The other day I watched a groundsman struggling to cut a large sports field with a 1.22m-wide rotary mounted to a tiny compact tractor. I didn't wait for him to finish mowing the five pitches on the site - I didn't have time. And I suspect he didn't either.
The sports field was not a particularly special one; rather the opposite. The surface was uneven and the poor grass growth indicated an underlying problem, most probably compaction, though the weeds were doing well. If the mowing didn't take so long, perhaps other jobs could be completed?
We live in an age when more emphasis is placed on productivity and efficiency than ever before. Performance also matters, as the playing public's expectations continue to rise. At the same time managers complain about labour and skills shortages, not to mention insufficient budgets. One of the solutions lies in the use of appropriate tractors.
Productivity, efficiency and performance are all related to tractor size and power. The right tractor should be like having extra members of staff. You could call it the "tractor factor".
There is a wide choice of mini and sub-compact tractors for use where some power is required and space is limited. Bigger compacts - up to 45hp - are popular on larger sites. Both categories will always have their place in grounds maintenance work but increasingly we are seeing manufacturers design larger compacts to meet today's needs. Now technology and engineering mean we find 50hp, 55hp and even 60hp and 62hp engines powering tractors built around the compact chassis.
Landini is one company now extending its compact range - up to 57hp. While complementing the existing Compact 40-series (28hp to 47hp), the new Landini 6544 "large compact" incorporates features and a base specification more often seen on models of higher horsepower and bridges the gap to the full-size Landini Powerfarm.
The 6544's 2.5-litre Mitsubishi four-cylinder engine develops 57hp and drives through a 32x16 synchro-shuttle transmission with creep ratios included as standard. For operating implements there is a three-speed PTO system providing 540rpm at standard engine rpm or at a slower speed for greater fuel economy, plus 1,000rpm for more demanding equipment - the system being engaged at the flick of a switch thanks to the electro-hydraulic control.
Twin double-acting remote valves ensure the tractor has no problem operating a wide range of implements and with 1,750kg of implement lift available, it can handle plenty of kit - especially since a big tractor's combination of draft, position and mix settings are available to suit different kit and tasks.
It is in response to customer demand for a higher-powered but tidy and compact tractor that JCB Groundcare has also introduced a new "large" compact. Targeting grounds maintenance contractors, landscapers, groundsmen and greenkeepers, the JCB 360 is capable of pulling a 6m-wide mower - making it ideal for commercial grass cutting operations. The 72-litre fuel tank gives a full day's operation. Mid and rear hydraulics are standard and category 2 three-point linkage widens the scope for attachment utilisation beyond its primary role of grass cutting.
Almost certainly set to become the flagship of the company's six-model tractor line-up, the 360 is powered by a four-cylinder (turbo aspirated) diesel engine delivering 60hp. Power shuttle transmission is standard on this machine and is hand-operated by a lever to the left of the steering wheel to maximise productivity on loading and re-handling applications when required. Selectable two/four-wheel drive provides traction when and where needed.
Operator comfort has not been overlooked. For mowing in dry conditions, the JCB 360 has a fully air-conditioned safety cab. For additional comfort there is a high-back suspension seat.
A recent addition to John Deere's line-up, the JD 4720 is the biggest in the company's compact-tractor range and it is packed with big-tractor features. Powered by a 62hp Tier 2 low-emission diesel engine, the 4720 has e-Hydro hydrostatic transmission and four-wheel drive. It is fitted as standard with the 79dB(A) ComfortGard fully integrated cab, so it is suited to councils and contractors. Other features include John Deere's LoadMatch electronic power management system to maximise available torque, and MotionMatch to make it easier to switch between tasks such as loading and mowing or spraying and aerating. Rear lift capacity is 1,423kg.
Equally, at the other end of the scale, we find utility tractors taking on smaller dimensions, while still maintaining high power. Tractors of 75hp or more can be narrow, nimble and lightweight but capable of tackling those power-hungry operations. The T4000 series from New Holland, for instance, offers more power and lift capacity than the machines it replaces. New Holland's marketing support Alan Hawes explains: "As well as meeting the latest emissions legislation, the T4000 series offers groundsmen improved productivity from more power and lift, along with a 40km/h transmission for extra efficiency when travelling between jobs."
Expected to be a hit with contractors, local authorities and managers of large turf areas, the T4000s deliver up to 6hp more than their predecessors while boasting a three per cent reduction in fuel consumption. Maximum lift capacity is now up to 2,900kg. The series comprises models of 65hp, 78hp, 85hp and the range-topping 95hp T4050.
New Holland is now introducing the T5000 series, providing 76hp, 86hp, 97hp and 106hp. With Tier 3 engines, up to 40 per cent high torque rise for instantaneous response, and a rear lift capacity up to 5,060kg, these machines are aimed at livestock and mixed farms as well as contractors needing to tackle heavy work in the amenity and grounds-care sectors.
Also offering big-tractor performance and features in a small package is Massey Ferguson, with the latest MF5400 series. Ranging from 86hp to 112hp, the 5400s are equipped with the latest technologies, including Tier 3 engines and Dyna-4 transmission offering 16 forward and reverse speeds.
Who is using what?
A fleet of four compact tractors is at the core of Geoff Taylor's Estate & Field Management business. Operating from premises on the outskirts of Tonbridge, in Kent, Taylor provides a complete package of rural services to maintain or improve the amenity and environment value of properties for private and commercial landowners. He and his team of six full-time and five or six seasonal employees have a summer workload that includes mowing large lawns, spraying, fencing, ditching, planting trees and dredging silted ponds.
"Our two larger compact tractors were bought with particular implements in mind, but the Landini Mistral 55 units handle the widest range of mobile equipment," Taylor says. "They are the real workhorses of the fleet, carrying out all the on-site transport work as well as a range of specialist operations."
He continues: "We are constantly changing from turf to traction tyres, so it helps that our busiest tractors, the two Mistrals, are the same. Also, they're quick on the road, which is important when the work frequently involves moving from one location to another."
During the course of the year, the tractors will operate scarifier-collectors for conditioning lawns and removing daffodils and grass cuttings; a PTO-driven blower for leaf removal; and flail mowers for cutting orchards and other rough-grass areas. Other jobs include spreading fertiliser and topdressing, spraying, harrowing and rolling, stone burying, subsoiling to improve drainage, and log splitting.
The PTO system on the Mistral tractors spins the shaft at 1,000rpm for demanding implements, at 540rpm to drive more modest kit and there is a "750" setting to produce 540rpm with the engine turning at a more economical speed for low-power implements. The engine is a Yanmar four-cylinder, developing a peak output of 54hp and driving through a 16x16 synchro shuttle transmission. Four-wheel drive and diff locks are available at the push of a button when maximum traction is needed.
Wakefield Grammar School Foundation looks after more than 20ha of playing fields and grounds used by the senior and junior schools of Queen Elizabeth Grammar School and Wakefield Girls' High School. Located close to the city centre, all four schools are within walking distance of each other and have a combined total of 2,200 pupils.
Grounds manager Martin Jordan - along with his deputy Martin Holroyd, two skilled groundsmen and a gardener, - looks after the sites. They opted for a 68hp Massey Ferguson 3625 tractor to help with the work.
"To be frank, the tractor ticked every box," says Jordan. "First and foremost, it is able to successfully operate all of our principal grounds maintenance equipment. It also has excellent power-to-weight ratio, great all-round visibility and a comfortable and spacious cab. Not only is the MF3625 in a different class to anything we've had before, but it's a tractor that all of the staff look forward to driving - and that's essential for good morale and optimum workrates."
Operating from the machinery compound at Queen Elizabeth Grammar School, the tractor was specified with a 24F/24R mechanical shuttle gearbox, MF 920 front-end loader and Trelleborg low-ground-pressure tyres, and was delivered by local dealer Bolton Abbey Mowers. The tractor's main job is gang mowing of 16 sports pitches used by the four schools' rugby, soccer, hockey and cricket teams, but it also powers an aerator, tows a roller and runs with a variety of trailers.
