Thursday, 20 August 2020

Accidental Microdose Overseeding

Last fall I started a small overseeding study to see which turf type would be suitable for our fairways as "if you aren't overseeding improved turfgrass varieties you will invariably get unimproved turfgrass" like poa annua which requires more water, fertilizer and attention than we can give it.

In the study I was testing 3 types of turfgrass. Perennial ryegrass, turf type tall fescue and creeping bentgrass. I couldn't test all the varieties of each species so I chose blends of the species which isn't important for the purpose of this post. All I wanted to see was how each species would establish with virtually no effort other than spreading the seed on the ground. I had plots on dry fairways, wet fairways, shady areas, sunny areas etc.

The seeding rates were super low because the idea was to put improved varieties everywhere for a low cost and then let them spread out over time. The seed germinated in 10 days.

Seed testing plots

Around the same time I noticed some really nice looking grass on one of our tees. A closer inspection showed it to be creeping bentgrass. The previous superintendent assured me that no creeping bentgrass was ever seeded on tees, or anywhere other than greens during the winterkill episode of early 2017 where we had record low temperatures and lots of ice!

That shit is dead.....February 2017 at my previous course

This spring we applied very little fertilizer to the fairways due to the uncertainty surrounding covid19 with the hope of reducing yield so that I could manage all the mowing on the course by myself. This made the poa annua pretty angry. There was a lot more poa here than at my previous course probably due to  a better irrigation system and historically higher resource availability (fertilizer and wetting agents). As the poa was looking so bad some weeds started to establish but I also noticed many patches of really nice looking grass which turned out to be creeping bentgrass. 

Creeping bentgrass is happy and weed free even under low input maintenance

Where did all this bentgrass come from though? After a while it dawned on me. The seed was tracked on golfer's feet from the greens that were overseeded in 2017! Fairways following the greens that were hit the hardest by the winterkill had the most bentgrass!

The only good grass on the 11th fairway is bentgrass! The 10th green was hit hard in 2017...hmmm

So it's highly likely that all the bentgrass in the fairways was accidentally tracked onto the fairways from the greens 3 years ago.

Back to my overseeding study. Not surprisingly the results weren't great. I didn't do a formal count or anything but there is almost no visible difference on the tttf and ryegrass plots. On the plots seeded with bentgrass there was some visible bentgrass plants visible after almost 1 season but it doesn't matter. I have my answer to what turf species will establish across a wide range of conditions on our fairways.

Minimal bentgrass established with ultra low seed rate and no seedbed preparation in very challenging conditions with hardly adequate irrigation and not enough fertilizer in my overseeding study. Believe it or not, this is a fantastic result. Now that the few bentgrass plants are mature they will easily spread out to cover this entire area which will significantly improve conditions here.

The more I think about it and observe this accidental overseeding the more in makes sense that bentgrass is a great candidate for fairway overseeding.

The seed is super small. This makes it possible for you to get even coverage of a large area with not that much seed. Sure bentgrass seed is expensive but if you calculate it on a cost per seed basis it's actually quite cheap ($0.000037 per seed). The small seed also makes it easier to get good seed to soil contact as it easily falls between the existing turfgrass plants. I also like to think that because the seed is so small, the birds will eat less of it than other turfgrass species but who knows.

If you apply bentgrass seed with a purpose built seeding machine you will be forced to apply a high rate of seed but if you think outside the box you can apply the seed almost infinitely low in rate. For me I applied it in my study at a low rate of 5g/m^2 and while the results aren't shocking if you are looking for instant total coverage, there is more than enough plants surviving to maturity allowing the grass to spread over the next few years.

To get the super low seeding rates I used a push rotary spreader with the gate full closed. The seed is so small that it would work it's way through the closed gate edges at the perfect amount! Spacing was 1m or less as the seed doesn't go far as it is so small and light.

By the numbers you can get really good coverage with very little seed. Let's say we want to get 1 seed per cm^2 (5 seeds per square inch approx). That is 10,000 seeds per square meter or 100,000,000 seeds per hectare.

