Saturday, 28 July 2012

Organic Golf, Can it be done?

Approaching rant territory here:

If you have been following my blog you will know that I have been experimenting with alternative pest control products for golf courses this season. So far I can say that I am completely amazed at how far these products have come in such a short time. It is much too early to jump to conclusion, but what I am seeing is very promising for the case towards organic golf course maintenance.
Two very promising organic pesticides

For someone toying with the whole "organic" thing it is unsettling to hear that both organic golf courses in British Columbia seem to have gone out of business. It's sad to hear but in my opinion it's not surprising. In my opinion there are a few reasons why organic golf courses have failed in the past and will continue to fail in the future. Of course these are generalizations and should not be taken personally. I do not have the actual reasons these courses are no longer in business.

Firstly is that in my experience they just can't compete with the economics of non-organic golf courses. With the use of synthetic products it is almost, dare I say, easy to achieve great course conditioning. These products work great and are cheap to use. They make conditions only dreamed about 20 years ago possible for even the mom and pop operations. Typically organic golf courses just can't produce the same conditions for the same cost as their competition. This could change with time and as newer better organic products become available (I could really use an organic source of urea maybe diluted urine or something).

You can't argue that these courses are organic but it is debatable whether or not these courses are in fact golf courses and not hay fields. It is not enough to just call yourself organic and hope people will come and golf. Golf is not nature, going for a hike in nature is. Golf is about a game, and that game requires certain conditioning that in most cases isn't achievable for most organic golf courses. This is one reason why organic golf courses typically fail in my opinion. Again, not all organic courses are like this, just a generalization.
If you want nature then go take a hike

The second seems to be a lack of proven organic golf courses practices. I am always excited to read about what the organic guys are doing. I like to hear about what they are doing that really works and what doesn't work so well. It seems that when most organic turf managers are interviewed I am disappointed in their responses. Their solutions seem fanciful and far fetched. You cannot compare growing turf at 2mm with growing organic tomatoes. I can guarantee that anyone can grow organic grass that is 2m tall with almost 100% success. The highest height of cut on most courses is maybe 5cm with the majority of turf at the 15-20mm range. Again, you can't compare this to a hay field. If you expect it will be that easy you are delusional. You can't go into organic golf with a plan that works for organic farming and expect it to work. This isn't agriculture.

Another observation is that most seem to have little understanding of the pests that they are fighting in the first place. In order to use alternative methods (cultural, registered organic pesticides) you need to have a vast experience with the pests you are trying to control. You can't ignore the pests. Simply stating that you have this one fungus that causes issues in the winter time doesn't help anyone. Instead maybe tell us what that particular fungus is and what you do that works to control it. Jeff Carlson's presentation goes into great depth about the pests he encounters and exactly what he does to fight them. This information is helpful and I would consider him easily one of the top superintendents in the world, organic or not. Maybe the interviews that I have read are dumbed down so that people who aren't turfgrass experts can understand it but I would really like to hear the specifics.

Thirdly it's hard to learn anything from dead grass except "that didn't work." Simply committing to go "organic" is irresponsible unless you have a proven plan. The guys at the Vineyard Club had a plan from the beginning to be organic. They did all the research and prep work to make it happen. They didn't think they could do it as no one had done it before them but they tried anyway. If I committed to an organic program tomorrow my course would go out of business next year. My course just isn't set up to go full organic, yet.

Now ask me if organic golf is possible. Yes it is possible. Jeff Carlson has proven it plain and simple. It's not just him but also the chemical companies are now starting to make organic products that actually work unlike most of the snake oils that most organic operations have historically used. It probably isn't possible everywhere but as new products are developed maybe it will be.

I feel that the approach to organic golf in the past has been flawed. We have approached it all wrong. You can't just say you are going organic without a plan and you can't come up with a plan unless you are an expert. I'm sick of failed organic attempts. It really does nothing for the cause. Again it all comes down to the plan. These plans take into account location, construction methods, budgets, competition, the list goes on and on.

