Saturday, 12 March 2016

The Psychology of Going MLSN

Aside from a little N (4kg 21-0-0 on 0.4ha if you are wondering) these greens haven't seen any fertilizer in 4 months!
When something comes along like the MLSN it is natural to have doubts. When you decide to commit to something like the MLSN these doubts can get the better of you if you aren't careful. In this post I will share my experience dealing with the mental impacts of making such a drastic change to the way I fertilize grass and how you can hopefully find success in the MLSN without full on panic and terror. Don't worry, it's going to be just fine in the end.

I might have been one of the first people to fully commit to the MLSN guidelines because the minute they were released I was all in! They just made so much sense to me as they described what I was seeing in the field and not what things like the BCSR described were happening in the soil. Basically, before the MLSN I was applying fertilizer and not really seeing any impact of those applications.

I had also seen awesome grass that was grown at soil levels much lower than the MLSN guidelines. In one such instance the grass was in great shape right up until it finally started to show signs of a deficiency by not recovering at all after an aeration. After a soil test it was determined there was a deficiency of calcium so calcium was applied. A few weeks later you could hardly tell there was any issue. If the MLSN guidelines were a bad idea then I could just add more fertilizer and be confident that things would be ok. You would think that that assurance would be enough but to be honest it hasn't been easy.

It is very easy to place blame on things not working as expected on recent changes to your program but consider this; how many times have you thought you had everything figured out when all of a sudden everything goes sideways and you are back at square 1? I mean, this happens to me almost every time I think I have the upper hand. Mother Nature is an incredibly complex and ruthless bitch to say the least.

The winter of 2012-2013 was incredibly tough on me. I had just started following the guidelines and things were going great until 3 of my green completely died. I mean they weren't a little dead, they were dead dead. In a situation like this it would be very easy for me to blame this calamity on the MLSN. I had made a big change and WHAMO my greens die.
Not what you want to see after making big changes in your management program. This is following a spring aeration. Notice the wall of shade to south of green. It's gone now :)
After gathering all the facts I was able to determine that the dead greens had nothing to do with how I fertilized the grass. It was due mostly to shade, heavy frost, freeze thaw conditions, and golfers golfing on frost. It might have also had something to do with running equipment on the green when the ground was frozen but there is no way to prove this. The biggest issue was shade. The trees to the south had finally grown to a height where the winter sun was completely blocked for 4 months of the winter. This happened relatively fast. One year there was enough sun, the next there was virtually none. This is an issue where trees can grow 4-6' each season! This issues came on very quickly and completely caught me off guard. Needless to say I now monitor the sun energy reaching all my greens each winter to see where things are at to make sure that they get enough light!
This green also suffered greatly but is now one of the best greens on the course through the winter thanks to less shade.
Needless to say we identified the problem and remedied it by selectively removing some trees to allow for sufficient light to hit this green all winter long. This was done with light meters as described in this blog post. This green has now been open the entire winter without issue. No additional special fertilizer just more sun!

It was incredibly difficult for me to not go crazy and apply a ton of fertilizer to these greens during this time. Yes, I did apply more fertilizer than I would normally do because I wanted to push growth to fill in the damage. This meant that I was applying a bit more nitrogen and potassium. I still didn't apply any phosphorus or calcium.

I still struggle every winter with fertilizing my grass. In the past I would keep things growing all winter long. The grass would be nice and lush and looked great despite the fact that it was highly susceptible to fusarium patch. Now with my efforts to stop growth I am presented with a rather off colour turf for most of the winter. It still takes a great deal of effort to not go crazy and go out with some N P and K , Ca and even Mg mid winter! Needless to say I have been able to hold it all together and guess what? Things have been just fine and my grass has actually never been better.

It actually reminds me of that funny time I thought I had killed my greens the winter of 2013-2014. I described this incident in this post.  I was so convinced they were dead because of the MLSN I was in full panic mode. Thanks for the local superintendent who visited and kept me grounded and from doing something stupid. It's hard to argue with 50 plus years of experience telling you your greens are in fantastic shape even though I didn't want to believe them.

Every now and then a superintendent will contact me wondering about an issue they are having on their course and wondering if it has something to do with the MLSN. My recommendation to you is to prove that the only reasonable reason for your issue is fertilizer. I think that in almost every instance your issue can be linked to something else.

I had a discussion with Micah Woods this winter about how to know if the MLSN guidelines are wrong. He replied with the following comment;

One of the biggest things you will notice when using the MLSN guidelines is that you will probably apply a lot less P and Ca and even K although the K levels will quickly drop and be required as fertilizer in most cases. Removing P and Ca from your regular fert program can be a big deal mentally. If you use the BCSR for your fertilizer recommendations you will no doubt be applying a lot of these products. There has also been a lot of fear about fertilizer deficiencies as I described in a recent post about how the MLSN is not that complicated. It is only natural to have a lot of reservations about not applying these products because for so long we have been taught that the world will end if you don't apply Ca or maintain a ph of 7 (I've had a ph in the mid 5's for years and have only seen good things as described in this post).

I am now at the point where I wonder about what the impacts of nutrient excesses are and have been working to get my nutrient levels down to the levels of the MLSN guidelines to see what will happen if any excess is eliminated as much as possible. I'm basically doing what every fertilizer salesperson and a lot of turfgrass scientists say not to do. I'm going into my 4th year and so far the grass continues to improve so maybe there's something to this although the creators of the MLSN do not recommend using them as targets. They are simply the levels you should stay above to avoid having issues with fertilizer deficiencies on your turfgrass.

Perhaps one of the best things about the MLSN is that it has allowed me to focus my efforts where they will actually make a difference and not on theoretical fear mongering issues that don't exist. By trusting in the MLSN it has forced me to look harder at my issues and the results can speak for themselves. My trouble areas due to shade are no longer shaded, the wet areas are now dry. No longer m I throwing money away chasing imaginary cures for these relatively simple issues on my golf course. Furthermore I now am solving the underlying cause of these issues instead of treating the symptoms. This is a HUGE deal if you are trying to make your operation more sustainable. If you like throwing your money away chasing imaginary issues and treating the symptoms instead of the root causes then by all means don't use the MLSN.

As I have stated in the past, my experience with the MLSN has been universally positive. It hasn't been easy to accept the change, but this acceptance and trust in the science done by people much smarter than myself has helped me move forward with my operation and focus my resources where they are really needed.

If you have recently undertaken the MLSN guidelines and are having issues please speak up. Micah Woods and Larry Stowell are very approachable and look forward to any observations you can make. By sharing what you are experiencing you might even figure out what the real source of your issues are and avoid costly and unnecessary fertilizer applications that make no difference whatsoever.