There are 13,200,000 bentgrass seeds per kg. 1 pail of seed is generally 11 kg so that pail will give you 1 seed per cm^2 on 1.45 ha of turf! For many recommended overseeding rates that is still an ultra super low rate. For me I say why not go lower....way lower! Here's why.

Improved bentgrass varieties are a superior plant. They have many desirable traits that native grasses don't but one of the best things about improved bentgrass (and unimproved bentgrass) is its spreading growth habit. Bentgrass will cover a lot of ground if it's allowed to. It seems that with the newer bentgrass varieties, some disruption in the form of divots, ballmarks, disease scars and winterkill!

Bentgrass spreading across an old cup cutter plug on the left vs Poa on the right. The real question here is why isn't there more poa germinating in the cup cutter scar after 8 months?

Take this patch of bentgrass in the following picture. It's about 30cm ( 12") across and was likely established in the spring of 2017. It's highly probably this this patch is from a single parent plant and has spread about 10cm (5cm in each direction) per year for the past 3 years. In order to get good bentgrass coverage we don't necessarily need a lot of seed, we need a little bit of seed everywhere and all the time.

A few meters away from the above picture is the middle of the fairway where most golfers walk....

Oh shit, we accidentally have predominantly bentgrass fairways! Imagine how good they would be today if we were trying! Even if we were trying very a few dozen Kg of seed a year on the entire course. Hook a cheap pull behind rotary spreader behind your fairway mower once a month with a pail of seed in it and the gate set to closed! Bam!

Accidental seeding most likely established in old divots on a shaded fairway

If we had to wait for enough resources to afford to overseed our fairways at the recommended rates we might be waiting for a long time. In that time we will see water and fertilizer use go up and conditions going down. Instead I think it might be better to get the improved genetics everywhere ASAP and then work on letting the grass establish over time hitting the entire course lightly every year multiple times. 

I like the multiple times a year approach as I never like to "put all my eggs in one basket." If you decide to go big on the overseeding strategy and it rains 100mm the following week you just watched a significant investment flow down the drain. If the poa is still too competetive you will also be wasting your money on a big overseed. If you put a little out often there is less financial and weather related risk.

When you go big on overseeding or even bigger with a full on renovation you might want to push growth with extra fertilizer. This creates high growth rates and lots of thatch on the new bentgrass surfaces. With the overseeding method described above, you actually apply less fertilizer to reduce the competitive ability of the poa annua. I haven't noticed any visual difference in thatch on the bentgrass vs poa areas. 

I think the biggest risk is not overseeding at all because the reduction in resources required with these newer turf varieties is significant which is especially important as resources like water are harder and more expensive to find. In 5 years this could have been the best $2000 I ever spent! 😜

So what have you got to lose? Half ass overseed your fairways with bentgrass today and thank me in 3-10 years haha.

Friday, 22 May 2020

Turfenomics: Productivity Part 3 Brute Force and the Opportunity Algorithm

In the first part of this series I talked about how I don't like to spend more than 60% of my labor resources on scheduled maintenance practices like mowing, rolling and raking. I find that if I spend more that 60% of my labor force on these tasks that we don't have time for the other stuff. This also helps ensure that we set a realistic maintenance standard that lets us easily work within our current level of resources. I can then use the remaining 40% of my labor to do everything else.

There's a lot more to greenkeeping than just mowing so even though we can easily handle the main part of the operation with 60% of our labor, we need to be as efficient as possible with the remaining 40% to ensure that we can still get it all done. This requires a combination of finesse and brute force where brute force will require more resources but will get the job done now and finesse will generally use less resources but you might have to wait for the opportune time to do the job.

To me, brute force is defined as doing a job in a less productive way necessitated by less than ideal conditions or circumstances. Generally, it will get work done quicker but in some cases it will result in less than ideal conditions or be less efficient or more costly. 

Using brute force to mow areas that were neglected during the shutdown.

