Have the small agricultural tractors with belly mowers that so many of us used gone by the wayside? (A belly mower is one that mounts under a tractor between the front and rear axles.) To some extent I believe they have. The new zero-turn or tight-turning mowers have taken the place of, for instance, the Allis-Chalmers CA with a 6-foot Woods belly mower that we still use.

The technology for mowing lawns around farmhouses, buildings and park areas has taken quantum leaps during the last century. I look back at early pictures of my home place around 1919 and see areas of tall grass at full height around the house. Guests are standing by the house for the picture with weeds up to their knees. In later pictures, I see horses grazing around the same house.

Early Mowers

I remember pushing a 19-inch mower in 1958, taking turns with my brother and our landlord to get the lawn mowed. This push mower that Dad bought new in the 1950s was an Eclipse brand. I dug it out the other day for this article and read on an aluminum tag the words “Eclipse: The World’s Best Mower.” Somehow I didn’t understand or relate to that claim when I was seven years old.

Shortly after this first mower, Dad bought a cheap, green-colored, self-propelled model that my brother and I drove around just for fun (when it wasn’t mowing and without the blade engaged). The next mower was an innovative three-wheel model with a single front wheel that rotated 360 degrees and was called a Swisher Big Mow. This proved to be a good mower for doing a close mow job around light poles and tight areas. Maybe it was a forerunner of the zero-turn mowers. We used many Big Mows over the years. The model’s negatives were that it was tippy on hillsides and very uncomfortable to ride.

The next major change in our lawn-mowing history was the belly-mounted Woods brand mowers that were mounted under small tractors such as an IH Cub, A and B. Many of the Allis-Chalmers models, such as its G, C, B and CA models, were used as mower tractors. The Woods Manufacturing Company sold hundreds of thousands of these belly mowers for this purpose.

In fact, I presently own five tractors with Woods belly mowers: an IH Cub, Allis Chalmers C and G, and two CA’s. The disadvantage to these small tractors is that they aren’t maneuverable. That all changed when the first zero-turn mower came out.

Zeroing In

It’s reported that Hustler was the first company to market zero-turn mowers with hydrostatic orbit motor drives. Hustler no longer dominates that market. A large number of zero-turn mower companies have cropped up and many have surpassed Hustler in high-tech options and features.

The real test of a mower is one that is used five days a week, all day. One such individual who does this work is Sean Mallory, who is the groundskeeper for a park near us in Blue Earth County, Minnesota. Sean looks sunburnt in the summer as he mows with the county’s zero-turn 329 Grasshopper, which has a three-cylinder, liquid-cooled, gas engine. Its hour meter shows over 1,600 hours and its drive tires are worn smooth in places.

The new zero-turn lawn mowers are here to stay. The decision to buy one must be made by the buyer, who needs to think about the type of fuel to be used–gasoline, diesel or propane; whether two- or four- wheel drive is most desirable; the cutting width of the deck; and the cost, which can range from $3,000 to $18,000.

When mowers are new, everything works well, but when the hydrostatic orbit drive motors go bad and need replacing, the dollars needed for repairs are shocking. Buy a mower from a dealer with a reputation for excellent service. I can say that I’m old school and like our little ag tractors with the Woods belly mowers, but truth be known, I’m too economical to part with the bigger dollars for a new zero-turn model.

The zero-turns get the job done in a fraction of the time of a belly mower and can travel up to 14 mph or more going down the road. Some who do commercial mowing can travel up to 10 miles per hour while mowing, and for them, time is money. Recently, we invested more money in an engine job on our IH Cub than the whole thing is worth. My wife runs a Snapper and I run one of our little ag tractors with a Woods belly mower. Our mowers aren’t as maneuverable and take longer to mow, but they help us get the job done.

Mow Options

Not all tight-turning lawn mowers on the market today are zero-turn. Two other types that are very good performers are the articulated mowers, such as the Husqvarna Model R 220T. Only its rear drive wheel articulates to a center hinge point and has a 4-inch turn circle. With a two-cylinder engine, it does not have an orbit hydraulic motor to go bad.

Another style of mower is the four-wheel steer that a number of John Deere models feature. A local man has one, a multi-terrain X534. While this isn’t a zero-turn mower, he can mow tightly around light poles.

Look for a lawn mower dealer who has been in business for many years and has a good reputation in the community. Miner’s Outdoor and Rec in Blooming Prairie, Minnesota, is such a dealer. We made a phone call prior to our visit to ask questions and take pictures, and upon our arrival Rob, the sales manager, dropped everything to answer questions and show us features on the various models of mowers. He is highly knowledgeable and the service mechanics are helpful and quick. This is the type of dealership to buy a new ag mower from, because it will be there for service well into the future. Even if you have to drive 50-plus miles to such a dealership, it is worth it.

Author’s Note: A special thanks to C&S Supply of Mankato, Minnesota, and Miner’s Outdoor and Rec of Blooming Prairie, Minnesota, for their information and help. 

This article was originally published in The NEW PIONEER™ Summer 2016 issue. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.

From Our Partners