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e_moon60

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Mowing Larger Lawns [Apr. 13th, 2011|09:37 am]
e_moon60
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That's a joke, really.   50 acres of a small prairie restoration project is not a lawn.   But--lawn or not--if left to its own devices, it won't turn into its much earlier prairie self, either.   It soon becomes a mix of invasive woody species, invasive non-native grasses and forbs, native grasses and forbs, and a major fire hazard right next to a construction yard--a potent source of sparks and fuel.   One of the major tools for prairie restoration and maintenance, fire, is not available because of the houses and the construction yard and the increasingly drought-prone climate.  Prescribed fires too often get loose and become uncontrolled wildfires...and neighbors (and local volunteer fire departments) are not thrilled.   Getting a permit for a prescribed fire when there's an area wide burn-ban (something we now have for many months a year) is difficult to impossible, and burning without one is illegal and arouses ire as well as fire.

Hence, mowing.  Mowing is not the same management tool, and does not have exactly the same results, but it does accomplish some of the goals of a prescribed burn: reducing the risk of wildfire is the big one, but there are others.   Fire returns minerals in the burnt vegetation to the soil; the decay of mowed vegetation does the same thing, though slower (hence, no post-fire burst of fertility.)   Fire enables the germination of some seeds; mowing does not.  OTOH, too hot a fire (fueled by, for instance, the burning of live Ashe juniper) can sterilize the soil--not a good thing, and mowing doesn't do that, either.  In our experience (admittedly, only about a decade) carefully timed mowing results in the return of native grass species and most (not all) native forb species, while controlling many invasive non-natives.  Just as fire has different effects at different times of the year, so too does mowing 

Mowing acreage for management is different from mowing lawns (whatever size) for appearance.   Achieving the billiard-table look--flat and smooth and uniform--is not the goal at all.  Cutting height is chosen (by season, by slope, by plant type) to assist the desired species and deter the unwanted.   Desired species include ground-nesting birds (whose habitat is left uncut in the spring until after nesting season) and migrating raptors, whose late fall-through-spring depredations on grassland rodents help with the management of that population. 

Mowing larger areas of grass requires larger equipment than a little lawn tractor.  Besides the acreage, there's the mowing height thing.   Some areas need to be mowed to four inches, others to six or even eight.  Where we're restoring tallgrass, it's important not to scalp the crowns of the big bunchgrasses (Indiangrass, eastern gama, switchgrass, big bluestem, little bluestem.)   They can be mowed only when dormant, in winter.  Nor do we want to mow cactus (prickly pear responds to mowing with great enthusiasm, generating new cactus plants from nearly every fragment.  Mashing them with a tractor tire doesn't kill them either.)   New baby cacti--the kind we dig out and dispose of in a heap in one place)  are hard to see in taller grass and forbs, but if you can cut just above them, they can be removed more easily.   Some areas were not mowed for years because we were killing off a non-native introduced "improved pasture grass"...that responds to mowing by spreading, but left on its own will "thatch" itself to death.  It looks ugly as sin right now, but native grasses and forbs are pushing up through the thatch.  (And the thatch retards erosion in heavy rainfall, breaking the force of the big rain events before they reach the soil itself.) 

So there's the tractor...a small, by modern farm standards,  John Deere named Bombadil...and PTO, its three-point hitch, and its mower deck attached thereto, six feet of rapidly rotating blade that can shred just about anything, including woody invasives up to an inch or so thick.   Including body parts, if anyone is so stupid as to reach under the mower deck while it's on or slowing down.  It's easy to drive, if you follow some basic safety rules....it steers well, it has brakes and clutch, and behind you is the loud (very loud, which is why you should wear earplug)  mower deck, leaving a six foot swathe of whatever you were cutting.  I enjoy the tractor...up to a point.  That point is determined by the tractor's effect on my back, something I don't really notice until I try to get off the tractor.   Stay on it too long, and I am barely able to clamber down, holding onto anything I can grab, and I walk funny for the next several hours.  "Too long" is becoming shorter as I get older.  