An example of brute force being slower would be doing something that is so inefficient that by the time you are done it, you are forced to brute force it again. This is exactly what happened to our bunkers this spring. With no staff in April, they were overgrown with weeds. To do a perfect job we need to spend 5 hours per bunker to fix them, the only trouble is that with our current level of resources this will take us many months to get around to all the bunkers. By this time the first bunkers we weeded will be again overrun with weeds. We needed to take a less than perfect approach to get to them all without being bogged down with brute force tactics. We can then finesse them into better conditions and keep them from getting worse in the process.

"Don't let perfect be the enemy of good."

The classic brute force situation that I think we can all relate to is when we schedule aerification months in advance to find that it's pouring rain and all your equipment is somehow broken. Despite these challenges we push through and get the job done. It's not fun or efficient but ultimately we get it done. In short bursts brute force is totally acceptable for most but if it's required in your daily routine then you might be either doing too much or spending more than you need to. 

For many courses, brute force is business as usual. If you have the money to do it like this all the power to you! Things like hand mowing greens (or rough) do produce slightly better turf than other more efficient methods but they do take a lot more effort and labor to accomplish. It's less productive than a triplex mower but the loss of productivity of your staff is justified by the increased quality of cut and wear from turning a heavy mower in the greens surrounds. It all depends on how much money and staff you have at your disposal. 

Brute force can also be more efficient in some ways as it gets things done NOW. Take major championship golf for example. A great way to quickly finish raking 18 acres of bunkers is to employ (volunteers of course) 150 bunker staff! It could be done by one person but they wouldn't get halfway through the job before they needed to start over! I guess everything we do has some varying level of brute force to it, we just need to adjust how much or little we rely on these tactics for our given situation. Remember, resources don't make your life easier, they just allow you to do more.

I've never had as much money or staff as I'd like but I also like to do as much as possible while still working within my resource level. The only way that it's possible for me to do more is to do things with finesse and avoid brute force at all costs.

Most superintendents I know employ lists to some extent but if we are just checking tasks off the list with brute force tactics we might never reach the end! It can be as simple as putting a set of conditions that need to be met to efficiently do each task that can allow you to maximize the limited resources that you have because as I mentioned in Part 1 of this series, literally every budget level of golf club has limited resources to some extent. We all would love to do more.

A tool that I use is my opportunity algorithm. This is just a fancy name for a list of various tasks that need to be done and the ideal conditions for us to do them under. This allows me to pick the best thing to do given the current level of available resources, weather, plant health needs, etc. Fit the task to the situation.

It goes like this: If this -> then that

An example of my winter algorithm is this:

If it's frosty/snowy --> cut down trees. We can't be on the turf, there are no golfers and it's dry which keeps you dry! The cool weather also keeps you from overheating during this physically demanding work. Frost delays are only for the golfers. For the maintenance staff we kick it into high gear!

If it's rainy --> equipment maintenance, shop cleanup and organization, course drainage work, root prune! It rains here a lot so this is when we do the big work on equipment maintenance and when I figure out ways to get more data! Spreadsheet tutorials anyone?

If it's dry and warm --> sod work, mow, cut down more trees! Smooth rough areas etc.

Golfer's aren't much of a concern in the winter months so the algorithm is mostly weather based.

How does the saying go? "Make wood chips when the snow falls?"

In the summer I also need to take plant health and traffic levels into account and we are doing less projects and more scheduled maintenance work.

If it's busy and nice -- > cut as much grass ahead of play then do equipment maintenance and other odd jobs in the later, less productive part of the day. This is our "business as usual" plan of attack.

If it's wet and slow -- > fertilize fairways and other large areas. This is an excellent time to do disruptive practices that aren't impacted by the rain. Things like fertilizing fairways, applying wetting agents, and topdressing greens can actually be enhanced by the rain! If I see a rainy day in the forecast I will put these kinds of practices off instead of forcing them when it's nice and busy on the course. There is nothing worse than rushing these practices ahead of a busy tee sheet.

If it's dry and slow -- > spray everything! 

Of course there are times when I need to do things like spray greens when the timing isn't perfect and this forces me to brute force the job. We get it done but productivity isn't always the best and over time this can really add up. Ideally we have enough flexibility in our schedule that when the opportune time arises, we can be free to act and maximize our efficiency for that given task. The same is true for mowing in the rain, its not ideal but we sometimes need to do it and need to expect a loss of productivity as a result. 

Most superintendents classify their jobs in a similar manner but what they don't do is write down those ideal conditions that need to occur for maximum productivity to be possible. Writing it down makes choosing what you can do much easier when the conditions are not what you had hoped for.

If you are caught off guard by a rainy day you can easily find something that is productive to do and this will help you get ahead instead of slowly fall behind. Maximize today!

I see quite often other people's algorithm looking like this:

If it's rainy --> go home because I overworked myself last week when it was dry and couldn't find anything productive to do during the rain.

If it's sunny--> overwork yourself because nothing got done while it was rainy and now I'm doing jobs I could have done while it was raining and I went home early.

To me this isn't what balance looks like. Sure, to some extent we need to "make hay when the sun shines" but we can also take advantage of poor weather to get caught up with a less than busy golf course. Remember, only 60% of our time should be spent on tasks like mowing (in my opinion anyway) so there are a TON of other things that we can be doing when we are forced to stop mowing and not all of them require good weather.

I also totally get that sometimes you just need to take a break when you can, so totally do that and don't feel guilty for doing so but also try and manage you expectations to within your budget and avoid working beyond it if possible. This is made easier by being productive no matter what the situation is. Easier said than done, I know.

I've said this over and over again in the blog post series but there is obviously more than one way to skin the cat and I cannot say what is right for your situation because I don't know what your situation is. All I hope to do is outline the different situations so that if maybe you find what you are doing isn't working, you can identify the problem and make change. Maybe you need to brute force more things or maybe you needs some more finesse. To me, this is where the art in greenkeeping is found. Balancing the two to ultimately do the best that you can with the resources that you have.

Wednesday, 20 May 2020

Turfenomics: Productivity Part 2 Bottlenecks and Deadlines

Project management 101 is all about the bottleneck. A bottleneck is "one process in a chain of processes, such that its limited capacity reduces the capacity of the whole chain. The result of having a bottleneck are stalls in production, supply overstock, pressure from customers and low employee morale.[1] There are both short and long-term bottlenecks. Short-term bottlenecks are temporary and are not normally a significant problem." - wikipedia 

Everyone knows that you can drink more beer from a cup than a bottle. Reduce the bottleneck and achieve more!

In my last post (Turfenomics: Productivity Part 1; Productivity Starts With You) I discussed how you need to ensure that your production goals are realistic for the available resources. In this post I will discuss the various ways we can increase productivity by being aware of maintenance bottlenecks.

Often the most obvious and painful bottlenecks are short term. It kills me when staff don't show up for work or the aerifier breaks on the first green leaving the entire staff waiting for it to be fixed before productions can begin. While these are the most obvious they might not be the most costly unless they occur regularly. Calculating the costs of these short term bottlenecks is important if you want to improve the quality of your equipment fleet or maybe offer a higher wage to good employees who show up for work every day.

Long term bottlenecks occur all the time and are often less obvious but just as costly to turf maintenance. An example of a long term bottleneck is when you are spraying greens behind a single triplex greens mower. For us, we can cut our greens in 4 hours and can spray them in less than 2 hours. Generally we want to cut the greens before they are sprayed but also need the sprayer to be right behind the greens mower because spraying has to happen ahead of golfer play. As the greens mower is slower than the sprayer, it becomes the bottleneck forcing a loss of production to the spraying operation. In our case it is a 50% loss of production which causes spraying to take twice as long as it should and we lose 2 hours of work that day.

