Wednesday, 1 April 2020

Golf Course Irrigation During a Epidemic

In my two previous posts I talked about how one might want to fertilize and plan maintenance during these times of high uncertainty. It is my opinion that reacting strongly very quickly with the ability to reduce restrictions as time goes on and uncertainty decreases will be the best way forward for many facilities. Here I will discuss some hypothetical situations and things I have learned from years of irrigating golf courses by myself. Also, please allow me to venture into the hypothetical realm for a bit because it seems that most resources that I have read are very conservative and still in denial of what we might be facing here. I hope I'm wrong and that no one needs to use any of the things I'm about to describe.

For many, they will possibly have almost no resources for the coming year and this could be made worse if this drags on for more than a few weeks or months. While most are currently concerned about getting the spring grass growth cut, what will happen when drought hits? How will we irrigate and how can we use irrigation to reduce the issues we might face when it comes to budget and turf health compare to a normal year.

Just like with fertilizer, irrigation is only really needed to allow the turf to grow to tolerate the traffic that we place on it. If you have no traffic, you have less need for high growth rates in the summer. Obviously there are certain areas that we might want to irrigate like greens and tees, but the largest areas that most courses need to irrigate are the fairways.

Our greens and tees account for less than 10% of our irrigation requirements and their conditions will probably suffer if moisture stress is introduced. With a reduction of almost 90% in irrigation requirements by only watering greens and tees, we can save a lot on water costs, electricity to pump that water, irrigation system maintenance and mowing grass that is growing at full speed!

If you are by yourself you can easily water greens and tees in a few minutes while you are on site to reduce the chances of breaks going unnoticed.

Using PGRs and reduced fertilizer amounts is a great way to reduce growth rates when water is sufficiently applied from precipitation. When the moisture deficit begins to grow we can then start to use moisture restriction to slow growth and ease the burden that mowing places on a minimized golf course maintenance operation.

Below you can see the moisture deficit data for my location. You can see that the months of May through August we generally (hopefully) experience a moisture deficit.

We can also see that 60% of our mowing requirements come during those months....hmmmmm

So if we are planning for the long game we can see that during the periods of high mowing requirements we can use moisture to restrict growth across the course to allow us to keep costs low and conditions from deteriorating too much. Yes the grass will turn brown but it will only go dormant. Without traffic the quality shouldn't deteriorate too much. Again, the severity of how much grass you allow to go dormant will depend entirely on your situation. Maybe you only water fairways 150 yards out from the green....or just heads down the middle allowing the rough to burn out. Either way, you can totally control how much grass you need to cut (and the expense of cutting that grass) by controlling where you apply irrigation during periods of moisture deficit.

I do worry about the areas of our fairways that have lots of poa in them. Maybe this can turn into a good opportunity to push improved varieties with little worry about temporarily unsightly conditions through the transition? My previous course had a horrible irrigation system and very little poa in the fairways....

There is some concern with possibly more weeds and some areas of turf death if you let the grass go full dormant but these can be remedied when things improve and are a small price to pay when the alternative for some will be bankruptcy.

At my previous course we only had a single row irrigation system. In the summer the rough growth would slow reducing our mowing requirements substantially.

What about the areas that you still water? How can we manage that with minimal resources?

You can't forget wetting agents. With less resources to micromanage moisture, wetting agents will be essential to maintain good turf quality on putting greens. For fairways that are going dormant you could hold off any wetting agent applications but probably have some on deck for when you are able to open back up. A quick application of a surfactant and a good dose of water will wake your turf up with hopefully only a few weeks of cart restrictions to help the turf growth rates pick up again. Extreme circumstances but worth discussing if we are going to effectively plan for the worst case.

What about moisture levels? With most courses having moisture meters at their disposal now will be the time that we can use them to reduce workload associated with hand watering putting greens. Hand watering is a huge time-suck and won't be possible for crews managing entire courses with 1 or 2 staff members. While moisture meters seem to be used to allow managers to keep greens drier by directing hand-watering activities they can also be used to reduce the need for hand-watering entirely.

By maintaining a higher overall moisture content in your greens, you will reduce the extremely  dry spots in a big way. In the past I have managed my golf course with only 2 staff in the summer (with regular high summer traffic and irrigation requirements) with almost no hand-watering. As long as you are using wetting agents on your greens and you maintain the VMC as high as 30% you will require almost no hand watering without serious long term consequences. Remember, we are talking about staying in business or going out of business here.....High budget financially secure clubs need not criticize. With little or no traffic the high moisture levels won't matter as much and will allow you to keep the greens in relatively good condition with minimal resources.

