Mowers... Making the Right Match for Your Company

Mowing equipment has come a long way in recent years. New innovations and features are helping lawn care professionals get the job done easier, faster, and more efficiently than ever before. But with so many features and options to consider, how do you know which ones will pay off for your business in the long run?

When you’re making decisions about the next piece of mowing equipment to buy, first take a long hard look at your current business. No two businesses are alike, and a mower that solves a problem for one contractor might actually create new problems for another.

“When choosing mowing equipment, contractors generally take their advice from two main sources: their peers and the equipment dealers,” says Bill Bower, director of marketing for Ferris Industries in Munnsville, New York. “Both are excellent sources of information,” says Bowers, “but be careful not to rely too much on the opinions of your peers unless their operation is very similar to yours. If your friend is doing golf courses and parks and you’re primarily doing residential projects, you’re really not talking apples and apples.”

This mower features a back end attachment to gather grass clippings. Photo courtesy: Walker Mowers

Understanding your own business, your current limitations, the needs of the customers you have now, and of those you want to attract in the future can all help guide the rest of your decisions.

Versatility is key
One of the primary goals that contractors at all levels seem to agree on is the need to balance speed and size with flexibility and maneuverability. Glen Meyers, of Meyers Lawn Maintenance LLC, runs a one-man operation in Mt. Vernon, Illinois. Brian Akehurst employs a crew of approximately 100 at Akehurst Landscapes Service in Joppa, Maryland. The two are both successful owners of very different operations. But when asked about the most important feature they look for when considering new mowing equipment, both give the same answer: versatility.

“Versatility is key,” says Meyers, who drives a Grasshopper mower that uses interchangeable attachments. “With one machine I can do a number of things. When the grass stops growing, I can use the Aera-vator, dethatcher and other lawn attachments. When the snow starts blowing, I can use my dozer blade and blowers.”

For a one-man operation like Meyers’, a machine that can “do it all” is critical for year-round profitability. "A small operation needs a unit that is very versatile and that can do many different jobs,” says Bob Buzzard, product manager for Woods Equipment Company in Oregon, Illinois, manufacturers of equipment for every aspect of the turfcare industry. “Having a unit that is adaptable will increase the number of services a small contractor can offer, and increase the services he can do during each visit to the jobsite."

In Akehurst’s case, versatility isn’t about a single machine that can do it all, but about running a fleet that balances specialization with flexibility. “Before I purchase a new piece of equipment, I ask myself, ‘Is it adaptable? Is it multifunctional? Or is it just a grass machine?’.”

Wright Manufacturing developed a stand-on mower that is gaining popularity with maintenance contractors.
Photo Courtesy: Wright Manufacturing

“We use a lot of Walker mowers, especially on our high-end projects. We use other mowers as well,” says Akehurst. “As a larger contractor, we have the ability to run a variety of machines. We do use specific machines for certain types of work, but we still value the versatility of a multi-purpose machine.”

Know thyself
When you’re looking for the mower that can do more for your company, you first need to understand just what niche your company fills--and what niche you want to fill in the future. Key questions to ask include:

• What kinds of properties do I currently serve? Are they primarily large open areas or small residential properties?
• What is the look my customers want? Do I need to catch grass, mulch, discharge or do all three? What about quality of cut?
• Would I like to expand into new markets?
• What about fuel economy?
• What are my concerns for safety, comfort, and serviceability?

Considering these questions carefully can help you choose a machine that will give you the greatest productivity for the type of work you do.

Speed, size, maneuverability and productivity
“When you’re making your decisions, always consider ways you can reduce man-hours while maximizing operating time,” says Ruthanne Stucky, marketing director for Grasshopper Mower in Moundridge, Kansas. There are several factors that influence this. Size and speed of the mower is one. Although larger machines and cutting decks might translate into speedier jobs for some, bigger isn’t always better.

“There are a lot of large machines out there that do a job and do it well,” says Bob Tomasek, technical support manager of Walker Manufacturing Company. “But it’s a matter of matching equipment to what you do. If most of what you do is large open areas, a large, straight drive machine is great, but if your business is primarily residential, a large machine can actually cost you money in time and manpower. In these applications, compact size and maneuverability is much more critical.”

Bower of Ferris Industries agrees. “Unfortunately, I see a lot of contractors buying the wrong machine for the application. Some mistakenly purchase a larger machine to do larger areas more quickly. But they really need to ask themselves, ‘Are my customers primarily residential? Do I have to deal with a lot of gates and tight spaces?’ If they have several contracts for townships and municipalities, they have a better case for buying a large machine. But if their primary customer base consists of residential clients, they’re better off with something smaller and more versatile.”

With fule costs sky rocketing, Dixie Chopper has introduced a propane-powered mower.
Photo courtesy: Dixie Chopper

There are several factors that influence speed and productivity in irregular spaces. A zero-turn (ZT) mower is practically an essential for contractors who frequently deal with tight spaces, flower beds, curbs and other irregularities. A new innovation from Self-Guided Systems is a zero-turn robotic mower. Using a patented navigation system, the mower operates unmanned--which saves money, improves quality, and reduces unskilled labor problems.

