Thursday, 30 May 2013

"The Best Laid Plans...."

Well I broke down today and sprayed a traditional contact fungicide on most of my greens. I just wasn't confident that I could recover from the recent fusarium outbreak without it. Everything seemed to be going really good until yesterday when the turf growth rates exploded as did the fusarium activity. It would appear that the turf has finished its seed head production cycle and has now gone back to some serious vegetative growth again.
One of the less infected areas. Still green from a recent Civitas application.

Making the decision to spray was difficult because I really wanted to see if I could make it until the summer without the need for conventional pesticides. As usual I left some knock out areas to see if I could in fact outpace the disease without the contact pesticide. This time last year I did almost the exact same thing and the knock outs suggested that I did not need a fungicide. This is why the decision to spray this year was even harder this time around.

I had to weigh my options and make a decision that I would feel comfortable moving forward with. There were a few things that made me feel comfortable and these were:

  • The forecast was favourable with dry warm conditions.
  • Growth rates were relatively high to outpace the growth of the disease
There were also a few things that made me very nervous:
  • The overall cover of the disease was very widespread. If things turned sour there would be very little grass left after a few days. This is bad just in case you need clarification. This issue was made worse due to the natural Poa annua thinning following seed head production.
  • I hadn't applied really any products with significant fungistatic properties in almost 7 months. Aside from the small amount of sulphur there was little in my program that actually had any direct effect on the fungus. Civitas and Phosphite mode of action is primarily indirect. So there was basically nothing to stop the disease except for the plant's natural defences which leads me to my next point.
  • The Poa annua had just come out of seed head production which is pretty stressful. There is a natural turf decline following this phenomenon and most turf managers are especially careful during this weakened time of the year.
  • I didn't want to increase sulphur rates as this could stress the poa out more which would make things potentially worse.
This is why I decided to err on the side of caution and experience and spray.

The active disease has been active on the greens for months now but hadn't seemed to be spreading at all. This is one of the issues I see with only using indirect fungicides in your disease management program. Sometimes you just need to hit the fungi directly with something that really works! There are currently limited organic options with direct fungistatic effects that really work. I tried zerotol with no success last year.

I like to look back at my disease management program to see where I could improve next year. I think that my seed head management program might cause some of the disease issues and maybe some adjustments are needed to balance playability with disease management. I also over-applied nitrogen the past 2 weeks because of stupid math errors. I can only wonder what might have been. Or maybe I am doomed to have to spray a traditional pesticide whenever the poa goes out of seed head production. I guess that is one of the issues with  Poa annua. I was starting to think that I would be able to do this with the Poa but this is just another case for bentgrass. If only I could get it to grow here....
Who Knows?

Other things I would try differently would be to apply the civitas and phosphites more frequently through this period of stress. Maybe that would help?

This is one of the reasons I have been hesitant to fully commit to my program. This stuff is unproven and blindly committing to an unproven method is insane. I wrote about this issue with organic golf last summer.

I have to take away the positives from this though. I made it through the winter without traditional pesticides, something I once thought impossible in my climate. Now I just need to figure out this late spring and summer thing.

Sunday, 26 May 2013

Changing My Weed Management Approach

Lately I have begun to change the way I approach weeds in the landscape. In my experience over the past decade I have seen a lot of weed management failures, not just on the golf course but also on people's home lawns. I have noticed a few things and here is what I have got.

The principle is this: Instead of focusing on the pest, focus on the desirable species. It might sound easy but it is really a hard thing to do. 

