With chemical and fertilizer programs coming under increased scrutiny, soil and water testing can help control the cost and frequency of these applications.
SUMMING IT UP
Long after they’ve left turf management school, tests remain a big part of golf course superintendents’ world. They regularly conduct soil tests to help them improve turf health or resist disease, and water tests to gauge plant nutrition uptake, or ensure they’re not harming the water supply with their maintenance inputs.
These test results are not the end game in the process, however. Once the findings are in hand, superintendents must interpret the feedback again, to implement effective chemical and fertilizer inputs.
With his soil tests, Certified Golf Course Superintendent Jim Ramey, who oversees four golf courses as Director of Agronomy at Sunriver (Ore.) Resort, looks for more than the soil’s basic nutritional needs of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. He also tests for micronutrients and pH levels.
“We get the results, look at them and adjust where we need to, or carry on,” he says. “We want to apply the appropriate chemicals and fertilizers to get things into balance to meet the turf’s nutritional needs.”
Deficient amounts of nitrogen or micronutrients might lead to disease. A property might also add lime if pH levels are low, or gypsum if pH levels are high, to create more balance.
Ramey relies on a reputable lab to obtain accurate test results, and takes soil samples in the fall each year. “We’re always looking for trends,” he reports. “We look at the past, compare results and try to determine the future.”
Superintendent Ron Gribble runs a gamut of tests, from base saturation to paste extract, at The Resort at Red Hawk in Sparks, Nev. But he is primarily concerned with calcium and sodium levels.
“High sodium levels are our biggest issue,” he explains. “It’s the nature of the high desert region where we live.”
Gribble conducts soil tests at least once a year, usually in the fall, on six greens, six tees and six fairways at the 36-hole property.
“We apply our fertilizers based on our soil testing,” he says. “If things change from one year to the next, we’ll manipulate our program. We apply products that help free up what’s already in the soil.”
The resort’s spray technicians also add organic acids and carbon, to strengthen the plant and help combat alkaline soils.
“We make changes all the time, and we’ve made improvements in our soil chemistry,” Gribble reports. “We’ve really fine-tuned and pinpointed our product applications in the last five years.”
While nitrogen and potassium are present in the soil, he continues, the nutrients are not readily available to the plants because of the sodium overload. “We’re trying to mitigate the effects of the sodium and create a good root zone,” he adds.
Applying what he has learned from test results has changed his approach to the golf course maintenance business, Gribble says. “It’s made me think in much broader terms than N [Nitogen], P [Phosphorus] and K [Potassium],” he says. “There is an abundance of elements already in the soil. You need to make them available to the plants.”
Sometimes, he says, superintendents over-fertilize plants, rather than spoon-feed them. “There’s no need to put out a pound of nitrogen if the plant will only take a quarter-pound,” Gribble says. “It’s a waste of time and product, and it just gets washed away.”
Dustin Hugen, Golf Course Superintendent at Poplar Creek Country Club in Hoffman Estates, Ill., tests his soil once a year to look for deficiencies or excessive nutrients. “The soil test is completed in late July to early August,” he explains. “The timing allows the turf and soil to have been on a maintenance plan from the beginning of the season, and I can test turf areas that have either thrived or struggled. This gives soils time to come out of winter and be flushed, to give accurate readings.”
To perform the tests, Hugen takes numerous samples from different areas of the Billy Casper Golf-managed property. He will take 15 plugs from a fairway, for example. “I like to have a dry soil that has not received precipitation for a couple of days,” he notes. “Also, I like to take the soil sample before any chemicals or fertilizers will be applied.”
If the results show a deficiency, he adjusts his fertilizer applications and schedule for the next year. But “you are not going to change the makeup of your soil overnight,” he adds. “The key is to be on the right track.”
Soil testing and the resulting fertility management helps create healthy turf, Hugen says. “Keeping the proper amount of nutrients on a yearly basis, and not exceeding what is needed to keep the turf healthy and growing, is key,” he adds.
Frank Marra, Golf Course Superintendent at Pine Ridge Golf Club in Coram, N.Y., tests soil samples from greens, tees, fairways and some rough annually in early spring or late fall. He sends the samples to a lab for chemical or physical analysis, and follows several tactics to get accurate readings.
“I use a reputable lab and I stick with that lab, since different labs use different extraction methods and equipment,” Marra notes. “Results can vary from lab to lab. Everything else depends on how I take the samples.”
For routine soil testing, Marra takes representative samples from a variety of areas to look for pH balance, nutrient levels, cation exchange capacity, soluble salts or disease. On a green, for instance, he takes several samples from high spots, low spots, the middle of the green and areas closer to the edge of the green. He keeps sampling at a consistent depth of three inches until he has a cup of soil or fills the provided sample bag to its fill line. He removes green matter from the sample, but not the thatch.
