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.

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