Another feature that can impact speed and productivity in irregular spaces is independent suspension. Ferris Industries is currently the only manufacturer to offer this feature, which helps eliminate the impact of an uneven terrain. “The suspension absorbs the jolts that would otherwise be transferred to the operator and the frame,” says Bower. “This means you don’t have to slow down for bumps and dips in the terrain as you would with a fixed-frame mower. This can enable an operator to add one or two jobs per day, which translates to several more jobs per week, which obviously translates to more money for the company.”

Cutting performance is also critical to productivity. “One key to productivity is to maintain good cutting performance in diverse conditions,” says Brad Hamilton, director of marketing for Toro’s landscape contracting business. “Different properties, different turf conditions, different types of cuts, and different seasons all provide different challenges for the mower. Toro’s Turboforce deck with adjustable baffle is designed to allow the contractor to fine-tune the machine to the conditions of the property with the flip of a switch.” In less demanding conditions the baffle can be closed. Grass is then cut and re-cut, yielding micro-sized particles and maximizing discharge velocity. In heavy, wet, lush grass and other tough conditions, the baffle can be opened to conserve power and achieve faster mowing speeds.

Understanding what finished look your clients need is another critical factor in the decision-making process. If most of your properties are large open areas like schools, parks, athletic fields, etc., a side-discharge model might be a good option. These can be converted to provide mulching where necessary. But in high-visibility areas, grass catching is required. A vacuum collection system delivers the manicured look that many customers want in high traffic areas.

Attachments can be purchased for Grasshopper units. Photo shows back end that gathers grass clippings; other attachments feature snow blowers. Photo courtesy: Grasshopper Mowers

For the contractor who does a variety of properties, a machine that converts quickly and easily from mulching to side-discharge to collecting is often worth the investment. “You might spend a bit more for a machine that is more versatile,” says Tomasek of Walker, “but this versatility is going to pay off.”

Fuel economy
For obvious reasons, fuel economy is taking a front and center position in equipment decisions these days. Water-cooled and diesel engines have been gaining market share, in part for durability and performance, but also for fuel economy.

Now, Dixie Chopper of Coatesville, Indiana, is introducing a new propane mower. “It’s the first production propane mower to hit the markets,” says Eric Bernsee, media relations director for Dixie Chopper. “There are some conversion kits out there that allow you to convert a gas-powered engine to a propane-powered one, but you lose horsepower and compression.” The new mower is designed to operate efficiently with propane and holds a dual tank, which can provide up to 12 hours of cutting time. “It’s all about productivity,” says Bernsee, “mowing more acres per hour at less cost.”

“Using an alternative fuel source is obviously important in the face of soaring gas prices,” says Bernsee. “But it’s also important in light of emissions. More and more states are tightening emission standards. For example, right here in Indianapolis we have ‘no-zone action days’ where we’re asked not to operate gas-powered equipment at all during daytime hours. These kinds of guidelines are only going to increase. This can obviously have a huge impact on productivity.”

What’s in your future?
When making your equipment decisions, pay attention to the direction that you want your company to go in the future. Stucky of Grasshopper Mower cautions contractors against buying machines that suit only the needs of their current customer base. “Don't buy an undersized machine to fit one job-site. Instead, consider a machine that readily accepts interchangeable deck sizes. If you purchase one power unit and two deck sizes, you can then use the appropriate deck for each application. Buying a more versatile machine now can help you fit into more applications as you build your client base.”

Safety, comfort, and service
“Contractors have a much greater eye for safety than they have in years past,” says Hamilton. “Not only safety for operators but also for bystanders.” The mowing industry is responding with a greater emphasis on safety features, like better rollover protection systems and features like Toro’s rubber discharge chute. For ethical as well as financial reasons, injury prevention is a key factor in all business decisions. Understanding available safety features can help you choose mowing equipment that minimize your exposure to risk.

Designed for the professional landscape contractor, the world's first zero-turn robotic mower. Photo courtesy: Self-Guided Systems, LLC

Operator comfort is another key factor – not only for owners who will be riding the equipment themselves, but for all contractors who have an eye on productivity. For example, Ferris’ independent suspension buffers the operator from bumps and jolts. “Fewer bumps and jolts equals less operator fatigue,” says Bower. “Less fatigue equals greater productivity.”

No matter what brand you choose, contractors and manufacturers alike agree that durability and serviceability should play a huge role in your decision. “Make sure you buy from a dealer where you know you’re going to get great service,” says Bower. “This is important no matter what brand of machine you choose. I know contractors who bought from a dealer who is closer or cheaper but who may not have a fully staffed service department. In the long run, it may be better for them to buy from someone further down the road if they know that that dealer can keep their machines up and running.”

"Features that reduce the amount of maintenance needed, like permanent lubricated pivot points, also make great financial sense,” says Buzzard. “Less maintenance reduces downtime and keeps the mowers earning."

Ease of maintenance definitely played into Glen Meyers’ decision. Having a multi-purpose machine that he can easily maintain is what keeps this small contractor happy and successful. “And,” he says with a smile, “it keeps my customers happy too, because their yards always look better than everyone else’s.”

“Buy the best mower you can afford,” says Akehurst, speaking from experience. “If you buy a better machine from the start, your quality will be up, your productivity will be up, and your business will grow a lot faster.”