Maintaining large open spaces to a high standard is an ongoing task for many groundsmen, and finding the right mower can mean selecting from a huge range of machines. We organised one of our regular tests to examine the performance and suitability of a range of open space mowers this spring, attracting support from seven of the leading manufacturers
Our host, Uttoxeter Racecourse, is a good example of a venue with the ongoing mower selection dilemma. As well as the 1 mile, 2 furlong track, the undulating ten hectare centre course area takes some six hours to cut, and then there are banks, lawns and hospitality areas.
Clerk of the Course Charlie Moore commented: "We need a range of mowers to perform different tasks. The greatest challenge on the track itself is our required cut height of four inches, along with the need to avoid compaction. Rear mounted mowers create the issue of flattened grass behind the tractor wheels, which then does not cut evenly."
"Like many racecourses, we have been using a front mounted rotary deck with a blower behind to clear the clippings. We have looked at ride-on, wide area mowers, but feel that they may actually exacerbate compaction and can't match the output of a tractor-mounted mower. We are always interested in new developments."
"The centre course is used for a variety of events throughout the year, including a large music festival where the audience camp on site. Here, we use a twenty year old tri-deck mower, which has to cope with undulations and longer grass. We have tried a variety of smaller mowers for more restricted areas, but now find that a zero-turn ride-on works well as it is easy to alter the cut height and manoeuvre around obstacles."
Mowers on test
Leading manufacturers were contacted and asked to supply a variety of mowers, including tri-deck wide area rotaries, single deck roller mowers and out-front units.
They were delivered to Uttoxeter at the beginning of the week and tested in a range of situations by the groundsmen.
Assistant Head Groundsman, Richard Beech, commented; "We tend to mow at a set height for the time of year - four inches for the winter and a little lower in summer and, although we are not changing the settings often, it needs to be easy to do and accurate. Some of the models tested were fiddly to alter the height or didn't have any indicators on, so it was hard to tell what they were set at."
For cutting the track itself, he earmarks quality of cut and the ability to dissipate the clippings evenly as the most important qualities.
"We did test the Trimax Pegasus on the track and it made a good job, even though we were sceptical about using a rear mounted mower," he commented. "The deep body gives the updraft to stand the grass up."
One issue is finding the right tractor to pull bigger mowers - Richard points out that they need to be powerful, but not too heavy.
"Build quality of the mowers is important as they need to last, but quality does come at a price and most racecourses are on a limited budget," he said. "Some of the mowers come with a three year warranty which is a plus. Serviceability is also important - easily accessible grease nipples ensure that the mower is regularly greased."
When mowing large open spaces, such as the centre course, durability is thoroughly tested - Richard pointed out that castor wheels on the old tri-deck were regularly punctured until they were filled with gel, and that they are vulnerable to damage at high forward speeds.
Out front mowing units
The trio of out-fronts tested were praised for their versatility. "They would be ideal for somewhere like a caravan park where there are lots of small areas to cut," reckoned Richard, "but we prefer the easier adjustment of our zero turn ride-on. Another point about this type of mower is that they suffer from 'chatter' as the unit rides over bumps, which affects the regularity of cut, so they are best on more level ground."
"We were surprised by the high quality of cut offered by the outfront flails," commented Charlie Moore. "They produced good results on banks and around the steeplechase fences."
Groundsman Michael Shilton put them through their paces and commented; "The Trimax Flaildek is a great mower for areas where a good finish is expected, as long as there is not too much tight turning."
"The Wessex Proline FRX-150 gave a very good cut and finish - you can get close in to obstacles and the manoeuvrability is good."
"I also really liked the way that the support wheels are positioned on the Major Synergy - as they are closer to the centre of the deck, they don't get knocked or damaged by obstacles. It's a very good machine."
The Wessex Proline has been the subject of a redesign to meet latest health and safety standards - the deck is more closely coupled which also means that it is easier for the out-front power unit to drive, and the more enclosed deck increases updraft for a cleaner finish.
Mowers from Major Equipment, McConnel Engineering, Wessex International, Votex Hereford, Spearhead Machinery and Trimax Mowers were tested by the groundsmen and/or demonstrated at the open day.
The roller mower is a highly versatile tool for maintaining grass areas of different sizes, and with various uses, whilst producing a tidy finish.
Low maintenance costs and the availability of a working width to suit most requirements has made these implements highly popular.