For those without moisture meters you can water greens slightly higher than you normally would and when drought stress becomes visible you can apply a heavy infrequent flush to try and re-wet those areas.

I do wonder about how courses that choose to stay open but are faced with reduced resources and profitability. Might it be better to close and allow the course to go dormant for the year vs staying open with higher expenses for fewer golfers? It will vary for every situation.

I hope that starting to think about how you will use irrigation to your advantage might work and if you have any other suggestions please feel free to comment below.

Thanks again and take care eh.

Tuesday, 31 March 2020

Predicting the Future on the Golf Course During an Epidemic

While browsing social media it is apparent that there are many different approaches being taken to manage courses during the #Covid-19 outbreak. I have also received many questions from other greenkeepers about why I have cut back so hard so quickly. This post isn't designed to suggest that one approach is better than another but is more of a place to discuss the various options and how they might play out in these uncertain times.

Right now there is a LOT of uncertainty. Will we be allowed to maintain our golf courses? Will we be allowed to open up? When can we open back up if we are closed? Will anyone have money to golf if we are open?

No one has the answers to any of these questions because at this time, we simply do not know. In the coming year, a lot of courses are going to go out of business and it is my hope that the number of courses that close is a low as possible.

In SAR, part of what I do is predict the future. It's pretty easy to do actually. You plan for the worst case (assuming your experience and situational awareness allows you to understand what the worst case is) and hope for the best. It's why we often call for a helicopter early (if appropriate) rather than waiting until later when it's probably too late. Get the resources (or lack of resources in golf's case) rolling early just in case. You can always call the helicopter off if things change and it's not needed. I can't count the number of times we have saved time, resources and probably lives but using a helicopter with only a few minutes of daylight to spare (we can only fly in the day). A delay of even a few minutes in these instances would mean that someone might die.

The same is true for managing a golf course. The quicker you adjust for the worst case scenario, the less likely it will be that your course succumbs to the challenging economic times. We can always ramp back up very quickly if the situation changes where we are located.

My approach as mentioned earlier has been to cut back HARD and prepare for the long haul while hoping and being ready to act quickly if we are able to open up sooner. This allows me to budget and ensure that our club stays in business if the worst case situation happens (assuming the worst it can get is golf gets closed for a season, fingers crossed). If we slowly reduced maintenance at this time but eventually had to stay closed for the rest of the year we would have spent valuable resources now that we will need later on this year assuming no more income. I am also lucky that the grass growth here doesn't really start for another month so I need to preserve any spending until it is absolutely needed. Nice to have is not an option right now. In times of high uncertainty we need to drop down to NEED to have only. You'll be surprised how little you actually need to maintain a golf course.....mostly just mowing and hopefully low mowing because you didn't over fertilize this spring.

I have already been though similar challenging times after the 2008 financial collapse had my previous course ran out of money halfway through the season. I had to adapt quickly or go out of business. The things that I learned ( and shared on this blog) during that time allowed my course to survive the difficult times and thrive when things improved.

If you rely on green fees to stay open and do stay open, you might risk having higher expenses and lower income due to the restrictions placed on most facilities that are allowed to stay open. This might be tolerable in the short term but if this drags on you will quickly exhaust your resources when you might need them most this summer!

Lots of people are arguing about what essential maintenance consists of. Here are two questions that I think will help you make that decision for yourself. While some might be mandated by their governments others will be mandated simply by economics.

How long will it be until you go out of business if the situation doesn't change or gets worse? 

You absolutely need to know this!

How can you prolong that from happening with decisions you make TODAY?

There are many situations that golf courses will fall into during the next year from almost no impact to being forced to close for the rest of the year( or time). It's not useful to discuss all the various scenarios that might play out other than the worst case and the best case and either way, you need to know the answers to the questions above.

Right now the optimist in me puts the worst case scenario at being closed with no income for the rest of this year. This is part of the reason we closed down. To weather the storm  and reduce the uncertainty and be able to act quickly and hopefully be around to golf another day.

So while many have criticized me for acting too strongly too quickly and staying locked down tight I hope you understand the thinking behind this and I hope that maybe it can help others avoid bad things for their golf courses. The hope is that I'm totally wrong and in a few weeks when we are presented with less uncertainty we can slowly start ramping back up to get golfers out enjoying the course again.

Take care.

Mowing my grass off

Sunday, 29 March 2020

Golf Course Fertilization During an Epidemic

Stacking PGRs can help slow growth where it is no longer needed
Over the years I have spent quite a bit of time thinking about growth rates and fertilizer. Through various techniques such as the MLSN and measuring clipping yield I have been able to reduce the amount of fertilizer required on my golf course. The purpose of this post is to help others by laying out some of the things that I have learned and hopefully I can help you prevent unnecessary hardship during these difficult times.

