What are things that don’t mix? How about country music and opera. Or Alabama and Auburn on the gridiron. Of course, Coke and Pepsi don’t get along.

In the golf course management sector, golfers’ expectations for first-rate conditions and annually stagnant golf maintenance budgets surely aren’t compatible. Ask many a golf course superintendent, and he’ll tell you that expectations for near-perfect conditions continue to increase. His maintenance budget, however, has been stuck in the mud the past few years.

“The days when the money was rolling in (to golf courses), which allowed superintendents to choose what they wanted versus what they needed, are over,” says Lee Frie, a product manager for Charlotte-based Jacobsen. “And while maintenance budgets aren’t getting any larger, maintenance costs are.”

Which brings us to fairway mowers. The Environmental Protection Agency’s Tier 4 diesel engine emission reduction mandate in 2012, enacted to reduce air pollution including particulate matter and nitrogen oxides, helped drive up fairway mower prices because mower manufacturers had to increase digital technology to meets its standards.

Jacobsen’s new fairway mower has a 139-inch swath of cut and can mow 11 miles an hour, providing higher productivity, the company says.

Image Courtesy Of Jacobsen

But mower manufacturers – recognizing that maintenance budgets aren’t increasing and that golf course maintenance operations really didn’t need any more increased costs – have reacted by offering fairway mowers that are more productive, easier to maintain and more fuel-efficient, among other attributes.

While mower manufacturers had to do something, credit them for stepping up in the value-proposition department. More superintendents are kicking the tires a lot harder, so to speak, when it comes to purchasing fairway mowers these days, says Tracy Lanier, product manager for John Deere Golf in Cary, North Carolina.

“They are taking everything into account,” Lanier adds. “Is the mower able to mow at the speed that they want it to mow? Will it climb the hills they want it to climb? Is it producing the cut quality that they want it to produce? All of this plays into the productivity and cost of the machine.”

Budgets Stuck

In the March edition of Superintendent, we asked this question as part of our Super Survey:

Is your 2016 maintenance budget:

  • > 10 percent higher than last year…2.8%
  • 10 percent higher than last year.. 3.6%
  • 5 percent higher than last year.. 20.9%
  • About the same as last year……..59.4%
  • 5 percent lower than last year………….7%
  • 10 percent lower than last year……3.8%
  • > 10 percent lower than last year…..2.5%

Maintenance budgets were up at some golf courses this year, although most superintendents report that their budgets were the same as in 2015. About 21 percent said their budgets were up 5 percent or more in 2016 compared to 22.5 percent in 2015. Fewer superintendents also reported that their budgets were down this year.

Mower manufacturers, including John Deere Golf, Jacobsen and The Toro Co., are trying to stretch the capabilities of their fairway mowers as much as superintendents are trying to stretch their budgets to buy and lease them.

Earlier this year Jacobsen introduced the LF550/557 and LF570/577, seven-reel fairway mowers with a 139-inch swath of cut that the company says can mow about 11 acres an hour. The mowers are targeted to operations that want higher productivity out of a fairway mower without sacrificing quality of cut, Frie says. But in addition to gaining 38 percent more productivity, superintendents can use the mowers for striping, he notes.

The LF550/557 and LF570/577, as well as all Jacobsen Tier 4 final fairway mowers over 25 horsepower, feature adaptive throttle control, which automatically manages engine speed on demand. “Ultimately, what (the adaptive throttle control) provides is better fuel consumption,” Frie adds.

Jacobsen also offers the LF510 fairway mower, which Frie describes as a-back-to-basics, no-bells-and-whistles machine that fits the needs of more budget-conscious superintendents without sacrificing performance.

Knowing that Tier 4 would increase the cost of fairway mowers, John Deere Golf set out to make its Precision Cut A-model fairway mowers more productive. Lanier says the line offers improvements to the traction system to increase performance, especially on undulating terrain. The mowers feature a Loadmatch electronic setting, which compensates for the machine’s speed to keep power to cutting units and to maintain quality of cut.

John Deere Golf engineers also designed mowing decks to improve grass-clipping dispersion. The design enables crews to mow fairways even if turf is wet from dew. With the old decks, wet clippings tended to clump, which meant mowers had to be followed by crew members carrying blowers to disperse them. Hence, labor is reduced.

“Labor is superintendents’ biggest concern,” Lanier says. “Superintendents are not only having problems finding people to work on golf courses, they are having problems finding qualified people.”

Earlier this year, Toro introduced two fairway mowers geared toward golf courses with mid- to low-level maintenance bud-gets. Steve Peterson, a product mark-eting manager for Toro, says courses with smaller maintenance budgets have struggled with the price increase in fairway mowers brought on by Tier 4 regulations. So Toro introduced the Reelmaster 3555-D with 5-inch reels and the Reelmaster 3575-D with 7-inch reels, which are more compact and weigh 500 pounds less than standard fairway mowers. Because they are lighter with less horsepower (24.8), they are able to meet the Tier 4 emissions requirements without expensive exhaust aftertreatment. Hence, the mowers are about $8,000 cheaper at retail than a higher-powered fairway mower, according to Peterson.

Image Courtesy Of John Deere Golf

The mowers have three wheels instead of four and feature a 100-inch width of cut on reels that are similar to those on Toro’s larger models. Toro engineers were able to better utilize the engine power by incorporating an efficient traction system.

