New formulas for chemical and fertilizer products, along with updated strategies, are helping superintendents grow healthy turf grass in more environmentally friendly and cost-effective ways.
Golf course pest and disease management programs have become a real alphabet soup of recommended practices. There’s IPM, BMP, and ACSP, among others. But it’s worth staying up to speed with how to implement Integrated Pest Management (IPM) programs, follow Best Management Practices (BMP), and in some cases, achieve Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program (ACSP) certification for a property—because following these concepts to the letter can spell more effective, and more judicious, chemical and fertilizer applications at golf courses.
Plus, these practices are more than just environmentally sound—they can also translate into healthy benefits for the bottom line.
Longtime superintendents have seen a number of changes and improvements in chemical and fertilizer products in recent years.
“The chemicals themselves have changed tremendously. They don’t persist in the environment as long, and they don’t use as many active ingredients,” notes Matt Ceplo, Certified Golf Course Superintendent at Rockland Country Club in Sparkill, N.Y., and a 22-year industry veteran. “New varieties of grasses and new irrigation systems also lead to healthier plants.”
SUMMING IT UP
• By staying up to speed with new products, equipment advances and new application techniques such as season-long feeding, superintendents are finding ways to cut costs while improving growing and playing conditions.
An increased availability of liquid and soluble granular products makes the job safer, easier and dust-free, he reveals, and better equipment allows spray technicians to apply smaller amounts of chemicals to larger areas. Ceplo estimates that he has reduced his chemical and fertilizer applications by one-third in the last 15 years.
“The equipment has changed dramatically. The spray equipment is all computerized,” he notes.
Colin Seaberg, Golf Course Superintendent at Ozaukee Country Club in Mequon, Wis., has been in the business 15 years. During that time, he says, the focus of chemical applications has changed, but the practices have not.
“We have to think about the environment as a whole,” he explains. “We talk that, and we live that. By and large, we’re doing a really good job of using those chemicals the way they’re supposed to be used, at the correct time and rate on the right target area. Our methods have pretty much always been sound. Knowing what to use, when to use it and how to use it, that hasn’t changed.”
Chemical companies now manufacture target-specific products that affect only the pests that superintendents want to control, Seaberg notes. It’s also helped, he adds, that most state requirements for users of the products, as well as industry requirements for GCSAA Class A certification, now mandate that superintendents receive proper training in chemical application practices.
|Equipment has evolved to include sophisticated technologies like computerized spray mechanics.|
When making chemical applications, he says, superintendents face a number of challenges. They must determine that they’re doing the right job with the best product available, communicate their actions to management and members, ensure that their staffs are trained properly, know that the product is meeting targets and expectations, and make sure they get top dollar value from the products.
To ensure use of those products in the most cost-effective way, he adds, “We have to hold our vendors to task.”
Jim Bluck, Certified Golf Course Superintendent at Forest Dunes Golf Club in Roscommon, Mich.—an Audubon International Gold Signature property that restricts the amount and type of products that can be used—bids out all purchases, to ensure financially sound decisions. But price isn’t the only factor he takes into account. “I could buy a cheaper product with poor test results, but I want the best results,” he notes.
He also consults with peers, locally and nationally, about their experiences with chemical and fertilizer products. “The familiar options that we’re accustomed to using are [disappearing], but the chemical manufacturers are coming up with more environmentally friendly options,” says Bluck.
New products have also allowed him to reduce applications, which in turn saves on labor costs.
“Aside from payroll and water costs, fertilizers and chemicals are our third largest expense,” notes Jeff Spangler, Senior Vice President, Science and Agronomy for Troon Golf, which oversees operations of more than 200 golf courses worldwide. “We have worked hard to manage our whole system better, so we’re becoming less dependent on these products.”
|At Rockland Country Club, chemical and fertilizer use has been reduced by a third through the use of newly formulated products that are applied more precisely.|
Troon properties have seen annual savings of 25 to 30 percent by cutting back on chemical and fertilizer use, he estimates.