We can address this bottleneck in a few different ways;

  • Cut greens faster. If we send out 2 greens mowers we can get all of our greens cut in 2 hours allowing the sprayer to spray at maximum productivity. Basically no time is wasted in this situation. This does, however, require an extra mower and an extra staff member to pull off. It also doubles the amount of time you spend servicing greens mower equipment, washing equipment off, warming equipment up, and other losses of productivity associated with staff (washroom breaks etc.).
  • Slow down the sprayer. No I don't mean make the sprayer physically drive slower. If we add work to the sprayer's duties, they can become productive in the time that they are forced to wait behind the mower bottleneck. We could get the sprayer to also change holes or hand rake bunkers for example and reduce the negative consequences of the bottleneck. This isn't always ideal but it doesn't require any additional equipment or staff and ensures that you are maximally productive. As long as you can cut greens ahead of play, this solution offers you increased productivity and lower capital and staffing costs. Every low-budget super knows all about this strategy.
  • Stagger equipment start times. We could also send out the greens mower 2 hours ahead of the sprayer. This way, both jobs are finished at the same time. It also staggers any staff congestion that can occur in the maintenance shop when everyone shows up at once. The sprayer doesn't have to wait. This isn't always ideal as going out to cut greens too early could result in dew falling back onto the turf. This isn't an issue if the spray needs to be watered in.
To identify bottlenecks we need to just look for where people or equipment are forced to wait. It's pretty obvious in the example above but sometimes less obvious. Take mowing during play, for example. If mowers are waiting for golfers to hit their shot could this be considered a bottleneck to the operations? How can we eliminate this? I'll talk a lot more about this is my upcoming post "Turfenomics: Productivity Part 4: Mower Efficiency and Golfers."

It's useful to periodically take a step back and try and identify new or developing bottlenecks in the operations.

Golfers are a huge bottleneck as described briefly above but they also generally are a bottleneck by forcing some processes to be finished by a certain time. This is our deadline or the time that we need to be finished by to avoid the bottleneck. We need to get the greens cut ahead of play. The deadline depends on whether the golfers are teeing off of the first hole or are doing a shotgun start.

Cutting greens takes 4 hours with one triplex mower. If the first group of golfers finishes their round in 3 hours we need to start 1 hour before the first group to stay ahead of play. In the shotgun scenario, we need to start 4 hours ahead of play to finish before golfers start out. If you can't start 4 hours before the bottle neck you'll need to add more resources to get the job done. If this isn't possible the shotgun might have to wait 3 hours longer than if you just teed off the first hole. For processes that take longer than 4 hours this increases the time that we have to start ahead of play or increases the amount of time that we are mowing during play which has a huge impact on productivity as well. Again, I'll discuss this further in a future post.

This is one of the reasons that shotguns are so difficult to work around on a golf course. They are extremely convenient for the golfer, but can drastically increase the resources that are required to ensure that the work gets done on time. A great way to double a maintenance budget is to regularly have shotgun events. Maybe it's worth it but if the tee sheet isn't full and groups are spaced out across the entire course, you are only increasing maintenance costs and preventing more work from being done. Less with More!

It's one thing to identify a bottleneck but it's another thing entirely to assign a cost to it. While we know in our hearts (LOL) what the impact of these bottlenecks are, you will have a hard time convincing anyone of these impacts without assigning a dollar value to the bottleneck. What is the benefit of the shotgun start vs what is the cost of having the resources required to prepare for that start?

Let's use the sprayer example above. To calculate the cost of this bottleneck we need to figure out how long we are waiting and what our costs are per hour. This is easier said than done and needs to take into account the sprayer operator's labor (often the superintendent or highest paid grounds person) fuel, equipment maintenance etc. Fixed costs like leases aren't impacted as much by this in the short term unless your solution is to add more equipment which might be worth it if you have sold out shotguns that require greens to be sprayed and cut in 2 hours ahead of play.

