The farm I worked on in Alabama owned a very nice John Deere zero-turn mower. It was incredibly easy to use and could turn on a dime. You could maneuver into whatever space you wanted easily, but it also went about 10 miles per hour. I taught my daughter how to use it and she picked it up quickly.
Lawn mowing is one of those things that, on the one hand, I enjoy doing. It’s fun to smell the fresh-cut grass in the spring and to enjoy the clean look of your lawn after you’re done.
But, as an ecologically minded homesteader, mowing feels so counterproductive. All that grass should be grazed by animals in order to both feed them and regenerate the soil! And that is the eventual plan on our homestead—to get a milk cow and a steer or some sheep to fatten and to rotate them on about 3.5 acres of “pasture” (lawn). For now, I plan to only mow strips around the edges and to put up electric fencing around that future pasture, even though it won’t be keeping anything in—just to let the neighbors know that I’m intentionally not mowing those areas. Neighbors are particular about these things, and mine seem acutely fanatical about lawn care.
To do my intentionally incomplete mowing I of course plan to use my BCS 853. I bought a Zanon 40-inch mower, which produces a nice, finished lawn cut but is also powerful enough to use as a brush cutter. I’m hoping that it will be able to mow down cover crops. (If it can’t, not a huge deal—I also bought the 30-inch power harrow, which can be used with the blades out of the ground to knock down covers.)
I got the mower attached for the first time the other day and cut the lawn. The Zanon did a great job.
But I did experience two slight reality checks regarding the use of the BCS. I say “slight” because they aren’t major issues that have me at all doubting my decision to get a BCS. They’re just things I probably should have expected but didn’t.
The first is that the BCS is not a simple machine.
This should be obvious just by looking at it. The engine and the PTO and the wheels are all straightforward, but take a look at the handlebars. On the right side there are six grips and levers: forward/reverse, differential wheel lock, throttle, steering brake, handlebar maneuver, and the PTO-engage lever. On the left side, there are a mere four: engine engage, steering brake, gear shift, and the all-important clutch.
The clutch—it’s so vital, and its use so nuanced, that Earthtools provides two pages of single-spaced instructions on how to use it. Release quickly with implements that don’t have huge loads; a little slower for those that do … but never longer than 1.5 seconds. You have to learn how to “feather” the clutch and do a “double-clutch”—but never “slip” the clutch! Knowing how to drive a stick shift car helps, but I’ve read that document five or six times and doubtless will do so again before I feel comfortable.
As an aside, Joel at Earthtools has done BCS users a huge service by putting together so many videos and tutorials. I don’t know where you’d get all this information otherwise—I probably would have worn out my clutch by now, because the official manual from BCS barely mentions these things.
Again, this is not a complaint. I think I’ve just gotten so used to modern user-friendly devices that I’m spoiled. How long does it take to learn how to use an iPhone or even a modern TV? Engineers seem to have learned how to talk with customers.
But maybe having to learn all the little tricks for optimal use of a machine gives it more meaning—I’ll value it more because I’ll have to become an expert at it.
My second initial observation on the BCS is that it takes a surprising amount of physical strength to use.
To be fair, I’m sure that once I learn how to use the controls better I’ll be able to work smarter rather than harder. I’m confident it’ll get easier.
But the level of physicality required is a bit disappointing, only because I was hoping our girls could use it. And I think they can—it’ll just take a little longer and will require a lot of training. I bought the version of the 853 with the automatic starter, thinking it’d save them from having to struggle with a pull chain. But the demands are actually quite a bit more than that.
First of all—not accounting for initial unboxing and assembly, which was quite difficult for some of the implements (a good thing—they’re heavy-duty)—most of the implements are simple to attach. But I did buy the moldboard plow attachment in lieu of the much more expensive rotary plow (partly because the rotary plow was back ordered), and the moldboard is basically a hundred or so pounds of raw steel. It doesn’t sit up like most of the other implements, so attaching it requires simultaneous lifting and fitting. I’m sure I’ll figure out a low-sweat system over time, but right now it’s pretty strenuous.
Using the moldboard—and, even more so, its cousin, the subsoiler—takes a lot of strength. It’s not just a matter of putting it in first gear and letting it go. You have to mount 150 pounds of wheel weights and then push as you go to keep the plow in line and to get it back aligned when it hits a rock. Our soil is sandy loam (but rocky), and it’s still tough to move it through. Watch any of the videos on YouTube of people using the BCS potato digger attachment and you’ll get the idea. Using the moldboard definitely gives me an appreciation for the work of everyone who used one with a horse—most of the male population for most of human history. And it’s that understanding of the meaningfulness of physical labor that I’m hoping to reconnect to, right?!?
The photo below is about an hour’s worth of work, including set-up (along with the help of some of my kids, who removed rocks after I plowed each row).
Lastly, when mowing, because of the complexity of using the clutch, I find myself wanting to just stay in gear when I get to a corner. This means using the steering brakes to quickly switch directions while in second or third gear, resulting in the operator doing a sprint to keep up with the machine when going around corners. It must look hilarious to the neighbors, with their zero-turn mowers.
I’m sure this all sounds like complaining, but I’m just trying to record some honest first observations. The upside to the BCS’s physical requirements—especially when using the moldboard—is, like I mentioned, that it gives me an appreciation for the challenge of breaking new ground that every farmer prior to about a hundred years ago went through. And the exercise can’t be bad for me.
The zero-turn John Deere mower our farm in Alabama had was great. But it did break down occasionally. When that happened, it required repair equipment I don’t have now—even just to left it off the ground to inspect it or to sharpen a blade.
Here was the other problem: none of us actually owned it. The farm owned it, and the owner of the farm wasn’t there. Each of us should have been virtuous enough to leave the mower in better condition than when we got it, and to take responsibility for fixing it ourselves when something broke. But of course we didn’t. Not because we didn’t care at all—we did care—but there was a maintenance guy who was supposed to take care of it, and the issues were always complicated, and we had a million other things to do.
I always joked that the farm was like a communist collective. A lot of the equipment got ruined because nobody truly owned it, so no one took proper responsibility for it.
I don’t have a huge, expensive zero-turn mower. But I do have a multi-purpose machine that is mine—one that I plan to learn how to use intelligently and to take care of.
Homesteading, by definition, involves doing things that don’t necessarily make sense. It’s much more convenient to buy food at a grocery store or a restaurant than to grow it yourself. So maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that a tool that is perfect for the homestead isn’t as intuitive to use as most modern gadgets.
I’m optimistic that the same reasons I choose to grow my own food—self-reliance, health, for the shear enjoyment of it—will prove to be the overall benefits of homesteading with a BCS.
Interested in purchasing a BCS?
Try one of our recommended retailers: