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 Asianturfgrass.com.

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.

Sunday, 22 March 2020

#Covid19 Agronomy Update.

Last Friday (March 13) I was thinking that removing our bunker rakes and ball washers was a bit extreme. On Monday my crew and I had a brainstorming session and came up with the idea of raising cups to reduce the need for golfers to touch anything other than their ball on the course.

raised cups were an attempt to keep the course safe

On Tuesday it was clear that we would be closing and on Thursday (March 19) we closed the doors to the golf club potentially for the rest of the season.

First of all, I want to thank our board of directors for the strong and clear leadership during this difficult time. I have no doubt that closing the course early was and is the best thing for us to do. By closing down I can shift my focus from trying to keep my staff and members safe to figuring out how I might maintain a golf course by myself for potentially the rest of the year.

I wasn’t prepared for the blow-back I would receive for being part of a club that closed before we were forced to and for suggesting that superintendents start planning now for the possibility that they too might have to close down indefinitely.

Through my role in Search and Rescue I spend a great deal of time training and honing my situational awareness skills. Having good situational awareness is essential for a rescue squad and as the Rope Rescue Team leader my role is plan and try and predict the future. I almost never touch rope.

We could see the eventual need to close the golf courses down completely since the 19th here. At this time there were mandatory shelter in place mandates going out across Europe and parts of the USA. It was only a matter of time. based on the numbers we were seeing in Europe, we were only 10-14 days behind their disastrous outcome. At the time of writing this there still isn’t an official order to “shelter in place” where I live but I expect it any day now. Again, I am grateful for the leadership at my club for allowing me ample time to plan and prepare the course.

When it first became apparent to me that we would be closing I could start spending my energy on addressing this new problem of figuring out how to manage a golf course maintenance operation by myself for the foreseeable future. I directed my staff to get everything cut at least once and to button up any unfinished projects. We charged the irrigation early and pulled in all course accessories.

I decided to go it alone. The justification behind this is that there is much less possibility of losing our entire staff to quarantine if someone gets this virus. If I get sick I would hope that the rest of my staff would be healthy and able to fill in for me while I am forced to self quarantine and recover. If we had 2 shifts we could easily lose everyone if someone from each shift was infected. I also have to spend no time worrying about hygiene at the shop anymore with only myself being here. I am checking in every 2 hours and am only doing relatively safe work. No chainsaws!

We are lucky in that we won’t be getting significant growth here for another month. Even so, we spent about 350 hours mowing in May. This will, of course, be much lower as we won't’ have to maintain the course for playability. We won’t have to push growth for recovery from traffic either. This will save time applying fertilizer and hopefully result in lower growth rates across the course.

We plan to maintain greens as normal from a height of cut perspective. We won’t need as much fertilizer and will probably only mow them 2 times a week. We will probably not roll at all because the disease reduction benefit probably won’t be required considering the greens will be having no traffic on them. I do expect to see the bentgrass flourish this spring with less traffic and inputs. We will more than likely use wetting agents on our greens to reduce the need for hand watering.

For fairways we will be limiting growth through lower fertilizer rates and by restricting water. There’s no hope in me being able to keep up with mowing and irrigation system maintenance so the plan is to only water to keep the course from burning up. For the most part fairways will probably go semi-dormant this summer. This will require only 10% of our normal irrigation capacity. Again, this won’t be a problem if there is no traffic. This will reduce our mowing requirements to probably 32 hours a month for greens, 32 hours a month for tees and 32 hours a month for the odd rough area that won’t go dormant! I will be around for 160 hours a month so mowing should only occupy 60% of my time which is the percentage of the total labor pool time that I have found should be spent mowing a course. It is certainly doable.

As soon as we get the all clear to open back up we will turn the water back on. Worst case is we might have to ask carts to remain on pathways for a few weeks while the fairways green back up.

Our tees will also be allowed to go semi dormant. I have always considered the tees to be semi disposable turf. They get chewed up from golfers and it is in these areas where we grow the grass hard to keep up. With no traffic, we won’t need that kind of recovery or high growth rates. When we can open back up we can over-seed, turn the water back on and give them a heavy shot of fertilizer. The longer we go with no traffic, the better the tees will be when we reopen.

Now would be a great time to over-seed if you have the resources. How often do you get to close a course during the wet spring months to allow over-seed to mature?

For those wondering, our robot is sill mowing its grass off. We just recently started it back up for the season so that quality of cut is pretty bad right now. Regardless, this will be the only fairway receiving regular mowing for the foreseeable future.

How long will we have to stay closed? I don't know but I would plan to not open for the 2020 golf season whatsoever. We can always ramp things back up but it will be much harder to maintain a course and reduce expenses if you have runaway growth to manage.

In the end my hope is that everyone can weather this storm in good spirits and health. The golf course will be fine no matter what happens and the most important thing for now is to focus on the safety of yourself, your family, and your coworkers. Please #Stayhome

Take care everyone.