In the example above the bottleneck costs the superintendent 25% of their work day (working extra hours isn't productive, right?), 25% more in fuel, 25% more in scheduled maintenance (oil changes are based on equipment hour-meter and sprayers run to keep product mixed). etc. Take you entire maintenance budget and just throw away 25% of that. While this isn't exactly what we are doing here 25% is a huge number! I would consider anything over 6% to be worth addressing (half an hour's time in a 8 hr work day).

If we add work to the sprayer duties we still spend the extra labor, fuel and equipment maintenance but we also decrease the costs of other operations. Say we change pins while spraying and say this job takes 2 hours (I know you can do it faster but I'm keeping the math simple for you ok). We add 2 hours of pins to spraying and decrease the time spent changing holes that day by 100%. Changing holes still requires someone to drive around the course and you were doing that anyway with the sprayer. Less staff, less equipment and less travel time. Obviously right?

I'll share one more example. In our case during the reduced staffing levels during this covid19 situation we have used delayed tee times to give the staff more room to prepare the course. While this is more for the fairway and rough operations we can also use this to benefit the greens operations. Our greens bottleneck is to be finished at 11 am as our first tee time is at 8 am and it takes 3 hours for them to finish 18 holes. Rolling greens takes 3 hours so if we start at 5 am we will be done with 2 hours to spare.

Sure, we could go out and rake bunkers or do pins separately with one person (after greens are rolled) but we will risk getting caught in play and lose productivity travelling around the course for a second or third time. In this case we can slow down the roller production by adding work and saving time. In our case I add pins and hand raking bunkers to the list. This takes me 6 hours to complete which is exactly how much time I have. Normally I would budget 3 hours for the roller, 4 hours for bunkers and 2 hours for pins. That's 9 hours of labor being done in 6 or a 33% savings. Not only do we save time, we save the need for additional equipment for our pin setter, and bunker rakers. Of course, this does increase the potential for disruption caused by short term bottleneck like the person who is doing all this work pulling a no show. Now nothing gets done! If you had instead used 3 staff for this job you might still get the greens rolled and bunkers raked or some other combination of the 3 jobs if one person decided to "sleep in." You can also get all the jobs done sooner which is important if you have a deadline like an early first tee or a shotgun to prepare for.

By easing tee time bottlenecks, we can improve productivity and do more with less without working harder.

This is what they mean by "work smarter, not harder." My staff's reaction to me doing all this work by myself ahead of play is that I must be working myself to exhaustion because normally we spend 9+ hours doing that work but I'm doing it in 6. Nope, I hardly break a sweat because I'm not working harder, I'm taking advantage of some easy productivity gains and knowing where my bottleneck is so that I can be the most productive with my time which allows me to go get all the work done and go home on time every day.

I shared this photo in the last post, now you know HOW it's possible to do it all without working yourself to death.

I really is amazing what can be done with various budget levels. A $300,000 budget might be able to produce similar conditions with less equipment than a $600,000 budget course but they will be less able to be productive with tighter tee time bottlenecks to production. It's unfortunate, however, that those that have the most restrictive bottlenecks often also have the lowest budgets where courses with the highest budgets are afforded "Maintenance Mondays" or course closures during major disruptive process like aerification. It takes a low production capacity (low budget) and hurts it further with unrealistic bottlenecks that aren't always based on actual data. If you don't calculate the cost of these bottlenecks, you can't compare the loss of productivity to the gain in revenue or customer service. While it might seem that the high budget courses can afford to close down you might be surprised to learn that the low budgets probably can't afford not to close every now and then to be able to allow for increased productivity of their scarce and valuable resources.

A number that comes up often when I look at productivity gains is 30%. Assuming that you aren't already addressing bottlenecks in you maintenance production, you could save 30% or more on your budget or do 30% more with the same level of resources. Work smarter, not harder eh!

Monday, 18 May 2020

Turfenomics: Productivity Part 1, Productivity Starts With You

Productivity starts with you. Productivity is loosely defined as how much work you can do in a given amount of time. It's a measure of efficiency. For mowing we measure this in ha/hr (in all but 2 countries on Earth). Production is what you can do with a given productivity and level of resources or how much grass you can cut with one person who has a certain level of productivity.