During the global shutdown due to the #COVID-19 epidemic turf managers will be faced with decisions on how they will manage their courses with minimal staff and resources.  Further adding to the issues we face is the uncertainty for how long this shutdown will last. Will it be a few weeks or will is last for the remainder of the season? I think it's better for us to plan for a complete shutdown for the remainder of 2020 and hope that this isn't the case. This will allow us to plan to keep the courses maintained for the long term so we are ready to open at a moment's notice when it is appropriate to do so.

This week I watched a fantastic webinar from Dr Bill Kreuser, Dr. Doug Soldat and Dr. Frank Rossi about how we can manage our growth rates for success during this time. I highly recommend you check it out if you haven't already.

Don't forget, it's not just an agronomic challenge that many of us will face, it's also a financial challenge.

Generally speaking, we need to fertilize out turf to make it grow. We need it to grow to tolerate the traffic that golfers place on it. With this shutdown many of us have little to no traffic. This reduces the need for us to push growth rates. For most courses, mowing is one of the biggest expenses when it comes to maintenance so if resources are scarce we need to focus on reducing mowing. Anything that we do to increase growth rates is going to make the mowing requirements go up. With no need to overcome traffic, many of us can probably eliminate most fertilizer applications this spring and reduce mowing and reduce the costs associated with mowing! Don't forget, it's not just an agronomic challenge that many of us will face, it's also a financial challenge. How long can you last with your current expenses with no income?

Alternately you can use these periods of low traffic to recover from high traffic and build density in areas that typically suffer. This is what many sports field managers in my area are currently doing as their primary use period is during the winter months and their time for recovery time is in the dry summer when water restrictions make recovery a challenge. Just be cautions that you don't push growth beyond what you are capable of maintaining.

There is a lot of nitrogen in the soil already and applying fertilizer where it isn't needed will only compound the issues we face when we get the natural nitrogen release from the soil especially during periods where it is relatively wet in the early spring and late summer (in my climate anyway).

In my career I have applied too much fertilizer but I have also applied too little. Apply too much fertilizer and you will fall behind in mowing which will make a big mess and potentially make it very difficult to return to regular playability in the future. Too little fertilizer and you could lose density and be overrun with weeds and diseases like dollar spot.

Once you apply the fertilizer, you can't take it back!

Greens shouldn't be too difficult to stay on top of. We could probably cut fertilizer rates by 25-50% and be safe from issues like moss and disease. I wouldn't want to see clipping yields over 10 ml/m^2 per day which is normally the minimum I like to see during periods of high traffic. If you don't already, now would be a great time to start measuring your clipping yield and potentially even some form of the turfgrass speedo.

If you do find yourself having to apply some fertilizer we will also be faced with the challenge of deciding what kind of fertilizer to use. Generally we can use liquid applied or granular fertilizer.

Granular fertilizer are relatively easy to apply but also need to be applied in higher quantities to achieve uniform distribution. The results in the need for costly slow release mechanisms and results in the potential for out of control growth that you aren't able to keep up with or afford to maintain. If my only option was to apply a granular fertilizer on my fairways, I would probably decide to simply not apply it. Granular fertilizers carry too much risk for me to manage effectively at this time.

Liquid applied fertilizer offer the turf manager to ability to apply fertilizer in almost infinitely low doses. Soluble sources like urea, potassium sulfate and monoammonium phosphate are cheap and easy to come by and dissolve nicely in a sprayer for easy uniform application. If you haven't' used these kinds of fertilizers before and have a decent sprayer, now would also be a great time to try this out.

By switching to soluble fertilizers applied in liquid I reduced my fertilizer expenses at both my previous club and current club by over 80%. During times of low or no traffic the savings could easily be 90% or more on fertilizer. Add to this the reduced mowing (60% less at previous course) and most courses should be able to cut their budgets in half or more. I'm not saying this is ideal, I'm just offering the idea or the potential for those who find themselves in desperate situations both agronomically or financially.

The cost of fertilizer over the years at my previous 9 hole course.
Another way that you can save money on fertilizer without compromising conditions is to adopt the MLSN guidelines. These soil guidelines take the guesswork out of applying fertilizers other than nitrogen and can save you big if you soils already have enough nutrients for growth. Check out the Climate Appraisal from Pace Turf and google the hell out of MLSN to find out more. There is a ton of good info on my blog and from

When we are given the green light to open back up and you are certain of the long term prospects of staying open and profitable we can then quickly add a good dose of fertilizer to get the grass growing quick enough to tolerate the traffic as golfers return. Hopefully this is sooner than later!

