Riding Mower Buyer’s Guide

If you’re on the market for a riding mower to take care of your farm lawn, keep these thoughts in mind before hitting the dealership.

by Abby Tripp Heverin
PHOTO: John Deere D100 Riding Mowers by Charles & Hudson/CC BY-SA 2.0

If you’re a hobby farmer with moderate acreage, shopping for lawn-maintenance equipment can feel a bit like stepping into the role of Goldilocks at the three bears’ cottage: If you have more than 1/2 acre of property, most push mowers are too small to get the job done with maximum speed and efficiency. On the other hand, your acreage (or your farming goals) might not be large enough to justify the investment in a tractor with mowing attachments. For the middle-of-the-road (or middle-of-the-lawn?) property owner, a riding mower can prove to be the turf-maintenance option that’s just right for your needs.

Mower Options

Riding lawn mowers are divided into three categories:

Rear-engine Riding Mowers

Rear-engine riding mowers are designed solely for the tasks at hand: mowing and, with some models, mulching or bagging the clippings. With average engine power between 11½ and 17½ hp, top speed of around 5 mph, deck sizes between 27 and 34 inches, and a lower center of gravity than many larger lawn or garden tractors, rear-engine riding mowers are well-suited to mowing small acreages, properties with narrow passages, and hilly terrains.

Lawn and Garden Tractors

Lawn and garden tractors provide the engine power (17½ to 27 hp) you need to tackle dozens of tasks around the small-scale farm, making them the workhorses of many small rural properties. With speeds topping out around 5½ mph and mower decks averaging between 42 and 60 inches, garden tractors are contraindicated for owners of properties with a lot of obstacles or mid-sized-property owners who want to quickly check off mowing from their to-do lists.

Zero-turn Mowers

Zero-turn mowers, once the province of commercial landscapers, have gained popularity with residential property owners seeking increased control, agile handling around obstacles and, above all, speed. (Zero-turn speeds top out around 8 mph.) Deck sizes start at 34 inches and go as high as 66 inches; engine power also varies by model, ranging from 13½ to 30 hp.

Choosing the Right Mower

When choosing a mower for your property, Dee Warren, marketing manager for Land Pride, suggests keeping three factors at the forefront: acreage, operator ability and terrain.

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Christine Chapman, product manager for Kubota, concurs, adding that Kubota’s recently unveiled Kommander zero-turn mower is recommended for property owners mowing 1 to 4 acres.

“Because of their zero-turn capability, these mowers make a clean cut at the end of each mowing row, reducing the number of passes required to mow a lawn while achieving the striping of a fresh-cut, professional job,” she explains.

Warren adds that zero-turn mowers are well-suited to lawns with multiple obstacles. “They are much more maneuverable than a garden tractor … [and] allow you to get closer to trees and other landscaping,” he explains.

Regardless of which mower class you choose, as acreage increases, so should the premium placed on operator comfort.

“Comfort is a big factor,” Warren reports. “A lot of [mower] components are the same or very comparable between brands, but comfort features can vary widely. Land Pride offers mowers with suspension seats, adjustable control arms, large foot pans, pivoting front axle and front-fork suspension to smooth out the ride.” You might also consider manufacturer-specific add-ons to increase safety and comfort, such as Dixie Chopper’s optional rollover-protection two-post rollbar or standalone sunshade.

If you’re purchasing a garden tractor, look for features that will make it fun and easy to work from sunup to sundown, such as those included in John Deere’s new X700 Signature Series, which features nonslip foot pads designed to decrease vibration stress, a cup holder that fits a variety of cup sizes, a toolbox, and a 12-volt outlet that can be used to power electric sprayers or other equipment.

Although rear-engine riders have long been considered the best bet for novice users, zero-turn manufacturers want consumers to know that professional-grade equipment doesn’t demand professional-level skill on the part of the operator. “Our experience has been that zero-turn mowers are preferred by less-experienced tractor operators,” Warren says.

Most residential zero-turn mowers retain the lap-bar or dual-lever steering controls of commercial models; however, there are a few exceptions. Cub Cadet’s Z-Force S Series is the first line of residential zero-turn mowers to boast a steering wheel in lieu of a lap bar, making it worth consideration by consumers who want zero-turn speed and handling but feel more comfortable and confident behind the wheel.

Meanwhile, Country Clipper’s Wrangler and JAZee mowers are steered via joystick. (The choice of joystick or dual-lever steering is available on Country Clipper’s pro-class models, including the JAZee Pro, Pro DLX, Charger and The Boss.) Although joystick steering was originally implemented as a user-convenience feature, Ian Gilworth, sales coordinator for Country Clipper, reports that it’s proven invaluable for customers recovering from injuries or strokes resulting in limited strength or motion on one side of their bodies. Although right-hand joystick placement is standard, Gilworth adds that the mower design can be “flipped” during manufacturing to move the joystick to the left-hand side; consumers interested in this option can ask their dealer for details.

Mowers for the Rugged Farm

If your property is characterized by uneven terrain, look for a mower with the durability and features to withstand these challenges while still yielding desired results. Look for a machine with a wide stance and low center of gravity to navigate hills safely without sliding.

The ability to quickly adjust the cutting deck for a clean, consistent final product is also crucial: Look for features like Kubota’s K-Life mechanical one-push deck lift pedal and dial cam, which allow the operator to adjust to a range of cutting heights in 1/4-inch increments, or the on-board deck-leveling gauge, Exact Adjust ports and hex tool on John Deere’s X300 and X500 garden tractors, which work together to level the mower deck side-to-side, set the correct amount of rake and calibrate cutting height.

Rough terrains also call for tough construction: Although a stamped-deck mower will likely suffice for many residential property owners, fabricated (aka manufactured) decks are recommended for harder-to-mow properties.

“You will pay a little more, but you will get a heavier, higher-quality deck that will stand up to obstacles and conditions found in a rural setting,” Warren says. Same goes for choosing a machine with commercial-grade frame, blades, engine and parts: A more significant investment upfront can pay off in terms of reliability and lower maintenance costs down the road.

Some soil types can also wreak havoc on mowers, causing long-term damage. Chapman points to sandy soil as one of the worst offenders, noting that a heavy-duty, fabricated deck is recommended in these conditions, as well.

Mower Maintenance

As you prepare to invest in a lawn mower that will keep your farm property looking well-groomed for years to come, don’t forget about the maintenance necessary to keep it in working order. As with any major equipment purchase, look for a reliable, trustworthy dealer, and find out what services are available post-sale. If you plan to perform routine maintenance yourself, consider mower features that will make this easier, such as easy-to-access grease points and easy-to-operate flip-up mower decks.

With the plethora of lawn-maintenance options well-suited to the small-scale farm property, give some forethought to your needs, your property’s demands and your future farming goals to find the right mower for your unique needs.

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