Zero In on a Zero-Turn Mower
By Caleb Regan | Apr 6, 2017
My wife and I have been lucky enough to live in the country for about five years now, and I’ve been responsible for mowing around 4 acres for roughly half of that time. Growing up, we mowed around 3 or 4 acres of lawn at our farm, on an old Craftsman riding lawn mower. Being the youngest of four boys, I was the last man to finally be allowed on the rider. I spent most of my younger days pushing an old beat-up push mower under trees and anywhere the rider wouldn’t go; sometimes where the rider would go, as I’d supplement with the push mower so it all got done quicker.
I can still remember how sweet it was when I finally got to drive that old Craftsman. Like the first time my dad trusted me with running a chainsaw, it felt like I’d made it to manhood.
These days, I spend many evenings every summer on a zero-turn-radius (ZTR) mower that’s about 8 years old but still gets the job done. The lap bars have become second nature, and I feel comfortable navigating the deck right next to structures at full speed, or dang near it. And, of course, it’s so nice to not make any extra passes and to be cutting grass nearly all of the time you are running — that’s where ZTRs really excel.
But, the question is, at what point does the property owner need a zero-turn-radius mower? What size or shape of lawn, and doesn’t a ZTR limit you to mowing chores where a lawn or garden tractor might also help you in the garden or accomplish additional tasks? And what about stand-ons, also called ride-ons?
In order to make the best purchase for your situation, the first thing to do is take a thorough look at what all you could potentially use this new machine for.
If mowing is your primary need, and you have significant yard to mow out in the country, a ZTR was made for this. When I called a local commercial lawn mowing company near me and posed the question of when someone in the country might consider a conventional rider — a lawn or garden tractor — over a zero-turn, I was met with confusion. “When would you ever?” came the puzzled response. The better question for those mainly concerned with mowing, and mowing large lawns, might be what type of zero-turn mower is best, the conventional belly-mounted or front-mounted deck with a tractor you sit on, or a stand-on type of zero-turn where the operator rides on the rear of the machine and operates while standing.
Benefits of the stand-on are ease of getting on and off to pick up debris, often easier deck access for cleaning and sharpening blades, smaller storage space for the garage and trailer, better stability on hilly terrain, and maximum maneuverability.
That same commercial landscaping company said they’re in the process of trying to replace all riding zero-turns with stand-on models, though I’m betting an important consideration for a commercial mowing operation is the ability to fit more machines on the trailer — not necessarily a top consideration for the residential user.
In my own mowing experience, ease of getting on and off the mower is a worthwhile consideration. In Kansas, where we get spring and summer winds in the 20- to 30-mph range routinely and storm gusts that approach hurricane wind speeds, I find myself getting on and off the mower frequently. The more I get off and pick up sticks and other debris, the less time and money I spend on sharpening and replacing mower blades.
Deck access is another major concern. It seems every fall I limp into the mowing off-season with dull blades, sometimes to the point where I’m leaving a small but noticeable stripe of uncut or not-as-well-cut grass, and it drives me crazy. Admittedly, it’s not super hard to unhook the belts and slide my belly-mounted deck out from under the machine, but I know my brother has a newer mower with easier deck access for cleaning, and it makes life a ton easier for cleaning as well as blade sharpening. Newer ZTRs of both riding and stand-on nature sometimes sport features that make deck access a simple matter. It’s worth the price.
But, the benefits of stand-ons come with the obvious price of standing on the back of a machine versus sitting on a conventional zero-turn-radius mower. I can mow for hours sitting on a riding ZTR and my legs won’t be tired — though on my older ZTR model, my back sometimes does feel the effects of a rougher ride. That may not be the case with a newer model that has better seat suspension.
For mowing-dedicated machines, zero-turns are the way to go these days for anyone who needs something larger than a push mower, but spend some time on stand-ons as well as riders to see which one may be the best for you. Stand-ons have always been a popular choice for the commercial landscaper, and if you work an office job like me, the prospect of standing on the back of a mower isn’t all that unwelcome after sitting for eight hours at the office — and some might argue standing may even be easier on your body than sitting.
Maximize the investment
However, if you are looking for something more versatile — something capable of mowing but also pushing or throwing snow, tilling garden areas, hauling material in a front-end loader, even small-scale digging operations — machines nowadays can handle all that and more, in some cases with drive-over, quick-connecting mowing decks and four-wheel steering. Expect to pay a pretty penny for all of those applications, and then the question becomes at what point do you instead opt for the full-fledged subcompact or even compact tractor that will handle all of that, plus perhaps make quick work of the lawn with a finish-cut mowing deck.
Some zero-turn riders — Grasshopper comes to mind — have additional implements for the riding tractors they sell, including push blades, brushes, snow-throwing equipment, and more.
In my case, when it comes time to purchase new, the real question is how much tilling will I want to do, and will we be in a position where we’re building a lot of fence? Whether building deck or working on fence, it’s amazing how many tasks in country life require drilling down below the frost line, and a PTO-mounted auger makes life a ton easier. And, although tractor attachment companies might not recommend it, a front-end loader is pretty dang handy when it comes to pushing T-posts into the ground, once you get the hang of it. If those two questions are a yes, I think a subcompact tractor with a drive-over deck could be the only “tractor” we’ll need, and they hold their resale value well enough if we need to upgrade in the future.
If all I want is a mower, I’d take a hard look at a stand-on with easy deck access. Bagging and clippings-free finishes aren’t important to me — and in fact that’s part of why I love life in the country — so I might be OK with a lower cutting capacity and stand-on features. But that’s me. I’ve read guidelines that say with anything over a half acre, opt for the rider.
At any rate, spend some time on machines, talk with local mowing and landscaping companies even, and visit multiple dealers. With enough homework, a proud owner of a new machine that suits their situation will feel no buyer’s remorse, and that’s a pretty good feeling.
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Caleb Regan is perfectly fine with coaxing an 8-year-old mower through yet another cutting season, though at times he does wish the zero-turn he uses had roll-over protection bars for mowing the ditch up by the road.
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