Sod cutters do more than name implies

The sod cutter has long been a mainstay in the equipment arsenal of the grounds-maintenance industry. Users of this tool have found a multitude of applications for it in their daily operations. In fact, not only have grounds managers in our industry benefited from sod-cutter use, but other sectors of today's workforce also use this valuable tool. For example, Mike Bruce, assistant manager for Yardville Supply Co. (Yardville, N.J.), rents sod cutters to a range of users. "We have a diverse group of people coming in to rent these machines," he says. "Everyone from lawn-care operators to construction contractors and homeowners." In fact, the number of non-traditional groups using sod cutters has outgrown the traditional operators who maintain cemeteries, athletic fields, school districts and golf courses.

Various functions As the number of users has increased, so has the number of tasks that sod cutters perform. Early uses included the removal of turf for expanding and establishing shrub and flower beds, in addition to lifting sod for relocation to other areas. Bruce adds, "Today, we have construction contractors using these machines to remove grass for patio and walkway installations. Contractors want a precise cut, so they can avoid replacing damaged lawns."

Assistant Golf-Course Superintendent John Pearl (Brooklake Country Club, Florham Park, N.J.) agrees with Bruce. "Having a clean cut on our turf is very important in how we do our work. With a sod cutter, we can create a clean line where new sod and existing turf meet. This allows for quicker establishment and less impediments to play."

Golf courses use sod cutters regularly in day-to-day tasks. Some of the uses at Brooklake Country Club include stripping turf from tee boxes to level the playing surface. The crew there also uses sod cutters to lift turf from fairways to allow for drain trenching and irrigation-line repairs.

You can find additional uses on athletic fields. Ron Coniglio, head groundsman for the Sweet Home school district (Amherst, N.Y.), says, "I like to use my sod cutter along the skinned areas of our infields. We will go out in the spring and make an initial cut. Throughout the season, we will follow up with any spot trimming as needed."

Although a sod cutter can enhance the quality of a job, it is not the primary reason for some users to own one. Kim Moyer, of Moyer's Landscape Service (Ringoes, N.J.), says, "I'm a small company, and I need to watch my costs. Labor is expensive, so I like to use sod cutters to reduce my labor costs." Moyer points out that she can strip far more turf with a sod cutter than she can with hand tools. "With a sod cutter, the pieces are cut and rolled for disposal in even bundles. This saves time from having to pick up thousands of little pieces." Moyer makes a valid point in regard to total square footage that these machines cut. Most manufacturers list the total number of square feet their respective machines can cut in 1 hour. This is a useful reference when calculating job costs.

Moyer goes further in discussing the additional savings she generates by maintaining an even depth of cut. "When hand-stripping turf," she explains, "you always have some areas that are dug a little deeper than other areas. This adds an additional expense of having to bring in topsoil to fill in the low spots."

Features to consider Before choosing a sod cutter, assess your needs. One of the considerations to review is the number of hours you'll use a sod cutter on a monthly, weekly or daily basis. Sod cutters must perform under many conditions. Some of the obstacles they must overcome in their day-to-day operations include compacted soils, stones, roots and various construction debris. Understanding these obstacles will help in choosing the appropriate machine for you.

Consider these four features before purchasing or renting a sod cutter: * Operating controls * Durability * Transportation * Accessories.

By considering these aspects, you can develop a better understanding of what a sod cutter can do for you in a safe and efficient manner. Let's look at each.

Operating controls Be sure you are comfortable with the location of all control levers. You should have easy access to the levers that control the height adjustment for depth of cut, as well as the throttle and drive clutch. Moyer says, "I look for a unit that will provide free access to all control levers without reaching or having to walk around to the side of the machine while in operation." This is an important point in regard to handling and operator safety.

When shopping for a unit, then, look for levers positioned away from the engine and any moving parts. In addition, look for automatic cut-offs similar to those safety features on mowers.

Durability With the constant vibration and difficult soil conditions in which they work, sod cutters need to be durable. Bruce says, "We rent to all different types of people. We always review the operating procedures with each and every one, but the handling of the machine still varies from one customer to the next. [Therefore,] we need durable and user-friendly machines." To meet those requirements, Bruce looks for sod cutters with strong, welded-frame construction. An additional consideration is the accessibility of replacement parts.

Another consideration is maintenance requirements. Coniglio says, "We follow the manufacturer's recommendations on hourly maintenance schedules. Because we are not using our sod cutter every day, we keep records of the dates our machine was used. This way we can reference the hours of operation and perform the corresponding service." Always review any maintenance procedures before operating your machine and follow up by recording what maintenance you performed for future reference. This will maintain the life and durability of your equipment.

Transportation Most people don't give transportation much thought but, with a sod cutter, it's an issue you must address. Sod cutters are heavy, compact machines. Take a moment to consider how you will get the machine to a job site. Pearl says, "On the golf course, we want our sod cutter light enough to be lifted by two people into the back of a [utility vehicle]." Still others use ramps to drive their machines onto the backs of pickup trucks or trailers.

Some manufacturers even offer small utility trailers specially designed to transport their specific machines. These trailers also can save you a lot of time and frustration in loading, unloading and transporting your sod cutter.

Accessories You will find that most sod cutters offer accessories. As previously mentioned, tote trailers are one feature to consider when choosing a sod cutter. Additional accessories include sod rollers and blade attachments in the form of dethatchers and edgers, as well as varying cutting widths. Use caution when choosing a larger cutting blade, however. Pearl explains, "The use of a 24-inch blade will increase your square foot of cut but, at the same time, it will add additional weight and time in handling to each roll of sod." Sod rollers are useful when you need to cut large quantities of turf for replacement at other locations. Rollers will roll/bundle the sod for easy lifting and stacking on a truck, trailer or pallet.

Whether you are a traditional or non-traditional user of a sod cutter, the benefits of this tool can provide a quality element to your work. By understanding your needs and how best to utilize the various available options, you can more easily decide which is the right machine for your tasks.

Lawrence H. Norton writes on grounds-maintenance topics in his spare time from his home in Lawrenceville, N.J. He has formerly worked at a lawn-care company and on a golf course before finding his present position with a major chemical manufacturer.

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