Jacobsen reel mower

Reel vs. Rotary

By John Kmitta

When deciding which mower is right for your application, there are many key areas to consider, including maintenance requirements, the cutting environment, type of turfgrass being cut, the level of competition on your athletic fields and more. When examining both reel and rotary mowers, even more considerations factor into the decision.

“Reel versus rotary is very much application dependent, as well as user dependent,” said Lee Frie, product manager, Jacobsen. “Each customer is going to have a specific application in mind. And depending on what that application is, there are so many different ways to go.”

“Reel mowers are like a pair of scissors, and cut by a helical blade meeting a bedknife,” said Boyd R. Montgomery, CSE, CSFM, regional business manager, Toro. “Rotary mowers are like machetes, and cut by high-speed impact.”

According to Frie, both types of mowers do the same job, but the aftermath on the grass blade itself is very different. 

“With that clean scissor cut [with reel mowers], the tip of the grass blade is clean, it doesn’t have tears, it’s not as susceptible to disease or other maladies from an agronomic standpoint,” said Frie. “If you are talking about finely maintained turf, a reel mower is going to give you a much cleaner cut.”

However, areas that don’t require rigorous agronomic maintenance are probably better suited with a rotary mower, Frie added.

reel mower vs rotary mower

Maintenance, staff and training

According to Brad Aldridge, product manager for reels and reel mowers, John Deere, selection between a reel mower and a rotary mower could go either way, but reel mowers require more time and expertise to maintain, because you need to maintain the reel-to-bedknife clearance.

 “You’re also talking about clearances between the reel and the bed knife of one thousandth to two thousandths of an inch,” said Aldridge. “So they have to be maintained with the utmost precision to get that scissor action and the premium quality of cut.”

Frie added that maintaining reels requires more specialized equipment, and better-trained staff. 

“In many cases, depending on the type of reel mower you have, you may have to have a lift to get that reel off of the machine and put it into the grinder,” said Frie. “You need a skilled specialized technician to maintain a reel mower, whereas maintaining a rotary mower requires less technical skill to change or sharpen a blade.”

“Rotary mowers require fewer adjustments to change the height of cut, and are generally easier to maintain. Rotary mowers should be sharpened often, but they’re more straightforward to sharpen than reel mowers.” said Montgomery. “Reel mowers, on the other hand, require more technical knowledge and higher maintenance to maintain the desired aftercut appearance.”

Aldridge also recommends backlapping to increase the live of the reels and bedknives over time. Backlapping involves spinning the reels backwards and applying a backlapping compound. The compound gets between the reel and bedknife and sharpens both edges at the same time.  

“You want to backlap before it gets to the point that it’s dull or before you see cut-quality issues,” said Aldridge.  “We even recommend backlapping after grinding to eliminate any burrs that may quickly wear away.”  

According to Frie, maintenance on a reel mower is also impacted by the turfgrass being mowed. Those mowing a soft cool-session grass, such as fescue or ryegrass, may only grind once or twice per season, especially if they backlap to extend blade life between grinding. In areas with a tough warm-season grass, weekly grinding may be necessary. 

“The frequency of your grinding schedule will directly affect the life of the reel and ultimately how often you replace your reel cylinder,” Frie added.

Turfgrass and cutting environment

According to Aldridge, height of cut also impacts the decision between reel and rotary.

“If you are mowing at a higher height of cut, more than an inch or so, you are going to want a rotary mower,” he said. “Reels, because of the speeds they are spinning, tend to fan the higher mown grasses over a bit more, and it’s more difficult for the reel to pull the grass into the bedknife to be cut properly.”

Montgomery agrees that reel mowers offer a better quality of cut and ultimately perform better than rotary mowers at lower cutting heights. 

“When it comes to finer turf conditions for competitive or professional sports, reel mowers are a great choice,” he said. 

“Rotary mowers are going to excel in longer grasses that are weedier and will cope with uneven turf better than a reel,” said Frie. “Another area where a rotary does well is around bunkers, flower beds and edges, because typically your wheels are set inside the deck, allowing you to mow close to and even overhang the edges of those types of areas, where you might not be able to do that with a reel mower easily.” 

“Large sports grounds with many multi-use fields that do not require a low cutting height may benefit from a more efficient rotary mower with a larger cutting width,” said Montgomery. “On the other hand, areas with undulations could benefit from a contour rotary 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.”

According to Frie, for those who do opt for a reel mower, the type of reel mower needed is very dependent on the type of turfgrass, the location you are in and your agronomic requirements. For example, in areas with warm-season grasses, a heavier reel is needed so that the reel can address the grass more aggressively.

“If you use a lighter 5-inch reel versus instead of a 7-inch reel, the 5-inch reel unit will be held off the turf by the grass canopy, resulting in an inaccurate height of cut,” said Frie. “By going with a larger reel, it actually sets down into that grass canopy and allows you to cut that grass closer. You must know your environment and then fit your reel to it, whether it’s the number of blades, width of reel or diameter of reel.”

Reel vs. rotary mower

Competition level

“A higher level of competition among sports teams may demand higher-quality turf and lower heights of cut and a more concerted maintenance regimen,” Montgomery added. “Reel mowers would be the optimal choice here.”

According to Frie, many high schools will opt for rotary mowers due to budgetary considerations, maintenance considerations and the fact that they can’t mow as often as is needed with a reel mower. 

“For less competitive, recreational-level sports fields, it may not be feasible to choose a more precise and lower cutting height from a reel mower,” said Montgomery. “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.”

Aldridge points out that rotary technology has come a long way in recent years with improved blade tip speeds, deck technology and improved quality of cut. There are now rotary mowers with a rear roller for striping. 

“They are mainly for your higher heights of cut, but you can get the same aftercut appearance out of a rotary mower that you can from a reel,” he said.

Aldridge added that while some field managers might not be prepared for the level of maintenance required with reel mowers, that is where the dealer comes into play, as many dealers are now offering service contracts.

“Dealers will have their own grinders, and many will come to you with mobile grinding equipment,” he said. “There are also other mobile grinding services companies that will come to you.”

As a result, more K-12 and parks and rec field managers nowadays are using reel mowers because of dealer service contracts and the ability to get serviced and maintain the cutting edges for them, he said.

“Everybody sees higher end athletic fields on TV, and they want their field to look like them,” said Aldridge. “The best way to do that is with a reel mower.”

John Kmitta is associate publisher and editorial brand director of<ital] SportsField Management magazine.