When an orchestra rereads its music and tunes for a few minutes, the rest of the concert sounds grand. Likewise, a couple of hours spent reading the maintenance manual and tuning mowers now will provide sweet notes of success for sports turf operations all spring long.

Whatever the process at your operation, Brad Aldridge, product manager for John Deere, says the critical part of maintenance is following the schedule that is laid out in the operator’s manual. This will allow the machine to perform at its best, run more efficiently and yield the longest life.

“Following the proper service intervals, whether called for in season or in the slower part of the year, is most important,” Aldridge says. Annual service items will vary based on machine type but typically include services like hydraulic oil filter changes, torque checks and some engine checks.

“However,” Aldridge advises, “if the operator manual states this service as ‘Every ‘X’ hours or Yearly’ make sure to complete the service in a timely manner if your annual usage exceeds the hourly interval.”

“Roller bearing replacement, spindle replacement, paint touch up, belt replacement and replacing seals in the lift ram (if required) are all great down-time jobs,” says Ray LeProu, technical advisor for Trimax Mowing Systems, Griffin, Georgia.

“Blades and belts are the most overlooked maintenance items as they are out of sight and out of mind under the mower,” LeProu finds.

Manufacturers know that maintenance is an issue and most are trying to build better products that require less daily work.

“Most mower manufacturers are looking at reducing maintenance by lessening the need for greasing, installing belt tensioners, and by making mowers easier to clean,” LeProu says. “There is an increasing need to reduce down time.”

Winter blade review

Wintertime is a good time to noodle about how the machinery actually performed in the previous season. While sitting around the coffee pot, ask staff questions like:

  • Did our mowers produce a good quality cut?
  • An optimum cut?
  • Did we have problems with the grass clumping?

LeProu says that a finer clip can be had by ensuring a mower has sharp blades, and zero end float on the spindles.

Check for correct height adjustment, LeProu says. Be sure the correct rpm for the tractor is near approximately 540, he adds.

Keeping reel and rotary deck blades sharp is important, Aldridge agrees. For reel-cutting units, he explains, this means getting the reels and bed knives ground or backlapped on an as-needed basis depending on conditions and grass type.

“If your facility does a lot of topdressing, reels and bed knives are going to wear faster and you will need to be more proactive in keeping them sharp,” Aldridge says.

Grass type plays a role as well. Zoysiagrass is much tougher to cut than bermudagrass, for example, which will drive the need for more regular maintenance.

While not all facilities have grinders, backlapping is a great option to extend the time between grinds. “Backlapping is an easy process that can be completed in a matter of minutes,” Aldridge explains. On reel-cutting units, it is recommended to run with a .001″ to .002″ reel-to-bed knife gap for better efficiency, less heat and longer life for bearings and other components.

For rotary blades, sharpening the blades on a regular basis, as well as balancing them, is very important. Not balancing a blade can lead to poor cut quality as the heavy end of the blade will slightly drop in relation to the lighter end. In the worst cases, Aldridge warns, this can lead to scalping.

Raising cut height can reduce clumping, but the issue might not be totally related to mechanics. One basic piece of advice is to mow when the grass is dry, if possible. “And don’t restrict air flow over the rear roller,” LeProu says.

Aldridge is high on the one-third rule: mowing off no more than one-third of the grass blade at one time. For example, if your mowing height is two inches, mow the grass when it is three inches tall or less.

Sometimes, the situation dictates cutting in grass with heavy dew or damp conditions. “Slow the mow speed down to give the reels and decks a chance to properly recycle the grass,” Aldridge says. “A simple change in ground speed often makes a huge difference.”

If mowing with reels, attachments such as fairway tender conditioners, often called groomers, help cut the grass into finer pieces and reduce clumping. Rear roller power brushes also are effective in keeping the rear roller clean, eliminating clumps of grass that otherwise may collect on and eventually fall off of the roller.

Blades make a difference. MTD Products, for instance, says there are basically two kinds of blades: 2-in-1 blades and 3-in-1 blades. Standard blades may be referred to as 2-in-1s because they perform the two most basic tasks of cutting the grass and discharging the clippings onto the lawn or into a bag.

