This article first appeared in Toro’s “Grounds for Success” newsletter.
When it comes to mowing, different types of fields and grasses require different care. Sometimes a reel mower is the right choice, and sometimes a rotary mower is the better option. Choosing the right type of mower depends on a number of factors — including your region, the way your facility is used, and the size and variability of the terrain.
Basic Differences Rotary mowers cut by high-speed impact like a machete. They tend to be easier to maintain, they perform best at higher mowing heights, and training operators to use them is generally easier. With rotary mowers, it’s also easier to adjust the height of cut. Rotary mowers should be sharpened often, but they are easier to sharpen than reel mowers.
Reel mowers cut by a helical blade meeting a bedknife, like scissors. They offer a better quality of cut and perform better than rotary mowers at lower heights of cut, making them well suited for the finer turf conditions required for highly competitive or professional sports. Reel mowers require more maintenance and more operator knowledge than rotary mowers.
With those differences in mind, here’s a quick look at five things to consider when deciding which mower is best for your situation.
Type of Grass Warm-season grasses tend to be coarser and can be easier to cut with a reel mower than a rotary mower.
Competitive Play Is the goal for your facility to become a destination for competitive tournament play? A higher level of competition among sports teams may demand higher-quality turf. You may need a reel mower to achieve the desired quality of cut and lower heights of cut — along with a more concerted maintenance regimen.
Terrain and Area How much area do you need to mow? Large sports complexes with many multi-use fields that do not require a low height of cut may benefit from a more efficient rotary mower with a larger cutting width — such as a Toro Groundsmaster® 4000 or 5900.
Areas with undulations and varied terrain could benefit from a contour rotary, such as the Groundsmaster® 3500, or a reel mower to minimize scalping. On undulating terrain, multi-deck rotary and reel mowers are better at following the contours of the field.
Support Staff and Labor Staffing can play a part in the decision-making process. Reels generally require more technical knowledge and higher maintenance (such as ensuring proper bedknife-to-reel settings and sharpness) to maintain the desired aftercut appearance. Rotary mowers require fewer adjustments to change the height of cut and are typically easier to maintain.
Budget For less competitive, recreational-level sports fields, it may not be feasible to choose a more precise and lower height of cut from a reel mower. However, an investment in a higher-quality rotary mower typically lasts longer than a residential-style rotary mower, so the cost may be offset over time.
If you need to choose between a rotary and a reel mower, it’s important to weigh the options against your goals for the playing surface, the type of turf you have and the area you need to mow. That will help you determine which type of mower to buy and how it fits into your fleet.