To recap, remember;

  • With less traffic on your golf course you will need less nitrogen to push growth and recovery. 
  • Applying less fertilizer will save your course money on the fertilizer and mowing.
  • Once you apply fertilizer, you cannot take it back.
  • Soluble liquid applied fertilizer is inexpensive and allows you to apply very small quantities over a large area.
  • MLSN can help reduce the need for other nutrients on our course without compromising turf health.
  • We can quickly get growth back up where it needs to be once courses are able to reopen.
I hope this post is helpful and I also hope that you can stay healthy and mentally strong during these challenging times. Take care eh.

Sunday, 22 March 2020

#Covid19 Agronomy Update.

Last Friday (March 13) I was thinking that removing our bunker rakes and ball washers was a bit extreme. On Monday my crew and I had a brainstorming session and came up with the idea of raising cups to reduce the need for golfers to touch anything other than their ball on the course.

raised cups were an attempt to keep the course safe

On Tuesday it was clear that we would be closing and on Thursday (March 19) we closed the doors to the golf club potentially for the rest of the season.

First of all, I want to thank our board of directors for the strong and clear leadership during this difficult time. I have no doubt that closing the course early was and is the best thing for us to do. By closing down I can shift my focus from trying to keep my staff and members safe to figuring out how I might maintain a golf course by myself for potentially the rest of the year.

I wasn’t prepared for the blow-back I would receive for being part of a club that closed before we were forced to and for suggesting that superintendents start planning now for the possibility that they too might have to close down indefinitely.

Through my role in Search and Rescue I spend a great deal of time training and honing my situational awareness skills. Having good situational awareness is essential for a rescue squad and as the Rope Rescue Team leader my role is plan and try and predict the future. I almost never touch rope.

We could see the eventual need to close the golf courses down completely since the 19th here. At this time there were mandatory shelter in place mandates going out across Europe and parts of the USA. It was only a matter of time. based on the numbers we were seeing in Europe, we were only 10-14 days behind their disastrous outcome. At the time of writing this there still isn’t an official order to “shelter in place” where I live but I expect it any day now. Again, I am grateful for the leadership at my club for allowing me ample time to plan and prepare the course.

When it first became apparent to me that we would be closing I could start spending my energy on addressing this new problem of figuring out how to manage a golf course maintenance operation by myself for the foreseeable future. I directed my staff to get everything cut at least once and to button up any unfinished projects. We charged the irrigation early and pulled in all course accessories.

I decided to go it alone. The justification behind this is that there is much less possibility of losing our entire staff to quarantine if someone gets this virus. If I get sick I would hope that the rest of my staff would be healthy and able to fill in for me while I am forced to self quarantine and recover. If we had 2 shifts we could easily lose everyone if someone from each shift was infected. I also have to spend no time worrying about hygiene at the shop anymore with only myself being here. I am checking in every 2 hours and am only doing relatively safe work. No chainsaws!

We are lucky in that we won’t be getting significant growth here for another month. Even so, we spent about 350 hours mowing in May. This will, of course, be much lower as we won't’ have to maintain the course for playability. We won’t have to push growth for recovery from traffic either. This will save time applying fertilizer and hopefully result in lower growth rates across the course.

We plan to maintain greens as normal from a height of cut perspective. We won’t need as much fertilizer and will probably only mow them 2 times a week. We will probably not roll at all because the disease reduction benefit probably won’t be required considering the greens will be having no traffic on them. I do expect to see the bentgrass flourish this spring with less traffic and inputs. We will more than likely use wetting agents on our greens to reduce the need for hand watering.

For fairways we will be limiting growth through lower fertilizer rates and by restricting water. There’s no hope in me being able to keep up with mowing and irrigation system maintenance so the plan is to only water to keep the course from burning up. For the most part fairways will probably go semi-dormant this summer. This will require only 10% of our normal irrigation capacity. Again, this won’t be a problem if there is no traffic. This will reduce our mowing requirements to probably 32 hours a month for greens, 32 hours a month for tees and 32 hours a month for the odd rough area that won’t go dormant! I will be around for 160 hours a month so mowing should only occupy 60% of my time which is the percentage of the total labor pool time that I have found should be spent mowing a course. It is certainly doable.

As soon as we get the all clear to open back up we will turn the water back on. Worst case is we might have to ask carts to remain on pathways for a few weeks while the fairways green back up.

Our tees will also be allowed to go semi dormant. I have always considered the tees to be semi disposable turf. They get chewed up from golfers and it is in these areas where we grow the grass hard to keep up. With no traffic, we won’t need that kind of recovery or high growth rates. When we can open back up we can over-seed, turn the water back on and give them a heavy shot of fertilizer. The longer we go with no traffic, the better the tees will be when we reopen.

