work, I decided to look for a better alternative.
Pull- or tow-behind mowers designate a class of finish or brush mower that is self-powered and designed to be pulled behind another vehicle, such as a riding lawn mower, ATV, zero-turn-radius mower, utility vehicle, or small tractor. One of the first things I noticed when I decided to research tow-behind mowers was the flexibility in the size of the cutting decks compared to walk-behind mowers. Cutting widths of 44 inches to 60 inches can be selected in tow-behinds, with engine configurations of 12 horsepower up to 20 horsepower V-twin electric-start engines.
Another benefit of tow-behind mowers is that you may either pull them directly behind the tow vehicle or you can offset the mower to either side. Pulling the mower directly behind allows you to follow tight trails or road edges, while pulling the mower offset with a riding mower gives you the ability to cover twice as much ground in a single pass. Most of the tow-behind mowers incorporate an easy to adjust cutting height lever with 2- to 6-inch cutting increments.
Pull-behind mowers can be purchased as either rough-cut or finish mowers, depending on your application. If you have a big pasture or open area, a finish mower can save you hours of mowing time. One of the leading manufacturers of pull-behind mowers states that a 60-inch finish mower can mow up to 2.75 acres in one hour. If you need a mower to help you clear an overgrown pasture or small field, the rough-cut mower will handle the thick weeds and brush and not leave you exhausted at the end of the day.
Three-point tractor-mounted mowers
Although there are many benefits to the pull-behind mowers, depending on needs and property size, I wanted to make sure I had looked at all the alternatives available. Taking care of the mowing on our land was a major concern for us, but we also had plans to expand the field size, put up some fence, and maintain the road. We had budgeted for a tractor to meet some of these needs, so we elected to look at three-point tractor-mounted mowers as another option.
One of the significant benefits of using a tractor-mounted mower to maintain your property is the power that a tractor brings to the job. Large fields with tall grass and weeds, or even brush-filled meadows, are no problem for a three-point-mounted mower matched with the properly sized tractor.
As in the tow-behind options, there are both rough-cut and finish mowers available with an even larger variety of cutting sizes to choose from, starting at 48-inch decks up to 84-inch widths. The size of the three-point mower is matched to the power take-off (PTO) rating of the tractor. There are features such as a slip clutch available in some units that will disengage the gear box of the mower if an obstacle — such as a big rock or tree stump — comes in contact with the mower’s blades to avoid damaging the mower. A lot of the mowers will have a shear pin or “bolt” that is designed to break if the blades encounter damaging torque.
Three-point finish mowers come in the same cutting deck size as the rough-cut or brush mowers, but they also include some added safety features, such as a shielded and directed discharge of the cut material and a blade designed for fine cutting rather than cutting through thick material. Of course, the added features of a finish mower also tend to increase the cost of the mower compared to rough-cut mowers.
Mower Pros and Cons
• Smaller cutting area
• Self-propelled, some with electric start
• Great for trails and hard-to-reach areas — very mobile
• Large cutting areas require a lot of walking which can be physically demanding
• Pricing: Up to 2,000 or 3,000 dollars depending on engine size and features
• Towing eliminates the physical labor of a walk-behind
• Wider variety of cutting sizes: 44 inches up to 60 inches
• Larger engine sizes mean greater cutting capability: 12 horsepower up to 20 horsepower V-twin engines
• Towing can be directly in line for cutting trails or offset to cover more ground in a single pass when using another mower to tow
• Both rough-cut and finish mower options
• Easy adjustment of cutting height
• Pricing: 1,300 up to 3,600 dollars
Three-Point Tractor-Mounted Mowers
• Very powerful: based on tractors PTO and engine size
• Largest variety of cutting sizes: 48 inches up to 84 and larger
• Shear pin or slip clutch options prevent mower damage if unseen obstacles like rocks or tree stumps are encountered
• Both finish and brush mower options
• Pricing: Wide variety of manufacturers and sizes provides for pricing from 800 up to 4,000 dollars or more, tractor not included
In the market for a tiller this spring? Check out our guide to choosing a suitable tilling machine.
Tim Nephew is a freelance writer who lives in Minnesota, where he owns and maintains 80 acres for wildlife to enjoy.
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