By Mike Jiggens
By Sean R. Jordan, T.Ag.
A position that I have enjoyed holding since my move to Southern
Ontario is that of a sessional lecturer for the diploma in turfgrass
management program at the University of Guelph, teaching equipment
My first lecture of each new semester typically involves the different
types of equipment to get everybody in the class on the same page. The
following week’s discussion follows suit on the topic of equipment
selection. I have always enjoyed this particular topic because it is a
good opportunity for those in the class with several years’ experience
to “teach” a bit of the practical side of things to those just starting
out in the business.
As anyone who has endured any of my classes can tell you, I like lists. To simply put bullet points on a slide show can restrict students to thinking within that set of ideas instead of offering up their own. Instead, I raise the projector screen, pull out the dry-erase maker and get the students to tell me the points they consider important when choosing the tools that they will use for the daily tasks of maintaining turf. And this is where it gets fun…
The question I pose to start the discussion is: Your boss walks into your office and says, “Your machines are looking a little tired and scarce. Here’s a big bag of money to freshen things up!”
Now, I know this is completely unrealistic, but it really gets the creative juices flowing. At this point I will pop the cap off of one of those aforementioned markers and say, “What are the items that you need to consider when deciding on your purchases?” It is at this point that I have to tell the students, “One at a time and raise your hands to be called on!”
So let’s look at some of the considerations when choosing the equipment you need for the task of managing turf. As you will notice, this list is comprised of many questions that, when answered honestly, can lead us to determine what we really need instead of just what we want.
Below are points that apply to all pieces, whether new, used, purchased outright or leased that factor into the cost of ownership:
The first question is always that of price: “Can we afford to buy or lease the latest and greatest or do we need to shop for a used machine?” This shouldn’t always be a question of whether we can afford the equipment but that of “do we really need to buy new?” Something else just as important as the cost to get the piece of equipment into our shops is the price of keeping it there, or the cost ownership.
Do we have a mechanic on staff or is it up to us to maintain the equipment as well as the turf? In the past decade, turf equipment has really made leaps and bounds in the direction of more electronic controls and, in many cases, having computers at the heart of the machines. If we have a mechanic on staff, is that person savvy in the ways of this electronic era or are they more likely to throw up their hands and say, “What happened to the good old days?”
If we choose to keep up the modern technology, we have two choices: keep the person in charge of maintaining the equipment up to speed with the new technologies or developing a really good relationship with the vendor of those machines. The cost of schooling or seminars to keep up with the trends will end up being part of our overhead if we decide to go with newer, more technologically-advanced machines.
Along those same lines, there is nothing wrong with choosing a used piece of equipment because of a level of comfort that may have developed with a particular model or line. It may also be the case that we have maintained a stock of parts for a particular model and would like to continue using a machine that goes through wear items in a predictable manner or one that does not require advanced training in electronic components to maintain.
On the topic of vendor relationships, this will prove to be a limiting factor when it comes time to maintain or repair one of our iron beasts of burden. The availability of parts, technical know-how and service all play into whether we purchase from a certain vendor. Downtime can be very costly and the question of how quickly parts can be available plays a big part in keeping a machine rolling. Also, if there isn’t a mechanic on staff and an issue arises that is outside of our scope of knowledge (e.g. a blown head gasket or a failing hydraulic pump), does our vendor have the ability to not only fix the problem but possibly put a loaner/rental unit in our shed in the meantime?
There are other services that are offered by some vendors that make them valuable such as winter cutting unit overhauls and fall parts buying programs. All things to look into if you are in a funds- or knowledge-limited situation.
We may want to buy a tractor-drawn rough mowing unit to help get across the higher cut turf more quickly, especially during periods of peak growth. In these times of budget cuts and a thinning out of labour, this is a direction being taken by many, but is there a person on our staff capable of operating such a rig without putting it into a pond or wrapping it around a tree? It is possible to calculate the cost of taking a smaller, more easily-handled piece longer to do a job with a lower paid operator vs. paying a more skilled person to handle a bigger mower to get across the acres more often. The possible result of the latter situation could be a better finished product with fewer clippings lying on top and ultimately happier clients.