Now would be a great time to over-seed if you have the resources. How often do you get to close a course during the wet spring months to allow over-seed to mature?

For those wondering, our robot is sill mowing its grass off. We just recently started it back up for the season so that quality of cut is pretty bad right now. Regardless, this will be the only fairway receiving regular mowing for the foreseeable future.

How long will we have to stay closed? I don't know but I would plan to not open for the 2020 golf season whatsoever. We can always ramp things back up but it will be much harder to maintain a course and reduce expenses if you have runaway growth to manage.

In the end my hope is that everyone can weather this storm in good spirits and health. The golf course will be fine no matter what happens and the most important thing for now is to focus on the safety of yourself, your family, and your coworkers. Please #Stayhome

Take care everyone.

Saturday, 7 December 2019

I used to think about overseeding all wrong.

Coming onto a new property offers any superintendent a fresh perspective that is hard to have when you have been at the same property for along time. This is my experience anyway. This past year at my new course I have really noticed the differences in turf species composition and have thought a lot about why this may have occurred. The more I think about it the more my way of thinking about species composition and overseeding practice have changed. Let me explain.

Poa likes high traffic areas more than other turf species, or does it?

Take a look at the following picture of one of our greens from above. You can see the patch of yellow turf behind the green. This is disesased poa annua coming out of winter. There is a pretty uniform patch of poa behind this green on a slope that experience high traffic stress from mowers turning and golfers walking.

There is no denying that this poa is here because of high traffic stress but is it here because it is a better suited turf species for this environment? I will argue that it isn't the best suited species for this environment even though it is currently the dominant species in this particular area. In my experience, poa also has a limit to how much traffic it will tolerate. These high traffic areas will have more turf death regardless of the species growing there.

When golf courses are made they are generally seeded with improved turfgrass varieties. Sure, some people will sprig poa annua to maintain uniformity on new turf areas but hardly anyone seeds a new course with poa annua. Turf breeders and researchers put a lot of effort into developing superior turf varieties to help make our jobs as turf managers easier. So initially most of the grass on a given course consists of improved varieties.

Grass dies!

Whether it is from traffic, drought stress, winter damage, disease, or divots, grass will always be dying on a golf course no matter how good you are at managing it. The longer that time goes on, the higher the probability that any given grass plant will die.

If you aren't overseeding, what fills the voids left behind by the grass that dies each year?

In many cases this void is filled with poa annua which is a native turf species, or unimproved turfgrass variety. Poa has the advantage of having its seed everywhere and a creeping growth habit. When the time is right, it fills the voids.

If you aren't adding improved varieties to fill the voids you are by definition getting unimproved turf varieties and poa is definitely an unimproved turf variety. In areas where we can irrigate it, apply fungicide, and with lots of control we can often keep the poa alive year-round. When resources are limited or environmental pressures are high the poa checks out as can be seen pictured above and below.

Below is a picture I took this summer behind another green. You can see this area gets a lot of traffic and overall is in bad conditions. There is, however, some grass that is handling the situation just fine. This is an improved variety of perennial ryegrass that was originally seeded 25 years ago. Over the years some of it has died due to the various stresses that can occur as well as there is also the possibility that the other turfgrass that was included in the blend originally seeded was not suited well to the stress. Because this ryegrass has a bunch type growth habit it won't grow to fill in the voids left behind.

Over time as the improved varieties died for various reasons poa annua would fill the voids but in this area during the summer it doesn't receive enough water for poa to survive. Poa is an unimproved variety and if we want it to be a good species for this location we need to apply more resources to it during the summer. Namely, more water which is a limited resource and very expensive to add more sprinklers for these areas. Doing this sort of thing over time will only add to the cost associated with maintaining the golf course when resources are already stretched to the max.

We spend most of our time handwatering areas like this around our greens and not actually watering the greens! Even then, the turf quality suffers because the poa can't handle the harsh situations.

So poa will fill the void and spread when the weather is right for it but will check out when the going gets tough adding to our workload and reducing turf conditions on the course. More money for worse conditions....great plan!

This sort of situation doesn't happen overnight. Originally this area was all improved turfgrass varieties and probably looked a lot better than it does today. Each year, a small percentage of the improved turf dies, and poa fills the void and we are forced to expend more effort to keep the quality of these areas the same because we didn't add any new improved turfgrass to fill the voids.

So over the years we go on, not adding anything to replace the grass that dies and eventually we have greens, tees and fairways that are almost pure poa annua and rough and green surrounds that look good when the conditions are right for poa and look like crap when the conditions get difficult as can be seen in the picture below. The issue here isn't that the originally seeded ryegrass can't handle the traffic, it's that nothing has been done to replace any ryegrass that has died over the years.