I'm sorry to sound so cynical but these "all-in" failed attempts really bother me. They only fuel the fire that organic golf is in most cases impossible.

I also can't stand pesticide bans. They totally limit the chance and ability to learn and get better. They are a negative way of dealing with the issue. How about offer an alternative that works, then take away the synthetic products. Again, you can't learn much from dead grass. Restrictions and hindrances for their use do work as we are seeing in Canada. Since the pesticide ban in Ontario and Quebec we have seen an increase in the number of organic turf products that actually work. I'm probably going to get some flack for that one.

What I have been working on for the past few years is a different approach to organic golf. I'm not claiming to be organic. I don't even expect to ever achieve total organic operations but it is always something to work towards. I like the challenge and learning process that it involves. I can see courses in the future being partially  organic for certain parts of the year.

What golfers see
What the agronomist sees

Currently I still use synthetic pesticides as needed as do all other turf managers. I am slowly incorporating organic products that I feel show promise to be effective to help me achieve a high level playing surface. My acceptable disease thresholds might be a bit higher than some but I have never had a complaint about disease on my greens.

Lately these organic products have become more effective as new research and technologies become available and demand for these types of products rises. Now the highly effective synthetic products have become a safety net for me. If for some reason my organic approach doesn't work I can fall back to the trustworthy, effective and safe synthetic products. With this approach I minimize the chances ending up with dead turf but maximize the learning potential. Face the facts, we don't know Jack about the interactions of everything in the environment and what impacts our inputs actually have.

I'm not the only one doing this either. Most turf managers I talk to are doing the exact same thing. 

One thing I think we as turf managers could do better is learn how to better use the products before discounting them as "useless" (by the way if anyone can find a good use for Zerotol let me know because as far as I'm concerned it's useless for turf). The new revolutionary modes of action the newer products have aren't a band aide approach like some of the more popular synthetic products (chlorothalonil) are. They require a total IPM program that addresses plant health from all aspects. Trying these new products requires some commitment. It might also require a change in our expectations for visual perfection. There is a clear and distinct difference between visual perfection and perfect playing conditions. As long as the surface performs as it was intended then maybe that's all that is needed. 

Either way I think that the new products that are becoming available show great promise. I'm not saying that synthetic pesticides are bad, I just think that there is a better way of doing things. Typical synthetic pesticides directly kill the fungus and have little to do with the plant. I am not a fan of this mode of action for regular use. The newer products are inducing natural plant defense systems which allow the plants to better cope with the pathogens. This way natural selection is still permitted to function in the ecosystem (a good thing). I hate the idea that the pesticides I apply could give weaker species an advantage over the naturally disease resistant species.

A quick aside: It is totally an anecdotal observation but it seems that the less synthetic products that I use the less severe the disease outbreaks are. Where I used to get hammered with disease overnight I now see it come on slow and suppressed and am more often than not able to wait it out.  It could also be the organic products suppressing the disease but not totally controlling it.

I was looking at fusarium with active mycelium for 2 weeks before I panicked. I am
definitely developing a higher tolerance to this disease.
I will continue to work towards achieving total organic pest control at my course. Why not? What I won't do is commit to it until I can prove that I can do it. I will also continue to share my findings so that we can all learn together. There is no point in making the same mistake twice. I have a good idea why others have failed and I'm not going to make their mistakes.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Dollar Spot Approach

Summer has finally arrived and the long wet Fusarium filled spring is gone! Thank God!

Anyway with the warmer drier weather comes the threat of Dollar Spot. The past two summers around the middle of  July we got hit hard with dollar spot. It came overnight and it was very widespread and required a fungicide application to keep it under control.

This year we have changed our approach to managing for dollar spot in a number of ways.

Fertility: Last year we were on a brand name fertility program. While the turf looked good I wasn't too impressed with the overall health of the turf. It seemed that I was spraying more often than not and the turf was just sick. This year I completely redesigned my fertility program specifically for disease prevention. This summer my plan is simple. Light and frequent applications of urea through my sprayer. Urea is a readily available form of nitrogen and when applied in light doses you reduce the risk of leaching and volatizational losses. I feel that a GOOD constant supply of nitrogen is critical to managing dollar spot. What I have found is that N can almost be used as a fungicide for dollar spot control. Don't mess around with the snake oils, use what works. Urea works.

