Mowing Machine Mania

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The Hustler Zeon, world's first electric ZTR mower.
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Folks were maintaining lawns and cutting meadows long before the advent of power tools – motor-powered tools that is. Lawns belonging to early European aristocrats were kept trim by gangs of gardeners wielding grass-trimming scissors. Peasants who tilled those same estates made hay with scythe and rake.

That work, which was every bit as tedious as it was grueling, stimulated the minds of 19th-century inventors who, lucky for us, spawned entire industries aimed at offering better ways to manage rank vegetation.

Today, whether you are interested in maintaining a nicely manicured lawn, managing native grasslands, improving pastures or just beating back the weeds, there are literally hundreds of mower models to choose from. We’ve included a roundup of a few of the latest and greatest here to help get you started.

A mower by any other name

As with many fully evolved creatures, the amount of variation in mower types boggles the mind. Some mowers make the cut with a multibladed reel that sheers the grass against a fixed bed knife. Indeed, this so-called reel-type mower was first invented in the early 1800s. The reel mower is specifically adept at making fine cuts suitable for formal lawns and golf courses. In today’s terms, the reel mower is one of the finest finish-cut mowers available. Reel mowers can be human-powered or motor-powered, and, in the case of large estates and country clubs, gangs of connected reel mowers are pulled, pushed or otherwise powered by tractors.

Most other types of finish-cut mowers utilize engine- or PTO-powered horizontally spinning blades. The smaller of these devices are pushed by the operator; some are self propelled (operator walks). The next evolutionary step in finish mowers involves some means for the operator to ride along. These riding-type finish-cut mowers include zero turning radius (ZTR) machines, three- and four-wheel dedicated riders, and lawn tractors with a dedicated mowing deck attached. Larger rotary-type finish-cut mowers tend to be mounted on a compact tractor’s three-point hitch, although many trail behind, and some mount between the front and rear wheels. Large finish-cut mowers that mount to the front of equipment like tractors and utility vehicles are also available.

Rough-cut mowers are at the opposite end of the extreme compared with reel mowers. These brutes are all powered with their own engine or through a PTO (some are hydraulic) located on the vehicle to which they are attached. These machines are capable of munching tall weeds and grass, crop residue and saplings up to several inches in diameter. Most rough-cut mowers use heavy, horizontally oriented rotary blades that cut, shred and pulverize their way through vegetation. Some rough-cut mowers are flail-type (see below). Rough-cut mowers are perfect for managing meadows and ditches and, in places where the climax ecosystem is forest, keeping it out of your open fields. If you are looking for that nicely manicured look in your back 40, a hybrid mower might be in order.

There aren’t that many hybrid rough/finish-cut mowers out there. Some of the largest capacity hybrids make the cut with a series of small-hinged hook- or T-shaped blades (flails) attached to a heavy, horizontally oriented shaft or drum that rotates at high speed during operation. This so-called flail mower works by slinging the legion of little cutters at sufficient speed that they sever, shred and pulverize coarser vegetation. When spun fast enough, some of these mowers make a cut that’s clean enough to please all but the most discriminating lawn owners. Other hybrid mowers tend to be beefed-up rotary-style cutters with strong, fixed blades that can be turned fast enough to make a clean cut on the lawn and are strong enough to stand up to coarser material.

Choices, choices …

In all likelihood, you will need at least two mowers and possibly three, depending on how big your yard is and how much open land you need to keep trim. If you have a relatively small yard – say a half-acre or less – you can probably get away with a walk-behind motor-powered lawn mower. This, of course, depends on how ambitious you are and whether mowing grass is part of your exercise regime. Even if you mow an acre or more of lawn, you will probably want a small walk-behind mower to get into tight areas, trim around trees and shrubs and use in other places where you don’t want to drive a rider – like a steep bank or the edge of your pond. Walk-behind mower choices are many. If your lawn is postage stamp-sized, then you should consider the human-powered reel mower or a cordless electric mower and skip the hassles associated with maintaining gas engines.

Once the lawn grows beyond half an acre or so, you will want to consider a larger self-propelled mower. ZTR mowers are available in sizes suitable for lawns up to several acres. These machines are usually steered with a pair of levers, can turn in place and make short shift of the mowing. Until recently, the ZTR was a dedicated mowing machine. Manufacturers now offer attachments such as blades and rear hitches to help homeowners get more out of them, but they are definitely not yet as versatile as lawn and garden tractors.

If your yard work goes well beyond mowing, then you might consider purchasing a garden tractor with a mower deck, in addition to other implements such as tillers, blades, carts, rakes, you name it. The garden tractor isn’t as maneuverable as the ZTR, but it is good at going straight and pulling tools through the garden. The lawn tractor is a lighter-duty version of the garden tractor. It makes a good riding mower and trailer tow-vehicle, but, in general, its transmission isn’t up to the task of heavy garden work.

As the lawn gets larger, you will look for larger and more powerful finish mowers. Several manufacturers offer trailing mowers that can be pulled by small tractors, ATVs and UTVs. If you already own an ATV, a self-powered trailing mower makes an excellent choice. Likewise, if you already own a compact tractor and have acres of lawn, you might consider purchasing a finishing mower deck that mounts to the tractor and is powered by it.