Preparing for tractor work in the field includes the earplugs, a cloth to tie over nose and mouth, bandit style, because of the dust, dark glasses, the big straw hat,  a long-sleeved denim shirt (not just sun protection, but protection against the thorny stuff I'll be mowing near and under), gloves,  sturdy shoes with nonskid soles (dust and shredded bits of grass get all over the steps up...sliding while descending is not a good idea.  If I know I'm going to be out awhile, I take water along. 

If you have a rectangular field, there are known ways to mow it more efficiently.  If you have an irregular field, you can be inventive.   I tend to define rectangular patches and mow them by the efficient pattern, except when dealing with water courses or (in some cases) the old worn-down terracing.  Then I tackle the irregular bits between the regular bits. 

But in addition to the mowing itself, there are other considerations.  Fire, again.   Mowing dry tall grass on a very hot day can cause a wildfire...the grass is perfect tinder, and it takes only enough heat (as from the tractor engine itself) or a spark (as from the blade hitting a flint rock, of which we have many) or an upturned shard of glass that focuses sun on dry grass to start the fire.   Mowing green grass is never as risky--but any mowing is riskier as the temperature climbs and humidity drops.  Wind adds to the fire danger.  So the safest time to mow the dead dry stuff is on a cool, still, damp morning.   The most dangerous is a hot day with a brisk breeze.  This places a premium on getting that dry stuff down early--in the year and in the day.   In the past six months, our area is over 10 inches down from normal rainfall...the half inch we got a couple of days ago is already gone from the dry vegetation and the top inch of soil.  

In addition, for the past two years most of our rain has fallen in one week, in September.  This produces a surge of late season vegetation--mostly forbs--on ground far too wet to work (12 inches in one rainstorm...)  Field conditions--temperature, yes, but also how wet the ground is (and where) determines when you can mow.  All days are not the same.  All times of day are not the same.  All places on the place are not the same.   The east grass, in particular, has a seepy slope that can't have the big tractor on it if it's wet.  (Getting the big tractor--big to us--stuck out in the field is not a good thing...)   Across the whole of the place, the soil depth ranges from four feet of gluey black clay to solid rock--sometimes within 20 feet of each other.  I need to know that--know where the seeps are, where the drainage is, what the footing is--everywhere, to be sure that I won't bog the rig down.  (We've stuck the little lawn tractor once or twice.  Not the big rig.)    These limitations create the temptation to work too long at one time (too long for my back) and are the reason I'm not on the tractor today, yesterday having produced the "old geezer hobbling around" back situation.  But...acres have been mowed, though acres remain to be mowed.  Cactus was isolated for digging out and picking up.  The red-tailed hawk (yesterday's hawk) approved the removal of cover from grassland rodents.   So will the foxes.  

So tomorrow, weather permitting, I'll be back on the tractor (taking the ibuprofen first, this time) to mow some more on this "lawn" of ours.  Compared to when we bought it, it's got a lot more native grass, and more species of native grass, and areas that were barren are now vegetated with native plants. 

Edited Addition:  here's a link to a picture of Bombadil in action 8 or 9 years ago when he was new.  This is in "near meadow" and the grass is only about 18 inches high, still mostly green.  In the background of the third picture is the construction company yard.   



LinkReply

Comments:
[User Picture]From: shockwave77598
2011-04-13 02:51 pm (UTC)
Perhaps a simple watertank and sprayer on the deck and spraying behind the deck with a mist of water is sufficient to put out any flint-started flame, and wet the grass just enough that any flame that might start will be deprived of fuel just long enough to go out. It would be simple to rig an electric pump to a PVC pipe with spray fittings on it. They use such spray heads to water greenhouses.
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[User Picture]From: tuftears
2011-04-13 04:11 pm (UTC)
Better still, mount it forward and wet the grass before you get to it? };)
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[User Picture]From: shockwave77598
2011-04-13 05:27 pm (UTC)
Then you are wetting your blades and deck, wasting the water and contributing to rust. Plus wetting the top of the grass doesn't help when the spark is at the bottom where you cut it. I would think a spray at the back would take less water as the grass wouldn't be as tall and you'd get at the starting point of the flame earlier.