My fairways also got destroyed last season from dollar spot. The reason I think they were so badly infected was that my nitrogen source was sulphur coated urea (SCU). We typically applied it every two months but last June was extremely wet and most if not all of the SCU was released too quickly and therefore the turf was experiencing a nitrogen deficiency in July. This year we have switched to a 100% UMAXX product.. This product is a more stable slow release form of urea and so far has delivered outstanding results. Again, a slow consistent nitrogen feed is what I feel is key to managing dollar spot.

Cultural: It's no secret that I might roll a lot. My approach going into dollar spot season is to try and maintain the 2x daily lightweight rolling on my putting greens. Rolling has been shown to significantly reduce the incidence of the dollar spot fungus in a number of studies. They found that rolling increased the beneficial bacteria levels in the soil. These bacterial are not good news if you are dollar spot, fusarium, anthracnose, or pythium.

So far my management plan for dollar spot control is basically pesticide free. I have left a few areas on course to see if I can in fact control dollar spot without the use of pesticides whether it be synthetic or organic. Either way I don't like applying stuff if I don't have to.

While I am very confident in my dollar spot management plan I'm not 100% confident. For this reason I am using a few other tools to make sure I don't get nuked with disease this summer.

Typical dollar spot infection in Poa annua.
"Organic" Pesticides: I have decided to go with 3 different organic products this year just to see how they perform. I know that propiconazole works. There's no need to test that.

This year I am going  to put out Civitas, Phosphites, and Rhapsody ASO. These three products show great potential and I am cautiously  optimistic that they might just be the ticket.

The great thing I like about Civitas is its mode of action. It has no effect on the fungus but arms the plant's natural defenses for disease attack. This leaves little room for resistance issues and is very safe to use. It is a certified organic product. What I don't like about Civitas is the colour of the harmonizer. For this reason I am applying it at 1/4 rates every week to keep the offensively green colour to a minimum.

Potassium Phosphite is a regular part of my greens fertility program and should also help with any disease pressures that I might face this summer. I am still searching for a phosphite product that bears the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) designation so if you know of one let me know.

A product that is completely new to me is Rhapsody ASO. The way I understand the product is that it is a bacteria that fights fungus. It is one of the same bacteria that's population is increased from lightweight rolling.  I am planning on applying this product weekly in my tank mix for the next month or two depending on my control plot disease pressures.

I am of course going to leave some control plots to see if I can get away without applying these products as they are costly. And before you accuse me of going against my no preventative fungicide ideals consider this. I am leaving control plots to learn from my applications. I am also unfamiliar with these products and their efficacy.  I want to see if I can make the "organic" option work. For this to happen I have to start "all in". From there I can learn and pull back after I better understand how effective these products work. Remember, this isn't propiconazole or chlorothalonil here.

And before everyone accuses me of being anti synthetic chemicals please understand this. I am doing this not because I feel that synthetic pesticides are bad. They are great effective tools for managing turf grass pests. I am simply curious and up for the challenge to see if I can make the newer alternative organic treatments work for me on my course. I am sharing this in hopes that others will also share their experiences and management tactics for the upcoming dollar spot season. Go ahead, hate me for it!

Monday, 9 July 2012

Moisture Meter and Distribution Uniformity

Testing VMC on putting greens.
Well the weather is finally dry enough that we are again using our TDR 200 moisture meter on putting greens. It has been a week without rain with temps in the mid to high 20s and we still have over 30% Volumetric Moisture Content (VMC) in our greens. Normally we aim for about 20-25%. We hope that in the next few days the moisture levels drop even more and we can really firm up the greens.