"While a single deck mower wouldn't have the output to cut our centre course area efficiently, they very definitely have a place for smaller areas," commented groundsman Reuben Langridge. "Most proved highly manoeuvrable and gave a good quality of cut."
One downside on some models was the lack of visible grease nipples for easy lubrication; whilst the Spearhead Rollicut offered useful central greasing points. The Wessex and Progressive mowers were picked out for their ease of height of cut adjustment, the latter having clearly marked increments on the turnbuckles; whilst the team found the Votex more difficult, despite having one of the same brand in their own fleet.
When tested, some roller mowers struggled with the longer, damper grass on the far side of the course. The Grass Group explained that longer side plates can be fitted to the Progressive mower to accommodate taller cut heights and long grass. This facility is available on Wessex models too.
The McConnel Stripe mower ran quietly and gave a good quality finish, but was tricky to set up, needing two people, and lacked external grease points.
Whilst Wessex International's established RMX roller mower won praise from the Uttoxeter team for its solid build and light tread, the company's marketing manager, Pete Farndell, explained that demand is growing for lighter, more competitively priced roller mowers, hence the inclusion of the CRX in the demonstration. It can be specified with full width rollers front and rear, as a finishing mower with four castoring wheels, or a combination of the two featuring castoring wheels on the front and a full width roller on the rear. It can also be front mounted and there is the choice of rear or side discharge or mulching.
Roller mowers have to take a lot of punishment in some applications, so Reuben Langridge was very impressed with the strong build and shaft drive of the Major Swift. It also cut well in longer grass, once the roller scraper bar was removed, and delivered a high quality finish.
"We were sceptical about the ability of some of these mowers to spread grass, especially in longer or wet conditions," commented Charlie Moore. "The Progressive tackled this with a large opening at the rear of the deck to throw clippings out in a fine layer, but we were initially concerned about possible implications of thrown objects. The Grass Group showed how the clippings are directed into the ground as they leave the mower and we can see that would also be the case for any foreign bodies."
He added, "We didn't believe that roller mowers could work effectively on longer grass. Most of the designs exceeded our expectations, and the Spearhead Rollicut was one that stood out for the way that the clippings were finely shredded and the quality of finish."
These made an impressive sight lined up together in the centre course, and are clearly capable of cutting some impressive amounts of grass.
The Uttoxeter team are most familiar with this type of mower and put them through their paces thoroughly, even testing out the Trimax Pegasus on the hallowed turf of the racetrack itself.
"Outputs are high and they all cut well with a good quality finish," commented Reuben Langridge. "The Trimax Pegasus was particularly impressive, because it was virtually silent and travelled well behind the tractor. The deck design meant that it lifted the grass before cutting it, giving very good results even on longer grass."
Stability in transport and ease of access for servicing also came in for praise.
Trimax also supplied the 3.23m Snake tri-deck mower which produces a fine finish and looks like a useful machine for undulating turf with lots of obstacles or kerbs to negotiate.
Build quality and ease of handling made the Wessex ProLine RMX-500 popular with the team and, as with their other machines, height of cut adjustment was simple.
"You can fold one deck and carry on cutting around an obstacle which could be really useful," commented Reuben, "It was a little noisier than others though, but this was probably due to the faster blade tip speed ."
Manoeuvrability and ease of handling were considered to be some of the best features of the Spearhead Trident R, which also cut shorter grass well with a good finish, and was also pretty impressive in the wet and on longer swards.
"Our main gripe with this mower was the release catch for lowering the decks, which was tricky to operate; it was also difficult to get inside the outer decks to set the cut height."
Strong build quality and a good quality of cut, plus straightforward height of cut adjustment won points for the Progressive TDR15 tri-deck, but Reuben admitted to being disappointed by some design issues.
"The shorter drawbar means that the pto can foul on the tyres in a tight turn, and this mower is noisy to operate. However, it is very stable to tow, with an additional toplink for safety and produces a good quality of cut with the rotation of the blades directing grass away from the wheels. Output is also high," he said.
For Uttoxeter Racecourse, the jury is still out on which mower to choose in the future. Further trials will include a Trimax triple deck with four blades per rotor, whilst Charlie is also keeping a close eye on a Votex development project which combines a front mount mower with a pair of folding rear decks.
However, the Uttoxeter grounds team were universally in agreement with visitors to the open day held at the racecourse at the end of the trial - it was a unique opportunity to see a range of different mowers put through their paces, side-by-side in a 'real life' setting.