How to safely mow steep slopes

Operator mowing steep slope (Photo: Steiner Turf)
Keep it safe Sam Williamson says mowing up and down on a slope can be the safest approach. (Photo: Steiner Turf)

Mowing slopes can be dangerous and difficult, but a little bit of planning can keep crews safe. Landscape Management recently spoke with Steiner Turf Regional Manager Sam Williamson about using traction-focused articulated tractors as cutting grades climb.

LM: How steep does a hill angle need to be before you start worrying about sliding or flipping a mower?

Sam Williamson: It’s hard to say. I get that question a lot. What’s the degree of the slope? Has it rained in the past 48 hours? What type of soil is it? If I’m down in Florida where I’ve got a lot of sand. Sand allows for pretty good grip as long as it’s firm and compacted enough that I’m not just spinning my tires.

It’s really hard to put a number on it. There are too many things that go into the traction you’re going to get. A lot of times, I tell people don’t drop the attachment, don’t start mowing. Just drive up on the hill and park sideways for a minute and watch the slope meter. If it goes up to 25 degrees, then there’s not anything on that hill that we can’t handle. If you’re getting around 30 degrees, you may need to change your angle of approach.

Worst case scenario — mow up and down. It’s slower, but it’s safe. Getting into the 45-degree slopes or higher, use a winch and remote-control unit. You don’t want an operator sitting on a machine at those extreme angles.

LM: What’s the most important thing to consider when selecting equipment for slope mowing?

SW: What sticks to the hill the best? You can think about that in terms of center of gravity being lower. You can think of it in terms of tire traction touching the ground. You can think about it in terms of weight.

The heavier the equipment is, generally the more leeway you have. If you look at a highway overpass, it’s going to have a slope that’s just ridiculous. The way they made that is with an excavator and a bulldozer. A bulldozer is umpteen tons, and it can hold a slope like nobody’s business because it’s so heavy.

When an engineer is designing a zero-turn mower or something lighter like that, he’s not really thinking about mowing on slopes. He’s thinking, “I want to be quick, I want a clean quality of cut, and I want to get the job done and keep my operator comfortable and safe.”

When you’re thinking about slopes, speed is an aspect of it, but it’s not nearly as big of an aspect as getting the job done safely.

LM: What are some things operators should always do when mowing slopes?

SW: Always have your seatbelt on. Always have your rollover protection structure up. Always wear ear and eye protection.

And, just go slow. Mother Nature does not play nice, and if it’s something you only mow once or twice a year, there could be something there that would cause you to lose traction or dip a tire. Also, if it’s roadsides, there’s no telling what people have thrown or what could have fallen off of a truck. Just take your time; it’s not worth rushing through it.

LM: How should companies train workers on slope-mowing equipment such as tractors?

SW: You have to know the limits of the machine and how the machine is designed to be run. You want to know when to run high range, when to run low range, how to use hydraulic weight transfer.

Start out on flat ground. Get used to working on an articulated machine. Then, go up the hill and drive around a bit. Get a feel for what the machine’s like. After that, you can drop your attachment and try mowing.

Robert Schoenberger

Robert Schoenberger

Robert Schoenberger is Landscape Management's former senior editor. He holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Houston. He has worked in magazines and newspapers since the late 1990s.

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