Five years ago before we had a moisture meter on the golf course we did an irrigation audit on our putting green irrigation systems and found that on average we had about 45% Distribution Unifromity (DU) efficiency. At best you can expect to get about 70-80% on most good systems and we fell well short. This poor efficiency and the fact that we were essentially guessing how much moisture in our putting green soil made if very difficult to irrigate our putting greens.

We decided that the best course of action was to upgrade our old outdated irrigation system to a state of the art system. We completed 5 holes over 2 years until the economy took a dive. We were then forced to put the upgrade on hold.
Our first moisture sensor. They didn't
last a month.

4 years ago we got our first moisture meter. It was designed to be permanently installed into the putting greens but we used it as a hand held unit and hammered it into the soil to get readings. It was a real cumbersome process but we made it work. Eventually the sensor would be destroyed from the constant hammering into the hard soil. Finally we got a TDR 200 sensor which is specifically designed to be repeatedly stuck into the soil to take readings.

For the first few years we monitored moisture levels we would use it to adjust the automated irrigation system to get the most uniform distribution. This was a real challenge and we were constantly making changes to the scheduling which was a real pain in the ass.

Last season we changed our approach. Instead of watering our putting greens daily to keep a constant VMC we would give the greens a good soaking. We would then monitor the moisture levels in the greens over a few days. We would hand water any spots that dried quicker than the average. When the overall putting green average VMC dropped below our trigger number (20%VMC) we would start the cycle all over again. Where we used to irrigate daily we now irrigate 1-2 times a week using the automated system. This way of irrigating has less reliance on the DU of your irrigation system and more on the percolation and water holding capacity of your putting green soils.

In most cases it is far easier to get a uniform soil than irrigation system DU especially when wind comes into play. We have fantastic wetting agents available these days that allow for uniform water movement through the soil.

Watering deep and infrequent also helps draw air into the soil as it is allowed to partially dry out in between irrigation cycles. This in turn allows for deeper rooting which in turn allows you to push the number of days in between irrigation cycles. Drier greens are also less susceptible to fungal diseases.

Now anyone how manages Poa might say that you must water daily to keep it alive during the hot dry season. I disagree in most cases.

  1. Match your probe depth to the depth of your roots. This allows you to know how much moisture is available to the plant. There is not point in measuring how much moisture is below the roots. If your roots are 1" long then get 1" probes. Measure the VMC and see if you can get away with watering less.
  2. Wet poa is dead poa when it gets hot. Every hear of Anthracnose? For this reason we never apply any water to our putting greens after 10am. We want the green canopy to completely dry out in between irrigation cycles. For this reason we have never ever had a problem with Anthracnose.
  3. We do not syringe our greens ever. We have found that the surface cooling effect is minimal and not worth the risk of high humidity and Anthracnose. Keep that canopy dry!
  4. If your plants are using up all the available water in the soil each day then you must water daily.
You will really be surprised how long you can go without irrigating your putting greens but you MUST know exactly how much moisture you have in your soils for this to work. Simply turning off the system is dangerous. 

When we used to water to keep the moisture levels constant it was dangerous. We were constantly a day away from disaster. If the system failed to come on one night we could risk losing turf. This way of watering also encouraged the growth of Poa annua and who wants to do that? It was very very stressful. Now I can see it coming. Our greens are dry, firm, and way more consistent than they have ever been. We are also seeing bentgrass come on really hard this year. Coincidence?

Back to the DU of our remaining 4 greens that didn't see the upgrade. To tell you the truth we don't need it any more. When we irrigate, we water to field capacity or a little higher. The soil then takes care of the water and after a few hours the soil moisture levels are pretty constant in the soil. Call me crazy but I am seriously considering installing quick coupler heads in the future. It is cheap, low on maintenance and it makes it really hard to over-water your greens. Especially when you are lazy like me.

In the one season that we have changed the way we water I have seen our root depth double. This despite that for 10 months a year the weather is incredibly wet. Take advantage of the warm weather and use it to grow out some roots. You will need them when it gets hot.

So the way I see it there are two ways to use your moisture meter. You can use it to see when you need to water, or you can use it to see when you don't need to water.