We don't start early because it's fun, we start early because it's more productive and a great way to catch the occasional bitching sunrise. Every superintendent knows this.

While every single superintendent I have met understands the economics of golf course maintenance to some degree, I find it useful to write this stuff down so you can reflect on it and maybe be more deliberate in how you address these problems. Here's my poorly educated but somewhat experienced attempt at addressing productivity in golf maintenance.



During the last few crazy months I have done a lot of thinking about the economics of golf course maintenance. Our course closure in April and working with minimal staff have afforded me the opportunity to learn about how we maintain the course to an extreme degree.

Despite being short a few thousand hours of labor this year (see chart below), we haven't been working ourselves to death. I almost feel bad for how stress free I am....but not really. I feel great actually.

Cumulative labor hours per year

Instead we have been working within our means to do what is most important until the time comes that we can return to normal. Is the course falling apart with such a reduction in labor? You tell me.

 Edged and hand raked bunkers? No way with only 3 staff...wrong Overtime? Nope.

Turf is lean but we are actually growing more grass this year than last

part of our success lies in finding ways to maximize productivity

While certainly far from perfect and quite different than we would normally have the course, things are being maintained and it's not a total disaster despite having only 30% of the normal resources available.

I've always been in a situation like this where I would like to do more but only have limited resources. We all know what needs to be done but few superintendents are offered the opportunity to actually do everything that they want to do to make the course the best that it can be.

The work on any golf course is almost limitless. It's why some courses have 60 staff and some have 3. If you wanted to, you could almost always do more. At some point we have to work within our means and accept that there is only so much that we can do. There's no way that you accomplish what 60 people do with only 3 people and there's no way that you can do what 6 people do with only 3 people.  The difference is smaller but it's still hard to pull off especially if all other things are equal. You can try but good luck pulling it off for more than a few days.

It's a lot easier said than done to say you will work within your means but superintendents almost never do this and as a result suffer from burnout and other stress related conditions. This was the main theme in a video I made a few years ago about stress in golf course maintenance. If we understand this stress and the economics of golf maintenance better, then maybe we can do a better job and feel less stressed. Who knows but I think it's worth working towards.

One of the most useful tools I have developed to manage MY expectations and communicate what we are capable of doing is my "Required Weekly Maintenance" spreadsheet. This spreadsheet outlines all the normal tasks that we do on the course and assigns a labor value to each job per day. It then compares the total labor for each day against the actual labor available and gives you a useful tool to plan and understand just what is possible with what you have. This tool is the backbone of our Maintenance Standard.

Below is the current table that we have with our 3 full time staff. I haven't filled in most of the lower portion of the table as we use our extra time to jump on opportunities to do these tasks when appropriate. We just don't have the resources currently to schedule these tasks regularly.

A lot more goes into something like this than initially meets the eye. Sure we can assign an hour value to each task but so much goes into how long a task can take. This is what my "Turfenomics: Productivity Part 2" will discuss in more detail. This also has to take things like available mowers, labor laws and staff skill limitations into account. It looks simple but is actually quite complex.

When putting one of these table together you need to estimate high on the amount of time it takes to do a job. My equipment use database is useful to help me understand just how much time we spend on various tasks. We need to understand that many things influence how fast we can do a job (again, see the next part of this series) and plan accordingly. We want our staff to do the work without being rushed. Budget more time than you need or suffer the consequences. You might be able to pull it off the the week of the club championships but don't bank on it long term. Don't.

This isn't a rigid mowing plan. It's a goal to work towards and something we can use to plan. Some weeks it will rain which makes mowing tough but others will be hot and dry reducing our needs to mow and allowing us more time to water and fix pipe. It's flexible, be flexible eh.