The 3-in-1 (or high-lift) blade cuts, mulches and then discharges grass onto the lawn or into a bag. Mulching lawn mower blades are designed to circulate the grass longer so it can be cut into smaller pieces. They typically have a more curved surface style. Often there are extra cutting surfaces along the blade’s edge. Sometimes the mulchers will actually have two individual blades arranged in a perpendicular fashion like a X or a plus-sign to enhance mulching

The recirculating airflow design of 3-in-1 blades makes them less efficient at discharging grass clippings than a standard 2-in-1 blade. As with most all-purpose tools, there is some give and take as opposed to using a tool designed for a more specific purpose. MTD experts say that if you are seeing less-than-desired power, cutting or discharge performance with a 3-in-1 blade, try using a 2-in-1 blade. Conversely, if you’re using a 2-in-1 blade and want to use leaves or grass clippings as mulch, consider purchasing mulching blades or a mulching kit.

A longer life

Basically, ensuring the correct maintenance regime can extend the life of any mower.

“Wash after every mow. Better still, if the grass is dry, blow the loose grass off with air,” LeProu advises. Keep up with the greasing schedule.

“Blades and belts are the most overlooked maintenance items as they are out of sight and out of mind under the mower,” Trimax’s Ray LeProu says.

While on the topic of lubricants, Aldridge says grease – and using the proper type of grease – is a critical element to any maintenance program.

“Of all of the components on a mower, reels and rotary decks work harder than any other component on the machine,” Aldridge says. They are constantly subjected to moisture, fine grass clippings and chemicals such as fertilizers, fungicides, and pesticides. Without proper maintenance, it’s difficult for these components to perform efficiently.

“Not all greases are created equal. Follow the manufacturer’s recommendations,” Aldridge states.

The grease a shop would use for spindle bearings and reel bearings is different than what would be used on lift arms. High-speed cutting components need more-flowable grease for proper lubrication, while grease used for slow moving components such as lift arms and rollers should be less flowable.

Some greases are incompatible with one another, so avoid mixing of greases if at all possible, Aldridge says. This is particularly important if using different brands of greases together.

End of life

When it comes to retiring a mower, there are a lot of variables at play.

There comes a time – no matter how good the maintenance schedule – that a mower simply has reached the end of its useful life on the fairways and greens. Like an old, trusty pet, it can be a difficult decision to part with an old, reliable piece of equipment.

“It is best to retire a mower when the spindle seats become too corroded,” LeProu says. “The mower then becomes dangerous.”

Another warning sign that a mower is approaching end-of-life is when large cracks appear in the body and chassis.

“It is amazing how many extra seasons can be extracted out of a mower by welding patches and brackets,” LeProu knows.

Every customer has a different budget situation, and every technician has a different opinion on when a machine really needs to be retired. “And you can’t necessarily predict when something is going to fail,” Aldridge knows.

His advice is to consider going to a newer machine when you start spending a lot of money to replace failed components rather than routine maintenance items.

“It’s all in what you think is reasonable to spend,” Aldridge says.

That answer will likely vary from operation to operation. “The key is proper maintenance from day one to maximize the life of the mower,” he adds.

To help extend mower life, most mower companies supply replacement decks. “The decks tend to fail before the chassis,” LeProu says.

Helpful advice

“One of the most important aspects to owning a mower is to provide adequate operator training, and maintenance,” LeProu says.

“Unfortunately, too many operators get handed the keys to a tractor and are told to go mow grass, without the necessary training,” he has found as he visits golf courses around the country.

A couple of hours’ worth of training can save days of downtime and additional winter maintenance.

Aldridge returns to grease as a key component in maintenance.

“Some avoid greasing regularly because it can be messy. It can take some time,” he acknowledges, “but it’s important to purge contaminants and moisture from the bearings to maximize life and performance.”

Some areas on the machine – especially ground-engaging components – will require greasing after every use, and others will have longer intervals.

The important thing is to properly follow the recommended greasing schedule. If done regularly, it is a very quick process, and one you’ll definitely see the benefits.

Add up doing the little things correctly this winter and the odds are good that your operation will avoid catastrophic failures next season.