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Double rolling and Fusarium, One Month later

Last month I came across the discovery that rolling might have an impact on Microdochium nivale or Fusarium Patch. Immediately after making this observation I began to roll my greens 2x daily as I had a serious Fusarium outbreak on my hands. It was the end of May and it had been over a month since my last fungicide application. Here is a picture showing just how much disease I was looking at.
Very Active Mycelium

I decided to give rolling a whirl. I waited an entire week after this picture was taken to apply a fungicide. I really wanted to give rolling a chance. I knew that rolling for curative control wasn't likely to work but what the hell? Rolling didn't seem to be helping after a week so I sprayed. When I sprayed I put down the sheet of plywood to really see if the fungicide application was actually needed. I was somewhat sure that I could grow out the disease but it was so widespread that if it really decided to take off I would lose a very large percentage of my putting greens going into the busy season. I just couldn't gamble on the unknowns. Furthermore the weather was bleak. Highs of 14-16C and rain....lots and lots of rain.
All of my greens looked like this. It was at the point where ball roll was not yet impacted but the potential was there.
I applied Daconil as it really knocks down the fusarium and is one of the best curative products I know of. It has a high Environmental Impact Quotient (EIQ) but I needed something that worked. This was the most widespread disease I had seen in 6 years. I had seen lots of disease damage over the years but I didn't want to let it get to that point.
Double rolling. Out and back on same pass. Different direction each day.
So a month later I can confidently say that that last fungicide application wasn't needed. The control plots were no different than the treated plots after a few days. The turf easily outgrew the disease and now there was absolutely no damage. At first I joked on twitter that I was going out with a "curative double roll" but looking back I think that the double roll definitely had an impact on the Fusarium.

Control Plots give meaning to inputs applied to the course. Without a comparison they are meaningless.
It's easy to say that you can not spray and let the turf outgrow the disease but really how do we know for certain that it can do this consistently? Since I have been collecting growth rate data since last fall I can see at what rate the turf was growing during that period and in the future compare it with those numbers. If I have growth rates similar to the ones I saw this spring then I can hold off spraying with a little more confidence that I had in the past. Each season I should get better and better at knowing when I can hold off with my fungicide applications. It is this kind of practical data collection that really makes decision making easier.

I also kept up with the 2x daily rolling until last week when we had so much rain fall that the greens started to get muddy. After a week long break of only rolling 1x per day and a raised HOC of 2.8mm we will be back up to 2x daily again next week. I am seeing again that rolling definitely has an impact on Fusarium patch. Last week during the wet weather the control plots on my trial green were caked in Fusarium patch where the plots rolled 2x daily again had no disease incidence. I was also seeing a great deal of Fusarium on my green collars as they aren't consistently rolled each day like the actual putting surfaces are. There was absolutely no Fusarium on any of my greens 1 month post fungicide application (not including Civitas or Phosphites) in weather perfect for fusarium to thrive! Now that the hot sunny weather is here any Fusarium that was around is all but gone.

"Control Plots give meaning to inputs applied to the course. Without a comparison they are meaningless."

Going forward I plan to continue to roll 2x daily to help with dollar spot control. I am pretty confident that I can keep dollar spot at bay with this combined with the phosphites and Civitas. I might be so cocky as to even stop Civitas and phosphite applications but I'm not sure yet...maybe a control plot or two... Last season I required one fungicide application for dollar spot in mid July. Next week should be interesting.

So with growth rates alone I should be able to combat Fusarium patch on my putting greens from May-Oct each season. Pesticide reduction? I think so! Add to this double daily rolling as conditions permit and I might just have this disease figured out. We will see. I am really looking forward to this fall to see how this all works when the turf growth rates start to slow down. How much rolling will be enough. Will it work in colder temperatures? How often can I roll when the turf stops growing? Can a model be developed to better understand and manage Fusarium patch? Am I just stark raving mad? All questions that I aim on answering this fall. I will keep you all updated on my less than scientific but practical observations.