But a 15' radius mister head consumes 5GPH. Two on the deck to seriously cover any flame source would devour 80 gallons in an 8 hour mowing run. That's 667 additional pounds the tractor would have to hold. Probably an additional trailer hitched to the deck and drug behind to carry the water would be necessary. This would also allow it to be disconnected on the occasions when you have to mow wet yet tall grass and don't need the fire supression.
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[User Picture]From: tuftears
2011-04-13 05:29 pm (UTC)
Fair points! Gogo engineer wufs. ^_^
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[User Picture]From: shockwave77598
2011-04-13 05:50 pm (UTC)
Heh. Except for the very back of most of my machines, flame is a bad thing :)
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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2011-04-13 06:13 pm (UTC)
The amount of water it would take is more than I can get, let alone get out to the field. Best is to avoid the high-risk conditions--no mowing in the afternoons, no mowing at all if morning temps are 90F or higher when the sun comes up. No mowing if the wind is strong and the grass dry. Continue to notice and remove all glass containers tossed out by people along the highway (as they can act as lenses to concentrate sunlight), etc.
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[User Picture]From: blueeowyn
2011-04-13 04:04 pm (UTC)
Could you set an alarm or something so you have to stop and get down every so often to stretch your back (avoiding the "old geezer hobbling around back situation")? You could get a drink of water at the same time. I know that when working on certain projects, I'll lose track of time and the getting up afterwards can be an interesting experience. I try to get up at work every hour or so but don't always achieve that goal.
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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2011-04-13 04:22 pm (UTC)
I have my watch on...I just don't like to stop once I'm going. Stopping requires shutting down the mower and then idling the engine as it cools so the oil is distributed properly (or so says the operator's manual) before I can turn it off. I *could* leave it out of gear and idling while I climb down and then back up, but there are safety issues (and idling too long causes the engine other problems.) I just need to make myself stop after a couple of hours, even if that bit right over there looks like it won't take THAT long. (It always does. More than THAT long.) I can drink while driving (oooh....) if I have taken water along--there's a holder beside the driver's seat, down low, and if I'm mowing long straight lines there's time to have several swallows.

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[User Picture]From: wldrose
2011-04-13 05:34 pm (UTC)
Good Lord

Im a New York City girl born and raised and I had no idea

I cant think of a thing we have to equal that kinda work.

ash
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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2011-04-13 06:08 pm (UTC)
It's the complete change from indoors-writing that I love. Different muscles (oyeah!) and different thinking process.

Driving a tractor (without the mowing concerns) is just plain fun. It's all snorty-grumbly, the appeal of, say a big motorcycle for sound, only you're up above things (like rattlesnakes) and unless you're really stupid with slopes you can't fall down/off. (A friend of mine nearly overturned on a tank (stock tank--artificially created pond) bank a week or so ago, by trying to turn on a slope. You go straight up or straight down or angle if the slope is shallow enough...and this wasn't.) You have multiple control rods to play with: the basic gear shift, of 1-5 speeds, and then the other gear shift which puts you in range A or range B or reverse, and then the lever to raise and lower the mower deck and the other lever to put power to the PTO. Then the throttle, which is up in front of you, and foot pedals: the brakes that can be separated so you brake just one hind wheel at a time (not recommended for most use--I leave mine coupled)on the right and the clutch on the left.

But once you set your gear, your range, and your throttle...you just steer. It's easy. I don't go over 3 (rare, mostly 1 or 2) in the A range because I don't take Bombadil out on the road. So we trundle around the place, snort-grumble-grumble-grumble, with occasional ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa noises (esp/ when idling) and I get to feel competent.
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[User Picture]From: wldrose
2011-04-14 01:21 am (UTC)
i couldnt even come close to that since they wont let me drive the subway but I can see the cool factor
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[User Picture]From: shockwave77598
2011-04-13 06:55 pm (UTC)
Oh give me a home, where the dieselo roam...
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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2011-04-13 07:27 pm (UTC)
SNORK!