“The better labs will usually help you interpret the results and make recommendations for corrective measures based on the type of turf you are growing,” Marra reveals. “I compare the results with previous tests, to see how we’re tracking.”
A recent fertilizer application will throw off soil test results, he adds—and for problem areas, superintendents should take separate soil samples.
Test results help Marra analyze the chemical and fertilizer products he uses, as well as the timing and frequency of applications. Because he considers the source of the nutrients in his decision-making process, he might choose a single-nutrient fertilizer to correct a severe deficiency.
Responding to Soil’s Needs
Niagara Falls Country Club in Lewiston, N.Y., does not follow a set schedule for soil tests, reports Assistant Superintendent John Meteer. But the facility does test frequently, Meteer adds, because of the heavy amounts of clay in the turf.
To ensure that its turf has the proper nutrient levels, the Niagara Falls maintenance staff tests tees and fairways at least once a year, and greens several times a year. While some of the greens are sand-based, others are push-up clay greens. Soil tests are performed to determine the type of fertilizers that need to be added to give nutrients to the greens.
Niagara Falls CC starts each year with a specific spray plan, but the property makes adjustments according to nutrient levels found in soil samples. “The goal is to have a certain level of each nutrient,” says Meteer. “We worry about disease and insects when things start to go wrong.”
For accurate test results, the staff takes multiple cores and mixes them together, to get an average for the entire surface of the green.
Sunriver’s Ramey tests plant tissue if he suspects a plant has a disease. Likewise, Red Hawk’s Gribble conducts plant tissue tests “to see what’s going on in a stressed plant.”
Purchase, Store, Mix
Red Hawk buys chemical and fertilizer products in bulk when possible. “It saves on the shipping price, and we get better terms,” notes Gribble.
However, Ramey says Sunriver generally doesn’t purchase chemicals and fertilizers in bulk. Fairway applications might call for bulk purchases, he adds, but applications for greens and tees are made more often in smaller quantities. “We have a local distributor that gets products to us, and we feed the plant just what it needs to grow and be healthy,” he notes.
Pesticides are stored in a chemical and fertilizer building on site at Sunriver, and chemicals are stored separately in a heated, ventilated room in the building. “We have a washpad and mixing area, and only licensed pesticide applicators use those materials,” Ramey says.
The resort uses sophisticated, computerized sprayers for liquid applications, and walking spreaders for granular applications. “The equipment you use is critical, and it needs to be maintained at all times,” Ramey says. “It needs to operate perfectly, and we calibrate it every time we take it out. We want to put everything down as accurately as we can every time.”
What’s in the Water
Water testing is critical to golf course operations as well. Marra tests irrigation water for suitability, and ponds for nutrient loading from fertilizer runoff.
Hugen conducts water tests three times during Poplar Creek’s golf season, which runs from March to November. He tests once shortly after the course opens, once in the summer, and once in the fall. “Our main body of water receives a lot of runoff from roadways, so it is tested after all snow is melted,” he notes.
He tests the irrigation pond and well water with a basic pH test, which indicates if the water is acidic (low pH) or alkaline (high pH). “Acidic water will not have enough oxygen, and alkaline water can damage plant life in the pond or through our irrigation system,” he reports.
Hugen likes to take 20 different readings from the ponds for his averages. “I will test the water on a sunny day when we have not had any rainfall or snowfall for a couple of days,” he says, “so that any runoff from precipitation will not jump our numbers dramatically.”
Two wells provide water for the Resort at Red Hawk. Because the property does not treat its water, notes Gribble, water testing is performed primarily to get baseline readings.
However, he says, he started changing irrigation practices a couple of seasons ago. “We water more deeply and infrequently now. We don’t water every night,” Gribble reports. “We water deeply and then apply some products. They sit on the plant and root zone. The plant can take it up quickly, and it pushes the salts down. We monitor salts with handheld units daily. When the salts reach their threshold, we flush them out or water deeply.”
Sunriver conducts water tests in the spring and fall. The Little Deschutes River runs through the property’s Woodlands Course, and the golf course borders the Big Deschutes River.
“We’re looking to see if our fertilizer or pesticide applications are having any effect on the water table or leaching through,” Ramey says. “We have seen no negative trends for 16 years.”
The property also draws its irrigation water from two lakes, which maintenance staff members test if they see any growth or turf problems. The resort will hire an outside company to treat the lakes for algae or aquatic weeds.
The Eyeball Test
Soil and water testing are tools to help superintendents make adjustments to their inputs, Ramey notes. But both he and his colleagues agree that a good eye also remains one of the most effective ways to monitor the health of the turf.
“Golf course superintendents are as conscientious about applying chemicals and fertilizers as anybody could possibly be,” says Ramey. “It costs a lot of money, and we want to keep plants as healthy as possible, naturally.”