I then classify the jobs according to whether or not they are things that we need to do regularly or on a schedule. These are typically jobs like mowing, rolling and raking. The meat and potatoes of our operation. I compare how much of our total labor we spend on these tasks and this gives me a ratio as seen on the row titled "mower operation percent of total labor" near the bottom of the table. It's a bit of a mouthful but this is my 10 years running draft table OK so give me a break.

In my experience on lower budget courses, I don't want to see this ratio go over 60% ever. I wonder what it would be like for the highest budget courses but can only dream. I'd love to know though.

We only want to spend 6 out of every 10 hours doing scheduled course maintenance leaving 4 hours for other stuff. This, I think, is key to avoiding disaster. It allows flexibility to address issues while allowing you time to jump on opportunities to do more when it's ideal. An example of this would be how yesterday (Sunday) it was raining quite hard and there few few golfers on the course. We used this available course space to get ahead of rough mowing for this week. Having extra time is essential to do this kind of thing. It also allows for times when there is a loss of productivity to weather or staff just feeling tired or unwell. We can't expect robot like production from our staff unless they are actually robots.

If you are booked absolutely solid, all it takes is one thing to go wrong to derail the entire operation. Start small and keep the regular stuff to less than 60%! This tool makes it easy to "under-promise and over-deliver."

Some days we are over the 60% limit and this is OK but more often than not, it is on these days that we lose ground. If you don't have enough resources to keep the basics below this 60% threshold, do less, add resources, or find ways to be more productive (next post). Doing more with less only helps today with a compromise tomorrow. 

Another benefit that I have found from a tool like this is that it removes the personal aspect of turf maintenance. How many times have you been told when getting a new piece of equipment how much easier it will make your job? To me this is a weird way of looking at it. If you think about it, new modern equipment only makes your life easier if it allows you to do the same amount of work when you were doing too much to start with. Generally, new improved equipment shouldn't make your life easier, it should allow you to do more. If you were working too much before, you will still work too much with added resources. More resources does not mean that our job gets easier, it means that we do more. More resources = More Production!

Our new chipper didn't make tree work any easier, just ask the staff. It did, however, allow us to do more tree work faster!

This is one of the lessons I learned while commuting to work on my bike from 2015 to 2018. Day 1 was hard but so was day 1000. Sure my ass didn't hurt anymore but the effort I put into riding the 500 km each month was the same. I got home a few minutes quicker but I was just as tired. I had more physical resources at my disposal but I put in the same big effort. More does not mean easier!

Biking also taught me energy management. I couldn't work myself to death because I had to leave something for the ride home. On the ride into work I couldn't go hard because I needed steam to do the work! You can learn a lot about life by riding a bike.

I recently tweeted one of our guiding principles as seen below.

As a rule, I don't approve overtime....ever. If I want to do more work I know that the only sustainable way to do that is to add more resources. Working overtime is a fantastic way to lower productivity and increase costs. Doing less with more! No thanks.

I often get funny looks when I say this. Of course we can't just add resources at our fancy. This is why we need to work WITHIN our resources and stay sane.

Major irrigation break? Can I isolate it and fix it tomorrow? If yes, then that's what we do. We try not to keep our grass that much on edge for any longer than necessary that we are required to fix a leaky pipe right now.

Essentially do what you can and no more. This allows you be productive and as good as you can be all the time. We also need to realize that "our best" varies from day to day and so does everyone else's. We aren't robots but the machine below is and it has spent over 2000 hours in the last year mowing only 1 fairway! Talk about a machine!

I'll end this first part with a recommended reading blog post and a quote from that post;

"There’s a difference between being busy and being productive. Being busy is about working harder while being productive is about working smarter. Being busy is frantic while being productive is focused. Being busy is fueled by perfectionism while being productive is fueled by purpose. Being busy is about being good at everything while being productive is about being great at a few important things"

So remember, productivity starts with you being the best that you can be and that means that you do the preventative maintenance required like resting, sleeping and spending time away from the course. Recharge and Repeat!

See you eventually in part 2.

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.