A Sustainable Golf Course - A 2010 Update

A Sustainable Golf Course 2010 Update:
Last week I posted on how we have worked to make Northland Country Club a sustainable golf course. The post was written and posted on my blog last winter and I wanted to go through each item and give an update on what we learned this season, what worked and what we may have had to change.

Mowing Patterns and Frequency:
Careful use of fertility along with plant growth regulators (PGR’s) has allowed us to only mow our fairways twice a week throughout the season. We see little to no issues with clippings and because the mowers are mowing such little grass the quality of cut is fantastic. It is often forgotten that mowing is the single most stressful practice performed on our turf. Mowing twice a week compared to the usual 3 times per week has cut this stress by one-third.

We have also reduced stress on our turf by only using smooth rollers on fairway units. Smooth rollers work on fairways because our turf is lean and growth is minimal. Their use has drastically reduced stress on our fairway turf, especially on the high knobs found throughout most classic era courses.

Changing our mowing pattern and reducing the days/week in which we mow has had a cumulative effect allowing us to reduce expenses in many areas.

  • Fewer dollars spent on fuel.
  • Fewer man hours required to mow.
  • Fewer man hours required to set up the mowers.
  • Fewer dollars spent on parts.
  • Less wear and tear on machines allowing them to be used for a greater number of years.

The only negative of reducing our mowing frequency is the loss of the dew removal mowing provides. Like many courses we have used dragging to remove dew on days we do not mow. Although the effectiveness of dragging for dew removal is not as great as mowing and we are exploring other options for dew removal.

Pesticide Reductions:
The summer of 2010 will go down as the most difficult turf growing year many of us have ever experienced. While our proximity to Lake Superior keeps us from experiencing anything close to the temperatures or other regions, last summer was still a challenge. Calling our conditions last summer challenging would be laughed at by most superintendents. However, we were committed to providing high quality conditions with a minimal use of fungicide and this made dealing with our conditions all the more challenging. Nonetheless during 2010 we were able to continue our commitment to using minimal fungicides throughout the golf course.

This past season we were able to limit our fungicide applications on our putting surfaces to a total of two.

  • One application was made in August 3rd after seeing a few slight areas of dollar spot on a couple greens.
  • The second application was made in late September to reduce the incidence of pink snowmold prior to our late-October application. There are a number of reasons we have been able to reduce our fungicide usage to these levels.
  • Dew is removed on putting surfaces everyday either by mowing or rolling.
  • We use deep/infrequent irrigation cycles, which limits the amount of surface moisture present to only one or two days a week.
  • We spray high rates of ferrous sulfate on a weekly to bi-weekly schedule. The ferrous sulfate has a drying effect, which can be disruptive to pathogen life cycles.

Our tees have proven to be the most difficult area for us to control disease without the use of fungicides. That being said only two fungicide applications were made to tees. Both to control dollar spot. Cultural practices on tees are similar to that of greens with the exception of dew removal. Our tees are mowed twice per week and man power limitations do not allow us to remove dew from tees on the non-mow days. A coincidence? I am guessing, not.

This season we were able to maintain our predominantly bentgrass fairways without the use of fungicides. This is the second season in a row in which we have not made a fungicide application to our fairways. Despite the weather of 2010 providing greater disease pressure than 2009 the incidence of disease on our fairways in 2010 was far less than 2009.

Fairway cultural practices:

  • Dew removed on half of non-mow days.
  • Bi-weekly soluble fertility was applied during the peak disease season. (July-August)
  • Deep/Infrequent irrigation practices are used.
  • High rates of ferrous sulfate are applied on a bi-weekly schedule.
  • All of this is not to say our fairways were disease free. Dollar spot was present but we allow a greater threshold of disease presence on fairways than tees and greens. Its worth noting that at no time have I heard golfer complaints about the presence of dollar spot on the golf course.
  • Another point of interest is our approaches. Our approaches have nearly the same mowing and rolling schedule of our putting surfaces; alternating mowing one day, rolling the next. All other cultural practices on fairways and approaches being equal; there was far less incidence of disease on the approaches than the fairways.

Our use and timing of fertility was one of my biggest awakenings of the 2010 season. 2007-2009 had been spent burning through a 2 to 4 inch thatch layer. As that layer broke down the turf gobbled up the excess nitrogen being released; this excess fertility being spit out by the thatch lead to us applying very little fertility over the course of 2007, 2008 and 2009. By little I mean less than 1 lb of N per 1000 square feet per season. Eventually this excess was going to run out and in the middle of last summer, and it happened.

When it did happen it was a face to palm moment. I had become so fixated on the idea of little to no nitrogen that when our turf started looking a little sluggish in late July it took me a couple of days to realize what was taking place. A couple days and couple phone calls lead me to firmly plant my face to my palm. Our turf needed nitrogen and a few soluble applications quickly remedied the situation.

My assumption going forward is that our turf will need little to no nitrogen during the spring and fall. During these times the plants are operating efficiently enough for the nitrogen in the soil to be sufficient. But during our short season of summer stress it will be important for us to supply the plants with the little bit of nitrogen they need to stay healthy. I still suspect our annual nitrogen fertility on fairways will be less than 2 lbs of N per 1000 square feet, most or all of which will be supplied through soluble forms of urea and ammonium sulfate.

Something I feel is often over-looked is the way all of our practices are tied together. For example some might look at 2 lbs of N per 1000 square feet over the course of a season and think that is far too little. However, when you take a look at our cultural practices and the fact they are aimed at removing as much stress from the turf as possible, 2 lbs does not seem to small.

Smooth rollers, reduced mowing and a lack of core aeration are all practices aimed at limiting stress to our turf. When turf is stressed more nitrogen is required to overcome and recover from the stress. Remove much of this stress and the plant now requires nitrogen for basic plant functions only; allowing our applied nitrogen to be reduced.

We made a couple of changes to our irrigation practices this summer that are sure to make a big dent in our water usage in the coming seasons. In October I posted on our use of hand-held moisture sensing equipment on our putting surfaces. Along with moisture sensing we have also used our Toro SitePro central controller to drastically increase the number of programs for greens and fairways. Increasing the number of program has allowed us to do a couple things.

1. By using specific programs for each green we are able to water only the greens that need moisture; thereby assuring every green is watered in a deep/infrequent manner.

2. Our water comes from city main lines. While the water quality is very good our flow is limited by a lack of pumps. Breaking up the golf course into large numbers of programs allows us to water just a few fairways each night. This allows us to run the deep/infrequent cycles we desire despite our limited flow.

Often times the idea of a sustainable golf course gets caught up in only the interaction of the course and environment. While this interaction is infinitely important its my feeling that being sustainable goes much deeper and should encompass all of our cultural and nutritional practices.