Take dandelions in your home lawn for example. When dandelions sprout on most people's lawns their first reaction is "what do I apply to kill these dandelions?" While this is a fantastic short term solution it really solves nothing over time and not after long the lawn is usually plagued with more dandelions. Instead of focusing your energy on the dandelion focus on the needs of the turf. The dandelions aren't the issues. The turf that is weak and unable to out-compete the dandelions is the real issue. I am often approached by members telling me I better cut the seed heads and flowers off the dandelions before the seed blows onto the fairways. I have never done this because I grow good grass. Twelve years on the job and no increase in weed populations. Dandelions aren't going to grow where good grass is growing plain and simple.
Brown un-irrigated area is mostly dandelions
get over it.
Areas where we can grow good grass there are virtually
no weeds.
Another common weed issue I see on people's home lawns is moss. For some reason people hate moss on their lawns and I just can't figure out why. It's green and requires virtually no maintenance so what's the problem? Most people's attempts to kill the moss actually do more harm to the turf than the moss. Liming and applying high levels of iron can help with the moss but do little to help the turf perform well enough to compete with the moss. It seems that the harder you fight the moss the more moss you end up having. The moss isn't your problem here, your crappy grass is!
This isn't a moss problem, it's a lousy grass problem.
I am constantly asked by the public what I use to control weeds on the golf course. My answer is "we haven't used a herbicide on our fairways in 10 years!" and they are always surprised because in their view there are very little, if any, weeds on the golf course. The truth is that there are lots of "weeds" on the course they just don't notice them because there are very few weeds for the size of the turf area. We employ sound turf management practices and don't strive for perfection. Perfection when it comes to weed management is sometimes achievable but no one really notices, or cares. Instead we focus on the big picture and do whatever we have the resources to do to make our grass out-perform the "weeds." If we can do this we can easily keep control of the weeds using manual removal using hand tools.
White clover barely affects play and most people
don't even notice it especially from a distance.
There are some areas of the course that are mostly weeds. These areas are typically on steep slopes that aren't irrigated, fertilized, or aerated because we simply just can't on that terrain. Of course I could spray these areas to kill the dandelions but why? So more can grow back? The only time I would use a herbicide to control a weed is if I was able to correct the underlying issues that permitted that weed to exist in the first place. If you can't grow good grass in that location there is absolutely no point in trying to kill the weeds, right?
Un-irrigated rough, yep this is all I can expect.
This kind of thinking is what many turf professionals do every day even if we don't realize it at first. For me this simple change in thinking has really helped my efforts to grow good grass and stop killing the weeds.

Friday, 24 May 2013

Learning to Manage the Seed Head

Seed head popping up prior to mowing.
I've always been a manager of Poa annua greens and I always dread the onset of seed head each May. It seems that just as my greens have recovered from aeration they get all soft and bumpy again due to the sea of white seed heads. YUCK. Over the past few years the issues I have been experiencing with the seed head have gone from borderline major to practically non-existent. Of course it could be that changing climate that is to blame but my ego would like to think that it is because of what I am doing that is making the difference. Here's to me!

Way back when I was new to the grass growing business I remember mowers stalling out trying to push through the puffy greens. The greens were more white than green and any attempt at achieving anything considered greenspeed was futile. We would fight the poa by aggressively verticutting to thin the puffy inflorescence filled canopy and would reduce nitrogen inputs to try and slow the growth of the ghastly seed head. Looking back I can say that those two attempts to overcome the bumpy soft conditions were complete failures.
This used to happen EVERY May.
The past two seasons the issues pertaining to the Poa annua seed head have virtually disappeared. Last season I implemented an aggressive rolling program. I was in experimental mode and wanted to see what the limits were for lightweight rolling on putting greens. We practically rolled the chlorophyll out of the greens last year but in the process I noticed a few interesting things. On my study green I noticed that there appeared to be less seed head on plots that were rolled more frequently. Of course my observations were hardly scientific but it at least highlighted a possible impact on seed head by rolling. So aside from the obvious smoothing effect of the roller there could be other impacts that actually reduce the amount of seed head that the plant produces. I really wish I had more time this year to study this further but that will have to wait until another year.
Literally more seed head than grass blades in 2011.

This year I have not been rolling as often as last year simply due to labor restraints. Even if I had the additional labor required to roll daily or 2x daily like last June I don't think I would. Just because my test green showed that rolling 3x a day could maybe reduce fusarium and seed head on Poa annua doesn't make it the best approach. It would be foolish to throw all your eggs into one basket when tackling an issue. Instead I have rolled as often as I can (4-7 times a week) with the understanding that it can be one tool towards achieving my end goal. In this case my goal is have smooth, firm greens all while not using traditional pesticides to get the Poa through the seed head stress. Rolling has been a very important tool for me to manage the problem of bumpy seedy poa greens. It smooths the canopy, maybe reduces number of seed heads, and allows me to skip mowings and cut higher to reduce any stress that I can on the plant.

About as bad as it has been so far this year.
The next thing that I think is having a big effect on the seed head this year is something I have already talked a lot about. Demand based fertilizer applications using the growth potential formula developed by PACE Turf. Specifically I think it is the nitrogen that is having the most profound impact but it could also be helped due to the fact that I have applied almost no phosphate to my greens in 2 years. Having said that there is plenty of phosphate in the soil so the plant is not going without.