For sports ground contractors, like Cheshire-based Bancroft Amenities, it is paramount that the right machine is used for the job. A fleet of varying horsepowers is likely to be the answer. Bancroft Amenities has six New Hollands - two 27hp TC27s, a 45hp TC45, two 75hp TN75s and a 100hp TL100. They were all supplied by Campey Turf Care.
TN75s are the most-used in the fleet and help with drainage and construction works as well as maintenance. Director John Bancroft says they are the workhorses of the business. He is impressed with the amount of power and lift capacity these tractors deliver for their size.
"It means you don't have to take a really big tractor on a sports ground," he says. "Customers are obviously protective about their nicely groomed turf surfaces, so this minimises the risk of damage. The tractors are also narrower than most, so any implements mounted on the back are outside the width of the machines, and so they cover any wheel marks on the turf. This is a big benefit."
The TN75 weighs around 2,850kg and when running on Galaxy tyres exerts a ground pressure of just 8-10psi. The tractor's lift capacity of more than two tonnes gives plenty of scope to operate implements.
At a time when productivity, efficiency and performance are essential but labour maybe in short supply, it makes sense to ensure the right equipment is used. It could even bring opportunities to widen the range of services offered, take on additional tasks or bring in-house jobs that were previously contracted out.
TRACTORS FOR LEARNING
Students taking any one of a number of land-based industry training courses at Hadlow College - the rural skills centre near Tonbridge in Kent - are getting behind the wheel of a McCormick CX105 XtraShift for instruction and training in the efficient operation and safe use of tractors.
The CX105 is the most powerful of four models in the range, which spans 84hp to 102hp. It can be specified with a basic manual gearbox or, as in the Hadlow unit, with McCormick's XtraShift semi-powershift transmission, and is McCormick's best-selling model in Britain.
"We have a mix of tractors to give students experience of different makes and models," explains Hadlow College's head of machinery Andy Hall. "The McCormick is representative of a good general-purpose tractor and we like its down-to-earth, uncomplicated specification."
TRACTORS FOR COURSES
Fourteen of the UK's top race tracks are using John Deere utility tractors following the manufacturer's appointment as official supplier to Jockey Club Racecourses - the largest racecourse group in the UK, with tracks from Exeter to Carlisle and famed for staging iconic races such as the Grand National and the Cheltenham Festival.
Many of the tractors have been specified with a front linkage and PTO for operating front-mounted articulated mowers, such as those made by Trimax and Lastec, as the bulk of the tractors' workload will be mowing the racetracks and other grass areas.
Jockey Club Racecourses group purchasing manager Ian Sidgwick expects the new fleet to result in a cost saving. He says: "We expect to see our annual maintenance costs reduce considerably, by operating the latest models with local dealer service and support."
TRACTORS FOR BANKS
Difficult terrain and issues over health and safety have resulted in Reform Metrac tractors being hired for mowing operations in Sheffield and Rotherham.
Sheffield City Council has hired a Metrac H6 for the mowing season (28 weeks) while Ringway Infrastructure Services (North), on behalf of Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council, has a three-year agreement for two Metrac G6 machines. The three 61hp units, all from SGM Hire, undertake work in a variety of situations, including maintaining sloping grassed areas.
With a wide track, low dead weight design and switchable all-wheel drive, including Reform's "crab steer" mode, the Rotherham Metrac G6 machines are matched to out-front flail mowers. The H6 additionally features hydrostatic four-wheel drive. Operator safety was a consideration in the selection of the Metracs, as Sheffield assistant manager Dave Mappin explains: "Sheffield terrain is very hilly. We have measured every bank we work on to assess our equipment needs and to take full account of operator safety. We have taken the decision to hire for the mowing season and feel we have found the solution to our safety issues."
Reform tractors are imported by Simon Richard of Hawick.