“The mowers have resonated with many budget-conscious courses,” Peterson says.

In the time-is-money department, mower manufacturers have taken steps to make maintenance easier and faster. For instance, they have added technology to command consoles that offers maintenance reminders, such as when to change the oil and other fluids.

“What needs to be taken care of and when it needs to be taken care of allows for a lower cost of operation,” Frie says.

Manufacturers have added technology to track things that could go wrong. For example, Jacobsen’s LF550/570 and LF557/577 feature “active monitoring” and a full-text diagnostics readout that identifies faults or open circuits.

Recognizing that many maintenance shops don’t have lifts anymore, manufacturers also have made it easier to perform routine maintenance on mowers on the ground, such as changing oil and oil filters. Overall, they have made maintenance points more accessible.

With its eHydro traction pump and wheel motors, John Deere Golf was able to eliminate 94 parts from the traction drive system along with four adjustments compared with prior models, Lanier says. The design reduced the complexity of the drive system, meaning no more linkages to adjust or repair.

“So it became a drive system that requires virtually no maintenance,” Lanier adds.

The reels on Toro’s fairway mowers were updated with new blade materials for longer reel life. Called the EdgeSeries, the reels function 30 percent longer before needing grinding, Peterson says. “That’s a huge time-saver for technicians,” he adds.

Another time-saver is that mower engineers have concentrated on simplifying operator controls so it doesn’t take as long to train people to operate them.

Back to maintenance budgets. While manufacturers agree that more golf courses are leasing mowers, superintendents who purchase them are hanging on to them as long as possible. More than ever, superintendents are relying on their technicians to keep fairway mowers operating efficiently, Frie says.

“But a some point you can’t keep a Band-Aid on a unit that is at the end of its useful life,” Frie says.

So how long is too long to hang on to a fairway mower? It depends on the circumstances, including how many hours are on a machine, Lanier says. “It also gets into individual courses, their budgets and what they are trying to do on the golf course,” he adds.

Toro’s new compact fairway mower costs less than standard high-powered fairway mowers.

Image Courtesy Of The Toro Co.

Peterson says there isn’t a straight answer to how long is too long when holding onto old fairway mowers. “If you’re in Florida and you’re cut-ting 10 months out of the year, your mower is not going to last as long as it will in Maine or North Dakota, where they are only cutting about six months of the year,” he says.

What are the telltale signs that reveal when superintendents need new fairway mowers?

“It gets into the spending it takes to keep the machines running,” Lanier says. “Is it taking a lot of the equipment maintenance budget to keep them running with parts and service? What it really comes down to is if the machine is able give them the quality of cut and the results that they want.”

In recent years, courses have changed the way they purchase equipment, including fairway mowers, Frie says.

“In the past, they were able to replace (a fleet of fairway mowers) at one time,” he says. “Now they are being much more selective and are replacing one fairway unit at a time as opposed to maybe replacing four of them.”

Fairway mowers aren’t cheap, and superintendents don’t always like the prices.

“But they understand the prices,” Frie says. “That’s the world we live in, when some pick-up trucks sell for more than $50,000.”

Frie says some superintendents say they just want a mower, sans the bells and whistles, that just cuts grass. So does it make sense to go back in time and technology and offer superintendents more low-tech and less-expensive mowers?

Not exactly, Frie says. That’s because newer technology is not necessarily more expensive than older technology, he adds.

Twenty-five years ago, Frie says, he paid $700 for a 24-inch tube television. Recently, he purchased a 52-inch ultra-thin TV for less than $600.

Story Highlights

  • The Environmental Protection Agency’s Tier 4 diesel engine emission reduction mandate in 2012 helped drive up fairway mower prices. But mower manufacturers have reacted by offering fairway mowers that are more productive, easier to maintain and more fuel-efficient, among other attributes.
  • In the time-is-money department, mower manufacturers have taken steps to make maintenance easier and faster. For instance, they have added technology to command consoles that offers maintenance reminders, such as when to change the oil and other fluids.
  • While mower manufacturers agree that more golf courses are leasing mowers, superintendents who have to purchase them are hanging on to them as long as they can. So how long is too long to hang on to a fairway mower? It depends on the circumstances, including how many hours are on a machine.

“That puts us as manufacturers in a bit of a dilemma because we would like to give you simple mechanical mowers, but the cost to do that may not necessarily be less expensive than one with all the bells and whistles and electronics that make it run so well,” Frie adds.

But mower manufacturers, more than ever, are listening to their customers’ wants and needs regarding fairway mowers to keep prices stable. If superintendents collectively don’t want certain functions, they won’t get them.

“We are continuing to develop and enhance our products so that we are able to provide the customer with the most efficient units, whether that is in productivity, ease of use or fuel efficiency,” Frie says.

Lanier says John Deere Golf will continue to focus on the value factor. “It’s about how we can increase productivity on the golf course and bring more value to the customer,” he adds, noting that John Deere Golf will unveil a new fairway mower at the Golf Industry Show in February that will address productivity and cost.

Peterson sums up the issue of fairway mowers and economics with a simple yet logical statement.

“It’s about selling the right product to the customer for his needs,” he says.