“We’ve become better stewards of the environment and more resourceful in terms of choosing the correct product and the proper rates,” reports Eric Snelsire, Director of Grounds at Glen Riddle Golf Club in Berlin, Md., and President of the Eastern Shore Association of Golf Course Superintendents. “Chemical dependency has gone down with improved technology and better awareness and education of superintendents.”
Continuing education of staff members has improved application methods, he notes, and slow-release products have also contributed to savings.
“New technology in the fertilizer industry provides season-long feeding,” explains Snelsire. “From an environmental standpoint, that’s an improvement, and we’ve certainly reduced labor. Instead of making multiple applications, we can put down one or two per year. And with the consistency of playing and growing conditions, we have healthier turf.”
Of course, a basic, common-sense premise will help spray technicians apply chemicals in the safest and most cost-efficient manners possible as well.
“Follow the label,” emphasizes Ceplo. “If the directions say to use five pounds, then use five pounds. Ten pounds won’t be better.”
Considering All the Variables
While superintendents once followed a calendar schedule to make spray applications, notes Bluck, increased research and education has trained them to consider a number of factors before applying chemicals and fertilizers to the turf.
Soil test results and the weather are important players in the decision-making process, so superintendents now avoid making applications in windy conditions or when rain, which could wash away chemicals, is in the forecast. In addition, notes Ceplo, a cold front might eliminate a disease problem on its own. It’s also important, he says, to identify a pest properly, so the correct product can be applied.
|Ozaukee CC’s par-70, 6,700-yard course was the first in Wisconsin to receive “full certification” for nature preservation from the International Audubon Society.|
“You’ve got to know what your objective is,” Seaberg adds. “You have to know what your target pest is and the life cycle of that pest.”
Superintendents also need to be aware of the immediate threat of potential damage from disease or pests, adds Snelsire. In the last several years, he says, his staff at Glen Riddle, which is in the process of pursuing ACSP certification, has done more selective and cost-efficient spot spraying, instead of administering applications under a blanket approach.
“We put together a schedule at the beginning of the year, based on past experience and pest problems,” Snelsire reports. “We do it to generate a budget, but we take the plan and adapt it to what Mother Nature brings us.”
Personnel at Troon properties, which are in varying stages of ACSP certification, now also base their decisions on minimal usage and a curative approach that complies with Troon’s IPM program. This is more effective than a preventive approach that, in Spangler’s view, really amounts to a “guessing game.”
“Instead of making an immediate application when we see an outbreak, we monitor it to see if it maintains acceptable levels,” he explains. “If it does, then we wouldn’t do anything.”
Seaberg also advises superintendents to do their research if an application fails to yield the desired result. “It’s not just spray and forget—ever,” he says. “We have to keep our eyeballs on our properties, and our hands and knees on the ground.”
Sealed Up Tight
The maintenance facility at Rockland CC, which has achieved ACSP certification, has a separate pesticide room that is contained with a lip, to keep spills in the building. However, Ceplo notes, “Vendors have gotten so good that you really don’t have to store a lot [of chemical products].”
Snelsire agrees. “With the availability and services of vendors, we can get products in a day’s notice or a few hours,” he reveals.
At Rockland CC, a mechanic calibrates the club’s spray equipment at the start of each season, and checks the nozzles at least twice a year. All staff members check the equipment before every application, however. “We know what a tank should spray, and because it’s computerized, the equipment is accurate,” Ceplo notes.
Ozaukee CC, another ACSP property, has a separate pesticide storage facility where products are encapsulated. The facility also has a written IPM plan that documents training procedures, proper licensing, and spill and safety protocol. The staff calibrates its equipment as often as needed, but no less than once a year.
At Forest Dunes, chemical products are housed in a separate building with sealed concrete floors that slope to the middle of the facility. The building even has a recollection system of tanks for use in case of a catastrophic spill. “There’s nothing that can ever leave that building,” Bluck adds.
|Forest Dunes GC now houses all chemical products in a separate building with sloping, sealed concrete floors. The building includes a recollection system of tanks that provides further protection against the consequences of a catostrophic spill.|
Some properties, such as The Vineyard Golf Club in Edgartown, Mass., now use organic products to control disease, weeds and pests. In fact, one of the conditions of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission for approval to build the golf course, which opened in 2002, was that the course be managed organically. A five-person review committee, which includes Certified Golf Course Superintendent Jeffrey Carlson, oversees the selection of organic pesticides that can be used on the property.
