For lawn care operators (LCOs) who have embraced the benefits of ride-on machines, pushing a spreader or pulling a sprayer hose is now a thing of the past. Technology has made ride-on spreaders and sprayers easier to learn and operate while helping LCOs cover more ground in less time.
“The lawn care business for many years was stuck in the 1970s,” says George Kinkead, president of lawn equipment manufacturer Turfco, based in Minneapolis. “Now, the idea that you would hire someone to push a spreader or pull a hose is ancient technology. These machines are really transforming the business, and we believe the ride-on market is here to stay.”
The challenge of finding and retaining quality labor is one of the biggest factors driving growth of the ride-on spreader and sprayer market. LCOs are able to cover more ground in less time using ride-on machines than they ever could doing the work manually. Lloyd von Scheliha, product manager for Exmark in Beatrice, Neb., says when the company entered the ride-on spreader/sprayer space in 2015, it looked for ways to make the machines more efficient, more productive and less fatiguing for the operator.
“Labor is an even bigger challenge for applicators because you have to get them through the process of licensing and training, and retaining them becomes that much more important,” says von Scheliha. “There has been a renewed level of interest in ride-on machines from the productivity aspect of it.”
Ryan Cecil, partner at Go Green Lawn Solutions in Louisville, Ky., says productivity is the main reason his company started using ride-on spreaders and sprayers about six years ago. The company’s technicians are now able to treat up to 30 lawns per day versus the 15 to 20 they used to treat with push spreaders and chest sprayers. Cecil notes that he sees the biggest gains in productivity on lawns 10,000 square feet or larger. For lawns 5,000 square feet or smaller, Go Green technicians still utilize chest sprayers because Cecil says they are quicker and easier to use in tight spaces. Go Green Lawn Solutions is a $650,000 company that offers 80 percent lawn care and 20 percent pest control services to a 90 percent residential, 10 percent commercial clientele.
“On yards smaller than 10,000 square feet, you don’t gain that much productivity, but on bigger lawns, the accuracy and the speed is just so much better than manually doing it,” he says. “These machines have greatly improved our business. The accuracy with calibrations and the increased productivity have been game changing for us.”
Kinkead says LCOs need this newfound productivity to keep up with the increased demand for lawn care services. He credits this demand to the growing number of millennials who are willing to pay professionals to take care of household chores like lawn care and maintenance. LCOs are adding more customers from this group of homeowners who do not have the experience or the desire to do this type of work, Kinkead says.
“If you go back 15 years ago, an LCO would struggle to get business and expand,” he says. “But with millennials moving into subdivisions, there are so many more people willing to outsource this work. LCOs are now confronted with how to produce what they sell. The logical answer is technology, and that’s where the ride-on applicators come in.”
Keep it simple
Manufacturers are also focused on making the machines easier to learn and operate. This focus helps reduce operator fatigue and get new employees trained and out in the field quickly. For example, Exmark designs its ride-ons with rear drives and front steering, which von Scheliha says gives better hillside performance and more control. Exmark also focuses on the machines’ capacity, so they can cover more ground before needing to be refilled, and size, so they can fit through standard 36-inch gates and other tight spaces.
“For us, we look to reduce the wear and tear on the operator while still being productive,” von Scheliha says. “As far as trends, LCOs are looking at capacity and the ability to cover more ground with the machines they have, operator fatigue and ease of use.”
Kinkead says the emergence of ride-on machines has helped expand the lawn care industry’s labor pool. Because they are easy to use and operate, ride-on machines allow technicians to stay in the industry longer and have helped improve employee retention.
“The image that we are a physically taxing business is a hard one for us to shake,” Kinkead says. “Lawn care company owners want to keep their older employees. To have a 55-year-old applicator is a big deal—we used to lose those guys.
“Every year we try to look at each lever and knob and think about how we can make it simpler,” he adds. “We are trying to drive home the idea that you can get an employee up and running within a week.”
Cecil agrees that ease of use is important. Go Green operates three
different brands of ride-on machines. The company utilizes manufacturer training programs when they purchase new machines and then takes that training in-house. Cecil says it takes a few months to get new hires accustomed to the equipment and out into the field on their own and adds that improved safety features, such as locking caster wheels and lower centers of gravity, have been welcomed additions.
“Safety has been a big trend I’ve noticed,” Cecil says. “We have enjoyed seeing this because we service a lot of properties with hills that we wouldn’t have used these machines on before. Now we can because of this new technology.”
Cecil says that more competition in the ride-on market has required manufacturers to keep improving their machines. Social media and message boards are great places for LCOs to talk about the different types of machines available and to communicate with manufacturers about how to make them perform even better.
“I think manufacturers are definitely listening to the consumers,” Cecil says. “Competition has been good to push them to keep improving.”
Photos: Turfco, Exmark