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[User Picture]From: wldrose
2011-04-14 01:20 am (UTC)
i would think flying sparks would be a problem and the cost of such a container, if not purpose built many things that will off gas can be damaging in various ways

ash
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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2011-04-14 03:46 am (UTC)
Yup. Right on the flying sparks and the cost.
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[User Picture]From: msminlr
2011-04-14 01:28 am (UTC)
In a word, raking.

A bush-hog mower like she's using doesn't have a collector bag the way a lawn tractor/mower would.
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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2011-04-14 03:36 am (UTC)
You missed "burn ban." And the lack of a large industrial dumpster, for which I'd have to get a fire permit anyway and probably wouldn't get it.

The minerals will get back to the soil.
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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2011-04-14 03:45 am (UTC)
Burn ban includes all outdoor fires of any type, including grills.

And as someone else mentioned, to rake up the post-mowing debris (which isn't "clippings" in the usual sense--I've been mowing last year's dead stalks of forbs, this year's new growth of invasive woody plants, plus last year's dead grass and the tops of this year's live grass...chopped/shredded by a 6 foot wide mower moving at 2300 rpm. If it were all grass, it would be hay--but in any case I'd need another implement to rake it, then get into a trailer, then get it to the place where it could be safely burned. That's a lot of money and time I don't have.

Decay in place is not a bad option. You can consider it mulch.
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[User Picture]From: dalesql
2011-04-14 01:19 am (UTC)
Sounds like you need a pet bison.
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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2011-04-14 03:38 am (UTC)
Nope. A) Not enough acreage B) Bison are herd animals, not happy in solitary, C) Not good enough fences for Bison, D) No permanent water source on place sufficient for bison.

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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2011-04-14 04:20 am (UTC)
I added a link to a pictures of the tractor when it was new to the post.
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[User Picture]From: green_knight
2011-04-14 01:16 pm (UTC)
Just wanted to say how much I appreciate these posts. My situation is vastly different from yours - minute acreage, so I am cutting it by hand, and vastly different climatic conditions - but I am trying to do as much native species/habitat management as is possible in a garden, because the world does not need another lawn.
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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2011-04-14 02:08 pm (UTC)
Gardens are wonderful, no matter how small. (Just came in from our vegetable garden, which also has a native wildflower area as well as raised beds for foodstuffs.)
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[User Picture]From: green_knight
2011-04-14 08:14 pm (UTC)
I'm renting, so raised beds would be stretching things a bit too far - I'm already battling the letting agents over management. I'm just amazed that I have different habits in the front and back gardens! (The front used to be garden, and it's relatively sheltered; the back used to be grazing and has never been dug, so there's next to no topsoil, whereas most of the front has about 5ft.

I say most because the electricity company dug two big holes recently and turned it all over - that's how I know how deep the topsoil goes - but a third of my garden now is different from the rest. Thankfully I was able to dig up the hibiscus (it survived) and they missed the majority of grape hyacinths, or I'd be a lot less nonchalant about it.
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[User Picture]From: andpuff
2011-04-14 06:33 pm (UTC)
I'm finding this fascinating because we also have 50 acres we're letting return to native fauna -- which, around here, means cedar bush so all we have to do to is ignore it. *g* Although, if there was a way to get the @#$&*%$@ quack grass out, I'd certainly take a shot at it.
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[User Picture]From: made_of_paradox
2011-04-22 04:53 pm (UTC)
I keep going back and forth as to whether or not I should buy my friend's reel mower. We have a little over 2 acres, but a chunk of it, we just let be. This is the sort of post that has me leaning toward 'yes, I should'....

(And I have a good hat, lightweight long-sleeve shirts, and a good hydration pack for use while walking the yard with it, should I choose to get it.)
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