Wednesday, 1 April 2020

Golf Course Irrigation During a Epidemic

In my two previous posts I talked about how one might want to fertilize and plan maintenance during these times of high uncertainty. It is my opinion that reacting strongly very quickly with the ability to reduce restrictions as time goes on and uncertainty decreases will be the best way forward for many facilities. Here I will discuss some hypothetical situations and things I have learned from years of irrigating golf courses by myself. Also, please allow me to venture into the hypothetical realm for a bit because it seems that most resources that I have read are very conservative and still in denial of what we might be facing here. I hope I'm wrong and that no one needs to use any of the things I'm about to describe.

For many, they will possibly have almost no resources for the coming year and this could be made worse if this drags on for more than a few weeks or months. While most are currently concerned about getting the spring grass growth cut, what will happen when drought hits? How will we irrigate and how can we use irrigation to reduce the issues we might face when it comes to budget and turf health compare to a normal year.

Just like with fertilizer, irrigation is only really needed to allow the turf to grow to tolerate the traffic that we place on it. If you have no traffic, you have less need for high growth rates in the summer. Obviously there are certain areas that we might want to irrigate like greens and tees, but the largest areas that most courses need to irrigate are the fairways.

Our greens and tees account for less than 10% of our irrigation requirements and their conditions will probably suffer if moisture stress is introduced. With a reduction of almost 90% in irrigation requirements by only watering greens and tees, we can save a lot on water costs, electricity to pump that water, irrigation system maintenance and mowing grass that is growing at full speed!

If you are by yourself you can easily water greens and tees in a few minutes while you are on site to reduce the chances of breaks going unnoticed.

Using PGRs and reduced fertilizer amounts is a great way to reduce growth rates when water is sufficiently applied from precipitation. When the moisture deficit begins to grow we can then start to use moisture restriction to slow growth and ease the burden that mowing places on a minimized golf course maintenance operation.

Below you can see the moisture deficit data for my location. You can see that the months of May through August we generally (hopefully) experience a moisture deficit.

We can also see that 60% of our mowing requirements come during those months....hmmmmm

So if we are planning for the long game we can see that during the periods of high mowing requirements we can use moisture to restrict growth across the course to allow us to keep costs low and conditions from deteriorating too much. Yes the grass will turn brown but it will only go dormant. Without traffic the quality shouldn't deteriorate too much. Again, the severity of how much grass you allow to go dormant will depend entirely on your situation. Maybe you only water fairways 150 yards out from the green....or just heads down the middle allowing the rough to burn out. Either way, you can totally control how much grass you need to cut (and the expense of cutting that grass) by controlling where you apply irrigation during periods of moisture deficit.

I do worry about the areas of our fairways that have lots of poa in them. Maybe this can turn into a good opportunity to push improved varieties with little worry about temporarily unsightly conditions through the transition? My previous course had a horrible irrigation system and very little poa in the fairways....

There is some concern with possibly more weeds and some areas of turf death if you let the grass go full dormant but these can be remedied when things improve and are a small price to pay when the alternative for some will be bankruptcy.

At my previous course we only had a single row irrigation system. In the summer the rough growth would slow reducing our mowing requirements substantially.

What about the areas that you still water? How can we manage that with minimal resources?

You can't forget wetting agents. With less resources to micromanage moisture, wetting agents will be essential to maintain good turf quality on putting greens. For fairways that are going dormant you could hold off any wetting agent applications but probably have some on deck for when you are able to open back up. A quick application of a surfactant and a good dose of water will wake your turf up with hopefully only a few weeks of cart restrictions to help the turf growth rates pick up again. Extreme circumstances but worth discussing if we are going to effectively plan for the worst case.

What about moisture levels? With most courses having moisture meters at their disposal now will be the time that we can use them to reduce workload associated with hand watering putting greens. Hand watering is a huge time-suck and won't be possible for crews managing entire courses with 1 or 2 staff members. While moisture meters seem to be used to allow managers to keep greens drier by directing hand-watering activities they can also be used to reduce the need for hand-watering entirely.

By maintaining a higher overall moisture content in your greens, you will reduce the extremely  dry spots in a big way. In the past I have managed my golf course with only 2 staff in the summer (with regular high summer traffic and irrigation requirements) with almost no hand-watering. As long as you are using wetting agents on your greens and you maintain the VMC as high as 30% you will require almost no hand watering without serious long term consequences. Remember, we are talking about staying in business or going out of business here.....High budget financially secure clubs need not criticize. With little or no traffic the high moisture levels won't matter as much and will allow you to keep the greens in relatively good condition with minimal resources.

For those without moisture meters you can water greens slightly higher than you normally would and when drought stress becomes visible you can apply a heavy infrequent flush to try and re-wet those areas.

I do wonder about how courses that choose to stay open but are faced with reduced resources and profitability. Might it be better to close and allow the course to go dormant for the year vs staying open with higher expenses for fewer golfers? It will vary for every situation.

I hope that starting to think about how you will use irrigation to your advantage might work and if you have any other suggestions please feel free to comment below.

Thanks again and take care eh.