I don't blame anyone for this. I see it everywhere and have done similar things myself!

Lots of poa annua in areas where mower turn. Does the poa like traffic more, or is it the only thing that fills the void without regular overseeding?

If we want to take control of conditions and costs we need to re-introduce improved turfgrass varieties that are designed to help us with our efforts but also need that realize that it will take a long time. The picture above took 25 years to get to this point so we can't expect results in only a few years without a major resource injection. We can, however, realize that some of the good grass will die every year and ensure that we replace it with improved turfgrass instead of unimproved turfgrass.

"But the poa is just too competative." Sure, at times the poa is very competitive but there are plenty of opportunities to seed into stand of poa when it is not competitive. I would argue that poa is actually not very competitive for long that it is competitive. Poa suffers through the winter, suffers during and after the spring seedhead flush, suffers in the summer heat, but LOVES early fall conditions. So for a month or two a year, poa is truly competitive. If it was as competitive as I've been lead to believe, we wouldn't have any improved turfgrass left on our course after 50 years but guess what? We do!
Poa annua filling the voids, where poa annua died in the summer. Can we stop the circle of decline with overseeding?

In recent memory there have been a lot of new improved varieties that offer creeping growth habits so that we don't need to constantly overseed to fill these voids. This is a great thing and will surely result in improved turf conditions year round with even less effort.

Keeping the poa alive on this fairway in the summer take a lot of water and still results in less than ideal conditions. Again, the few remaining improved varieties have a much better turf quality under the same conditions.

So while we often want to see instant results from an overseeding program I would suggest that it might be better to go light but spread that seed everywhere to slowly make up for any improved turfgrass that might die for whatever reason while also incorporating new varieties with creeping growth habits to lessen the workload over time.

"If you aren't adding improved varieties to fill the voids you are by definition getting unimproved turf varieties"

This year we had issues with water supply and in the short term the solution is to reduce run times or areas that we water but this only results in a lower quality playing surface as the poa that fills most of these areas can't handle anything less that soaking wet.

The tweet below perfectly illustrates how improved turf varieties can impact conditions with the exact same effort.

Golf is played on turf. The type of turf we maintain has a big impact on how our courses play and how much money it costs to maintain. Going forward our budget for seed has gone up by 300% but ideally it would go up 1000%. We are evaluating different varieties for how they perform under establishment and the microclimates across the course. I already have my suspicions which turf will perform the best but also want to make sure.

Trying different turf varieties on fairways
Politically speaking, spending a ton of lightly overseeding an entire property isn't a good idea. There will be no huge dramatic change that sodding or heavy overseeding will provide. Over time, however, it should result in improved conditions for less money. By applying more seed to high traffic areas or areas that receive more stress but also applying seed everywhere else I think we can make huge improvements over time while continuing to reduce the costs and environmental impacts of golf.

This tee is almost pure bentgrass for some reason. It's tolerance to drought, disease and creeping growth habit are probably why. It has the best turf of any tee and we maintain it the same as any other tee.

The dark green turf on the right is also bentgrass that we accidentally seeded. It looks much better that the adjacent poa annua and again, is almost pure where it was seeded due to it's creeping growth habit and higher tolerance to disease and difficult growing conditions.

Saturday, 14 September 2019

Turfgrass Speedo is Better Than I Thought

Last fall I came up with the idea of comparing actual growth to ideal growth to get a ratio of growth. I called this tool the turfgrass speedo.

Ideal growth was calculated using the growth potential formula on my weather modeler spreadsheet and would use the ideal monthly nitrogen rate to determine how much grass should be harvested based on actual conditions not just a date on the calendar. The idea was to growth the grass at the right speed, not just as slow as possible. Growing the grass too slow is worse than growing it too fast. When you grow it too fast you get excess thatch and have to mow it more but when you grow it too slow it can't handle the traffic or stress of any kind really.

I had made all sorts of observations about growth in the past and the model seemed good. This winter I started a new job at a new course and was excited to see how the model worked at a different course.

For the first 5 months of the year the model was working perfectly. It suggested growth was too high when it was actually too high and during March through May it was predicting growth almost perfectly.

When June hit the growth rates seemed to be OK but the speedo suggested that growth was too low for the weather we werre having. I wondered if the model wasn't that good because the greens were awesome. Green speeds were way up and golfers were happy.

I noticed the first incidence of anthracnose on June 25th and we sprayed for it shortly afterwards. I wasn't going to get fancy my first year at a new course.