Another consideration is to unfortunately replace labour with machinery. A trend that I have noticed over the years is that of more operations cutting back on the number of people mowing greens in the morning by going to triplex mowers over walking units and in the process freeing up people for other jobs and/or ultimately reducing the overall number of employees needed.
There are several variables that fit into the equation to decide the number and size of the pieces to have: By what time does the turf need to be ready each morning (always consider worst case scenarios)? What is the standard to which the turf is expected to be maintained; are certain areas expected to be cut daily? Can higher turf areas get by with only being cut twice per week?
The window in which the work must be done and the expected maintenance standards of the turf and grounds dictate the machinery needed and the number and abilities of the operators.
Turfgrass management is one of the more “equipment heavy” businesses around for its size. We have many choices of tools to get the job done and really have to look at how each piece would fit our particular operation. The crucial questions here are: What equipment fits the terrain we are maintaining? Do we have the skilled operators for more advanced or larger pieces or will we have to hire them? Would we better off buying a more versatile machine with exchangeable components such as mowing deck, a tiller or blade vs. dedicated equipment for each task? Will a particular piece be able to do its job in the time required?
Now comes a highly debatable question: Do we buy/lease new or go with used? Following are points, both positive and negative, that might influence that decision.
Is this a piece that we have to rely on for the majority of the season or do we pull it out of the shed a few times a year? If it is a near daily use machine, what is involved with the daily set-up and maintenance?
We looked briefly at the costs of keeping up with the new technologies in terms of maintenance but did not look at the benefits. Some of the newest ideas to hit the turf in recent years offer us faster, better and lower cuts than ever before. Reductions in operating noise, hydraulic spill potential, fuel usage, and emissions have all been hot topics with manufacturers of everything from lightweight tools to tractors.
If it is something we use for special/occasional time-sensitive applications, such as an aerator, is it something we really trust to buy used? With a machine that is only used on an as-needed basis within tight time frames, it may be a good idea to go with known histories and reliability over cost savings.
The cost of a new machine can be considerable but if bought or leased on a rotating basis can possibly lead to savings on maintaining an aging fleet.
Buying vs. leasing isn’t as cut and dry as whether we have the funds in our capital purchases account or not. If there are substantial funds in the capital budget to buy outright, do we want to have a depreciating asset? Could the funds come out of the operating budget with money saved by keeping a smaller staff and have the cost of depreciation being written off as an operating expense? We can find solid answers to the monetary questions by having our bean counters look at the possibilities with us. Keep in mind that where we dedicate our lives to managing turf, the accountants do the same managing money.
As mentioned earlier, many of us develop comfort levels with certain models of equipment. Concerns that we are missing out on the “latest and greatest” can easily be resolved by realizing the fact that most of the pieces that we cling to were once the “latest and greatest” in their time.
We gravitate towards these pieces because we know that they will reliably do their job so long as they are looked after.
There are also those who have agreements to purchase the “hand-me-downs” from operations that lease new every couple of years and have sound maintenance programs. This is just one method of keeping up with technology without having to pay the depreciation on new equipment.
Occasionally used pieces with a history of lasting many years, such as tractors or excavating equipment, do not necessarily have to be purchased new. For the purposes of growing-in turf after construction or renovation, having a used piece of equipment could be more cost effective than “beating up” a new machine.
When asking 10 turf managers the question of “What do you consider the important issues when purchasing a piece of equipment,” we will undoubtedly get 10 different answers. What we should conclude from this discussion is that there are key considerations to make and priority to give to each of them, depending on the particular turfgrass management operation. It has been discussed here that price is a major consideration initially, but looking at the real cost of the equipment comes over time and can be both positive and negative, based on maintenance and time/labour saved.
Taking the time to sit down and create a list of our own priorities will save time, money and possibly regret down the road.