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.

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