“I was concerned at first, because we’re in a business where we’re evaluated by various degrees of perfection,” admits Carlson. “It takes a lot of communication with committees and the membership.”
So far, he says, he has been pleasantly surprised by the results. “I’m really pleased with the disease control portion of it,” he reports. “Insect control is getting better. Weed control is a real challenge, because there are few products and strategies out there that can organically kill something.”
Al Sproat, Golf Course Superintendent at Falcon Crest Golf Club in Kuna, Idaho, says he is using more organic products as well. “They seem to last longer,” he says. “There’s more of an even feed, and we don’t have to apply them as often.”
|A switch to season-long feeding practices has helped to reduce labor costs at Glen Riddle GC while improving the consistency of growing and playing conditions.|
Sproat’s use of organic products has reduced his frequency of applications by about one-third, he estimates, and the price of organic products has dropped as well. One product has allowed the Falcon Crest greens to thrive without growing too quickly. The putting surfaces now “green up” nicely in the spring, he says, and ball marks heal much faster.
Troon Golf has also begun to rely on more organic agronomic products rather than petroleum-based chemicals and soluble fertilizers. “Organic products are naturally slow-release, and we get more effective nutrient uptakes by the plants, even though we’re using less product,” Spangler notes.
Superintendents expect to have to abide by even more rules and regulations about chemical and fertilizer use in the future. Already, Spangler says, superintendents must devote more time to being aware of the products they can and cannot use to obtain their pesticide licenses.
Some municipalities and states, such as Wisconsin, have placed limitations on the use of products containing phosphorus. Other areas are facing similar experiences. Bluck says the elimination of phosphorus-containing products is “in the works” in Michigan. “Right now, fertilizers and phosphorus have become a big issue because of algae in Long Island Sound,” reports Ceplo.
“Everybody is trying to go greener,” he continues. “The kinds of pesticides that can be used will be more scrutinized, but public perception seems to be more important than the sciences.”
Snelsire says environmental stewardship is the responsibility of the entire golf industry, not just superintendents, and he expects to see more laws enacted about reporting fertilizer usage. He also says increased pressures could lead to higher costs for chemicals and fertilizers. However, he adds, “It’s second nature to us as superintendents to do the right thing, as our normal protocol.”
Superintendents will continue to educate the golfing and nongolfing public about safe chemical and fertilizer usage through community outreach programs. Their efforts range from inviting groups to their properties to public speaking engagements.
“The industry is changing. There are so many more products available, and the products wouldn’t be out there if there wasn’t a market for them,” Carlson says.
With its mandated emphasis on organic products, Carlson adds, The Vineyard Golf Club is always willing to experiment and try new products, he notes, and he also relies on research by leading universities and the USGA Greens Section.
The Vendors’ Vantage Point
Chemical and fertilizer vendors are well aware of their role in ensuring that superintendents have eco-friendly and cost-effective products at their disposal.
“We’re coming up with safer, less-volatile formulations for turf grass,” says a technical manager for a leading supplier of golf course turf management products. “The products have fewer active ingredients to do the same job that products did 10 years ago.”
Safer packaging allows spray technicians to avoid skin contact with products that go straight from the packaging to spray tanks. GPS systems turn off spray nozzles on areas that already have been treated. Plants that require fewer pesticides are being developed. All products must meet Environmental Protection Agency standards.
Even with these advances, however, open communication between superintendents and manufacturers remains a key to effective usage.
If a superintendent is having a problem controlling a certain disease, for example, a plan of attack should be developed with the vendor. The problem simply could be that the wrong nozzle was attached to a sprayer, the technical manager says.
“[Superintendents] need to tell us what their needs are. We have open ears,” he says.