Anthracnose came on hard in late June, got better in July, but again, got much worse in August.
The disease slowly progressed in July and we increased nitrogen rates to help manage the disease as this is usually the most effective way of managing anthracnose. As July was quite cool, growth rates were down and nutrient demand was also low. The only problem was that in August the disease got worse and the speedo again suggested that growth rates were way below where they should be. The charts showing nitrogen applied vs nitrogen removed via clippings also showed that we weren't getting very good return on our fertilizer applications. I would have expected much more growth for the amount of fertilizer I had applied.

I would remove about 80% of the nitrogen that I applied in the clippings at Pender Harbour

My new course wasn't getting a very good clipping return, only 20%
Maybe the models were wrong I thought.

So we kept on fertilizing and the disease kept on getting worse. The bentgrass that was seeded a few years ago was very happy, but the predominantly poa greens were not doing so good. The anthracnose was bad and we couldn't get the growth we needed and as we all know, fungicides aren't the ideal solution for diseases like anthracnose.

I had had enough so applied a very heavy nitrogen application to the worst greens to try and push recovery. They greened up but growth didn't spike at all. I then applied a phosphite product to the greens and the day after they looked the worst I had seen all year. BINGO!

It's common knowledge (or should be if you are using these products) that applying phosphite to phosphorus deficient turf will make that deficiency worse. Our soils tests were high in phosphorus but what my observations and the data were suggesting is that something was limiting growth and now I knew that it was probably phosphorus. I applied some fertilizer containing phosphorus and the day after the greens looked the best they had looked in more than a month.

Severely affected green is glowing the day after a phosphorus application
Growth rates have climbed substantially and the models are happy once again. We are still on the low side of the ideal growth and have to push recovery so the plan is to continue to push growth until we are on the upper side of the growth ratio.

Overall growth rates have been too low this year but have improved in the past week to ideal levels.
Why wasn't the poa getting enough P? I don't know for sure but the roots were pretty short and the maybe they weren't as deep as the soil tests in the past were taken from. This would also explain why I had OK growth when temperatures were low but as soon as the demand went up, the grass ran out. We had a rough winter and maybe that was why? The spring was super dry and hot so maybe that's why?

We are getting a much better nitrogen return this past week as conditions improve.

This was a first for me. Normally growth rates were too high in the summer months and I always got an almost immediate response to nitrogen fertilizer.

So lesson learned and now I know that the models are probably better than I think. Using clipping volume and weather data can show you when you are within normal conditions and could probably give you an early warning that something isn't right. It's difficult to judge what amount of growth is appropriate for the ever changing weather we experience so models like this can make fertilizer decisions easier and can probably point out potential issues sooner.

My previous course had the opposite problem. The newly established and deeply rooted bentgrass would grow out of control in the summer as it had so many nutrients available the the poa NEVER had access to in the soil.

It's super easy and inexpensive to simply apply a complete fertilizer blend each week especially during the stressful summer months. When growth rates drop off maybe rely more on what the soil can provide. Or, if you have more bentgrass, use this phenomenon to kill poa. Unfortunately for me, there is a lot more poa than I would like here so that kind of craziness needs to wait a few more years.

Wednesday, 8 May 2019

1 Week Impression of the Husqvarna Automower 450x on a Golf Course Fairway

Last week we (fellow superintendent) got the first automower in Western Canada to be used on a golf course (from what we can tell).

I've talked a lot about robot mowers recently and how they could potentially benefit golf with mower savings of up to 50% but more realistically 20-30%.

Micah Woods also recently wrote about how they are more energy efficient and can help reduce GHG emissions even when the electricity comes from coal.

So in theory these machines could be a game changer for golf and turfgrass management. They are also the best solution to transitioning off fossil fuels without having to spend a fortune on big electric mowers.

Even though these mowers have been used for quite some time in golf, there is little information other than a few youtube videos and my blog posts. So we decided to give one a go and see for ourselves how it would work and share the experience.

The superintendent who is testing out the mower set it up on one of his fairways. We set the HOC down as low as the machine would go to 2cm. Modifying the HOC lower would not be difficult with a few shims but as this is only a demo machine, we cannot modify it.

Setup was very easy with the wire being strung around the perimeter and fastened to the turf with plastic pegs. For a permanent installation I would install the wire under a narrow layer of sod to protect it from golf club swings. Make sure you lay it where you want it otherwise you will be doomed to ugly cleanup cuts for ever!
Cleanup cut is rough at first but once the machine follows wire back to charge it cleans up nice.

The first thing we did after opening the box was take it apart!

The blades are small razor blades that are double-sided. The machine can rotate either way to maximize blade life.

Modifying this to cut lower would not be difficult.