Depending on the amount of open area you need to maintain, you should add a rough-cut mower to the mix. If you have only a few field acres to mow, a self-powered mower pulled by an ATV or UTV is ideal. This is also where you might consider a hybrid – but rough country mowing is hard on any mower and can affect the finish performance negatively. Your garden tractor can also motivate pull-type mowers over hill and dale, but its relatively short stature makes it difficult to see over tall grass and weeds. That tractor’s lack of suspension will also make for a rough ride, which will invariably lead to frame damage or worse. As the acreage you need to mow grows, it would be best to step up to a rough-cut mower that attaches directly to your compact or full-sized tractor.

Before you take the plunge

As you research mowers of various kinds, you will notice a broad variation in prices for what appears to be the same capacity cutter. Mowers are rated by their cutting width, engine power and/or gearbox power rating. Look more closely, and you will discover that similarly rated mowers can vary in weight by more than 100 pounds, and they might have very different sets of added features, such as a manual height control vs. hydraulic.

In general, you will find good quality mowers wherever you look, but some (typically lighter and less costly) “consumer grade” machines are designed for relatively light use where other (heavier and more costly) “professional grade” models are designed for more frequent and longer operation. If you mow an acre of grass once a week for five months of the year, the lighter duty machine will work and last well. If you mow more often or substantially more acreage, you will want to choose a heavier-duty model. Marketing departments are savvy to the whole image thing, so you might find some models touted as “prosumer grade,” “heavy-duty,” you name it. Ask the sales person how much it weighs, how much it costs, its spindle bearing size, and the length of its warranty if you aren’t sure just how heavy-duty any machine in question is.

For best results, talk to friends, read everything you can, scour the Web, and find a knowledgeable salesperson at a trusted dealership to help sort through the choices. As with any tool, spending a bit more up front can lead to real economy over time. Since there are so many makers and so many different mower models, we’ve included only a sampling below.

Oscar “Hank” Will III’s  favorite for mowing the lawn is a 1984 Kubota Diesel-powered Cub Cadet 882 with 50-inch deck. When that tractor’s in the shop, he has more than 20 other vintage Cub Cadet cutters waiting in the wings.

Sub-Compact and Garden Tractor Mounted Finish Mowers

New Holland T1010 and 60CMS deck

More Lawn and Garden Tractor Options
Troy-Bilt (www.TroyBilt.com)
White Outdoor (www.WhiteOutdoor.com)
Cub Cadet (www.CubCadet.com; 800-800-7310)
Ariens (www.Ariens.com)
Toro (www.Toro.com)
John Deere (www.Deere.com)
Massey Ferguson (www.MasseyLawn.com)
Snapper (www.Snapper.com; 800-SNAPPER)

Small Capacity Finish Mowers

LawnBott 3500 Robotic Finish Mower
Neuton Power Equipment CE 6.2
Sunlawn EM2 Reel Mower

More Small Mower Options
Troy-Bilt (www.TroyBilt.com)
Mantis (www.MantisMower.com; 800-366-6268)
Cub Cadet (www.CubCadet.com; 800-800-7310)
Ariens (www.Ariens.com)
Snapper (www.Snapper.com; 800-SNAPPER)
Toro (www.Toro.com)

Tractor- and UTV-Mounted Mowers

McCormick MS60 Finish Mower
Bobcat 72-inch Finish Mower
Bühler/Farm King Y650R Finish Mower
Cub Cadet Yanmar MM60RS Finish Mower
Bush Hog Squealer SQ172 Rotary Cutter
Loftness 90M Flail Mower
Rhino 172 Rotary Cutter
Land Pride RCR1860 Rotary Cutter

More Tractor-Mounted Mower Options

Kubota (www.Kubota.com)
Montana Tractors (www.MontanaTractors.com)
Befco (www.Befco.com)
KingKutter (www.KingKutter.com)
Tiger (www.Tiger-Mowers.com)
John Deere (www.Deere.com)
New Holland (www.NewHolland.com)
Massey Ferguson (www.MasseyFerguson.com)

Zero Turning Radius Finish Mowers

DR Power 22 HP Versa-Pro Z-Mower
Husqvarna EZ4824
Land Pride ZT60 Accu-Z Commercial
Ferris IS500Z
Bob-Cat FastCat 48-inch
Kubota ZD326
Walker Model MC20

More ZTR Mower Options

Bush Hog (www.BushHog.com)
Cub Cadet Commercial (www.CubCadetCommercial.com)
Ariens (www.Ariens.com)
Swisher (www.SwisherInc.com; 800-222-8183)
John Deere (www.Deere.com)
Dixon (www.Dixon-ZTR.com)
Bad Boy (www.BadBoyMowers.com)
Zipper (www.ZipperMowers.com)
Dixie Chopper (www.DixieChopper.com)
Grasshopper (www.GrasshopperMower.com)

ATV Trailing Mowers

Agri-Fab 45-0362 Electric-Start Rough-Cut
DR Power 17 HP Tow-Behind Field & Brush Mower
Kunz AcrEase MR55KE Rough Cut
Swisher Trailcutter RT 44 Rough Cut

More ATV Mower Options

Al’s Specialties Inc. (www.EstateYard.net)
Bush Hog (www.BushHog.com)
QuadBoss (www.QuadBoss.com)

Hank Will raises hair sheep, heritage cattle and many varieties of open-pollinated corn with his wife, Karen, on their rural Osage County, Kansas farm. His home life is a perfect complement to his professional life as editor in chief at GRIT and Capper’s Farmer magazines. Connect with him on .

Published on Apr 29, 2008

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