With my old fertilizer methods based on the classic cool season growth rate chart I was applying more nitrogen than my turf actually needed. As nitrogen is one of those things that can be luxury consumed I was having a big impact on the turf health by fertilizing in this manner especially if the plant didn't actually need it. Was the excess nitrogen applied in the spring used to build carbohydrate reserves for seed head production further increasing the amount of seed heads on my greens? I don't know the answer to that but it a sneaking hunch that I have.

Then just when the plant would start producing seed heads I would cut the food supply off further stressing the plant out. What do plants do when under stress? The same thing I try and do after a few glasses of wine. Try and reproduce. Key word: Try.

Last year I kept my nitrogen applications consistent through the seed head cycle and was pleasantly surprised at the outcome. This year I have applied less than half the historic nitrogen amounts and have been further surprised. I hypothesize that the lean conditions as well as rates based on the changing needs of the plant have helped reduce the severity of the seed head this year. Again, who knows?

In Canada we don't have any products registered for use in controlling Poa annua seed head but I see this as a blessing. If I had these products the seed head wouldn't have been an issue and I wouldn't have sought other means to solve this issue. This year I have also stopped the use of Primo Maxx plant growth regulator so this is also not a contributor to what I am seeing.

Three years ago if you would have asked me that I would be getting compliments on the smooth fast greens in May I would have probably called you crazy but here I am blown away at how great Poa annua greens can be right in the middle of the seed head flush. Again, this could all be delusional rhetoric, I'm no scientist. Give it a try and let me know what you think.
Sorry, no graphs just another bad picture of grass.

Friday, 17 May 2013

Good God It Works

So it has been a while since my last post and it is not because nothing has been happening. It has been busy running a golf course with a 3 person crew including myself. Lately people have been asking me how my battle with disease has been going so I thought I would throw out an update to catch everyone up.

I have continued on with my updated plan that I revised in February  Plans are always subject to change and my disease management plan has continued to evolve this spring. So far the plan has been a great success with no major disease outbreaks to speak of. My applications of Civitas and phosphites every 3 weeks combined with my GP fertility program have really produced amazing results. As of today the greens are full of disease quite uniformly but the severity of that disease is minimal. By minimal I mean that you can see it, but barely, and it's not getting worse. Here is a picture to show just how bad it is.
If you look really hard you can see many disease infection centers but nothing serious. This is the worst I've seen it this year.
As you can see the Poa annua is in full bloom and this is probably one of the reasons I am seeing increased fusarium patch pressure lately. I have adjusted my management program to compensate for this by raising the HOC to .125" and rolling daily. We have also increased the VMC in the greens when irrigating to 25-35% range to keep the poa happy.

Last month we experienced record dry and high temperatures. We went almost 2 weeks without rain and temperatures rose into the low 30's. This combined with the poa going into seed head production worried me. During periods of dry hot weather I have decreased the ratio of ammonium sulphate in my fertilizer applications to further reduce any stress on the poa.

Last year I played around a lot with Civitas and phosphite rates and timings and I think that what I am doing now is the best yet. Currently I am applying Civitas and phosphites every 3 weeks to putting greens only. Civitas at 0.375ml per 100m2 and phosphites at .035kg Phosphite/100m2. The timing is based on the optimum for phosphites as outlined by research done by John Dempsey. I try and apply them on dry days if possible and do not water them in. I really don't like the colour of Civitas as it gives a fake/cheap green appearance to the greens that looks unnatural. Applying it every 3 weeks cuts down on the frequency of the gross green colour and I have found that a light iron application a few days after the Civitas application really helps the colours blend into the surrounds.

Gotta hate the colour of Civitas especially on white Poa
seed head. YUCK
Another thing that I have been playing around with is nitrogen source based on my perceived disease threat. My two nitrogen sources are ammonium sulphate and urea. I adjust the ratio of the two sources as I feel is needed. I apply a higher ratio of ammonium sulphate when disease pressure is higher (cool wet weather) and more urea when it's not. I also increase iron sulphate rates to help with the disease suppression as sulphur has been shown to suppress Microdochium nivale. No I'm not pouring on the sulphur as this has been shown to have a higher EIQ (Environmental Impact Quotent) than traditional pesticides but rather just slightly increase it's content in my weekly fertilizer applications to further help the cause.
My GP fertility planner makes it easy to adjust nitrogen ratios.
So far I haven't really measure any significant temperature differences between putting greens but this could be due to the tree work we have done over the years. So far all fertilizer applications have been consistent for all greens.