After that you just let the machine go and to be honest, it's not that impressive, but in a good way. To see this little machine bounce around the area is not very fantastic,  but after a week I returned to see that the grass looked exactly the same as when I last saw the machine. Whoa, it works!

Not bad for no human input after one week of good spring growth.
The cleanup cuts were impressive as the machine uses the perimeter wire to find its was back to the charging station.

When someone touches the machine it lets out a super annoying alarm and instantly notifies the owner via text message.

Turf quality is OK. I won't say it's GREAT because it isn't. At only 2cm the height just isn't low enough for premium fairway turfgrass in my opinion although it's surprising good for being so high. The logistics of how these machines work are very interesting. They aren't like conventional mowers where there is a certain capacity per hour. These mowers have a total capacity period, no time limit.

The way they work is they bounce around the area for about 20 hours a day. The rest of the time they are charging themselves on the docking station. So during that 20 hours, they mow almost all of the area at least once, and a lot of the area more that once. When you think of it, the area down the middle will have the machine pass over it multiple times each day as it zig zags down the fairway.

You see on your phone where your robot has been. 

We can do a little math here. It mows at about 3000 meters per hour. The blade disk is 0.24 m wide. That means it cuts about 720m^2 per hour. It mows 20 hours a day so it cuts about 14,400m^2 per day. The capacity of the mower is only 5000m^2 a day so how does that work? According to this math it could cut 3x the area.

Because the mower doesn't work like conventional mowers that only cut grass once, it covers a lot of the areas a few times a day.  I estimate it to mow a given area about 3-5x a day. There are few courses I know of that cut that often! There area  few reasons they do this. 

Simplicity: It is way easier to have a mower just "randomly" drive around than drive super specific paths with little overlap. This is why the conventional robot mowers you see are so expensive and have such a low capacity. They are super complicated machines. The automowers are super simple machines.

Efficiency: It takes a lot of power to cut long grass. This is why our big rotary rough mowers have such big engines and require so much fuel. The costs goes up further with tier 4 emission regulations for high horsepower engines. The robots need to be super energy efficient to be fully electric, small, and affordable. Therefore they cut the grass super frequently to only take a little grass off at a time. This allows them to maintain a relatively large area almost constantly with little power required. It also allows them to use cheaper and smaller batteries which are still quite expensive.

As we aren't paying a person to operate this mower, the time it takes is irrelevant. The machine is almost silent and we have had no comments from golfers over the past week. As I said earlier, these machines are not very impressive at first glance. They just trundle along.

It just happens that for a lot of courses the capacity of this mower will be the size of the average fairway.

These mowers have a very small wheel base similar to that of a reel type mower except the blade disk is on an angle so the only part that cuts is directly between the front wheels. Our test site is a fairway that is very bumpy and this machine scalped long turf in the BOTTOM of a few dips that the conventional mowers couldn't reach. No scalping on the tops so far.

scalped turf on the BOTTOM of a dip that reel mowers couldn't cut.
The way height of cut works with these mowers is also different than conventional mowers. 

You might set your HOC at 12 mm with a conventional mower and go cut the grass. Immediately after mowing that is about the height of cut you get, but as time goes on, it gets higher and higher. How high is the grass when you mow it again? If you figure this out you can calculate what your average HOC is with a conventional mower because that's all it is. An average over time.

With the automower the HOC is the HOC. As discussed above, most of the area gets cut multiple times a day so the HOC stays the same. This allows you to maintain a similar average HOC as conventional mowers with a higher bench height setting. It's weird to think about but that's how it works. Also, no clippings!

Automower on the left, unmown middle, conventional reel mower on right.
As I mentioned, the turf quality wasn't what I would expect on premium turfgrass. Obviously the height needs to go down.

There is also no striping so the grass grain really shows up and looks a bit mottled. This could be fixed with a weekly roll which would give you many more benefits to just mowing such as reduced disease, more consistent appearance, and a quick and cheap process.

We are going to test this machine out for a few more weeks on the fairway and will then move it to some high profile rough.

This now has me thinking of how to optimize the area that each of these mowers can cover. Below is an image I put together with theoretical areas each mower would maintain. When doing this you want to have as many different areas to intersect at one given location to minimize the amount of power wire you need to install for the charging stations. If you have satellite irrigation controllers you already have the power wire installed so what are you waiting for?

These machines are ready for golf out of the box. While not for premium turf, they would be more than adequate for most courses and with a few modifications would be even better. They offer huge advantages to an industry facing labor shortages, rising mower costs and rising fuel costs. With these mowers we can allocate our staff to do the important jobs we used to do before the golf industry entered the recent decline.