This year I did aeration differently than in previous years. I started it in late February and used water to wash the sand into the holes. The thinking behind this was that we had always experienced major disease outbreaks following aeration in April. In February the disease pressure was usually low. By washing in the sand I could minimize the mechanical stress on the plant. This approach worked great and allowed me to get by without having to apply any traditional pesticides. The holes took a little longer to heal over (2 weeks total) but this wasn't a big deal as there were virtually no golfers this time of year.

For my sunniest green (the 8th) I have used only Civitas and phosphites since June 6th, 2012 with absolutely no sign of any disease activity. For the most part this is due to dumb luck but I am now confident that I can do it again with what I have learned. For all my other greens it has been since last November. We had major frost damage to a few of our greens so they received a precautionary traditional pesticide application in February of this year just to ensure their recovery went smoothly. I am still a skeptic (even still) so I don't yet want to rule out the use of other traditional products for disease suppression. I have been learning as I go and every now and again something happens where a fall back to traditional medicine is required.

Speaking of slip ups. Remember the disease outbreak last November? All of the spots that were damaged have filled in with bentgrass that was overseeded last summer. Cool!
Old disease spots now filled with bentgrass.
An anecdotal observation is that as time goes on the greens that have been successful with only Civitas and Phosphites for disease suppression have been the best greens on the course. As time goes on they seem to only get better and better. I wonder if there is something more happening here?

Here's a comparison of my practices the past few years.

From January 1st to May 12, 2012, 7 traditional pesticide applications were required to control Microdochium nivale on my putting greens. This year for the same time period I have made 5 applications of Civitas and phosphites and 1 application of Iprodione to the 3 damaged greens mentioned earlier. The cost of Civitas so far this year totals up to $870 for 1 acre of putting greens and the phosphites add up to about $274. The one application I made of Iprodione to 3 greens cost $209.40! for a total of about $1,353.40 for 5 months of fusarium control on my putting greens. Last year the cost using traditional pesticides only was $2,734 and this was often only for a few greens and not everything. My program for disease control products costs about half of that in previous years, covers all of my greens, and so far has provided complete disease control and better playing conditions.

In 2012 the year to date fertilizer rates applied to greens was as follows:
0.69 Kg N/100m2
0 P
0.38 Kg K/100m2
0.73 Kg S/100m2

This year the totals look something like this using the growth potential formula to determine rates:

0.35 Kg N/100m2
0.27 Kg K/100m2
0.18 Kg S/100m2

As you can see the nitrogen rates are nearly half that of previous years and this is one of the main reasons I think there has been such a big difference. Sulphur rates are also 3x less this year which further reduces the environmental impact of my fertilizer applications. So far fertilizer applications have cost me about $200 per acre for the year. This doesn't include application costs for diesel and my time. I came under fire this spring for advertising I was going out with a $5 fertilizer application or something because that didn't include the cost application etc. For me the cost of applying fertilizer weekly at very low and precise rates is more than made up for by the increase in playing condition quality, reduced disease activity, and the reduced environmental impact of my pest control products used. The precise control also allows me to adjust to freak weather occurrences like the week of 30C+ weather in May! The growth potential went from about 33% to 98% very quickly. I was able to quickly adapt and probably warded off a dollar spot outbreak by increasing nitrogen inputs as required by the plant.  I keep saying this but I highly recommend checking out the growth potential formula developed by PACE Turf and how it can be used for calculating fertilizer requirements.
You can see the fusarium if you look really hard!
I have to say that using the growth potential formula for the first time in the spring was a challenge though. It took all I had not to throw out a high rate of nitrogen to green things up quickly, especially on the greens that suffered the frost damage. With a lot of patients and trust in my plan everything came along very nicely and even the damaged greens have recovered nicely.

Last year I was faced with pushing and pushing and waiting for thresholds to develop which was very stressful. I was often looking at disease pressure like the following picture which was hard day to day.

Where today at about the same time of year I am faced with this:
Last year I had no clue what I was doing. I was driving my pesticide use down by simply increasing my disease thresholds and nothing else really. Now I am doing much more.

I have found a way to make disease control products that are certified organic work without the use of traditional pesticides. I am actively adjusting my fertility program to compensate for changes in weather and disease pressure and in the process have reduced costs and the impact to the environment by using safer products on the course. Give it a try. It's not easy, but it's totally worth it!
I am going to take the almost daily occurance of
amphibians on the greens as a good sign.