Industry advances are helping golf course superintendents manage spray applications of chemicals and fertilizers in ways that are safer and more effective for humans, plants and the environment.
The days are long gone, fortunately, when golf course technicians tied a handkerchief around their faces before venturing out to make spray applications on their turf. From access to improved chemicals and fertilizers to safer product storage and handling, superintendents are taking advantage of the advancements in their field and treating their turf in a much more efficient and environmentally friendly manner.
Summing It Up
• Scientific advances—especially the development of products designed specifically for use on ornamental turf—have enabled golf course maintenance staffs to make spray applications in a more efficient and environmentally friendly manner.
“The science of the industry has progressed as rapidly and effectively as the science of medicine,” says Don Tolson, CGCS, Superintendent of The Stock Farm Club in Hamilton, Mont.
One of the biggest improvements in the golf course maintenance industry has been the introduction of ornamental turf products, notes Tolson, who has been in the business for 43 years and at The Stock Farm Club for 17 years. “What was available to us in 1972 was almost without exception agricultural products,” he recalls. “There was no target market [for golf courses].
“Today, we have products that will meet any need we have and that, without exception, have been researched for ornamental turf,” Tolson adds. “We have specific products for specific problems, with a list of dos and don’ts.”
As a result, he says, products are more sustainable, more dependable and more predictable than in the past. “The chemical industry has formulated those products to be as stable as possible,” he notes. “In most cases, the particle size is much smaller than agricultural products. They settle into the turf, and the turf canopy is like Velcro. It doesn’t end up in streams or in heavily concentrated areas at the bottom of a slope.”
Like Father, Like Son
Don’s son Dan, who has worked in the golf course maintenance business since 1997, agrees that products are more controllable and predictable today. And as the Certified Golf Course Superintendent at 3 Creek Ranch Golf Club in Jackson Hole, Wyo., Dan is usually willing to try something new.
For example, for the past four years the grounds crew at 3 Creek Ranch has been using a kelp extract on the greens, tees, and fairways. The product improves drought resistance and decreases the overall need for fertilizer, Dan Tolson says.
“The technology is there to enhance the ability of the plant to extract more nutrients from the soil on its own,” he explains. “It requires less water and less nitrogen. It’s like a vitamin that allows the grass to grow better roots.”
The course-and-grounds staff at 3 Creek Ranch also experimented last year with new technology that a local landscaper developed, Tolson reports. The landscaper created a device that packs grass clippings into bales and makes them into silage. The 3 Creek Ranch crew put its grass clippings into the bio-packer to make eight tons of silage and sold it to a local rancher who fed his cattle with it.
“We used to spend $8,000 to $10,000 getting rid of clippings at the dump, and now we’ve turned them into a commodity,” says Tolson. Clippings can also be a source of groundwater pollution when taken to landfills, he notes.
Golf course maintenance staffs have stepped up their efforts to keep meticulous records of their spray applications.
“For our own needs, we keep immaculate records,” reports Don Tolson of the Stock Farm Club. “We have spreadsheets where we keep track of everything we do. The state can come in and look at our records at any time, so we need to be compliant. Our internal needs exceed the state requirements.”
Even though spray technicians had access to product labels in the past, he notes, applications still could be a process of trial and error. When he first started in the business, he often had to rely on hand-written, barely legible notes. But communication has improved vastly in the last four decades, he reports.
“The information that is communicated to the end user from the production companies is much greater,” he says.
The 3 Creek Ranch staff also maintains precise digital records of every chemical and fertilizer application.
“We can pull up our application log on our phones. It’s Web-based, so we can get it from anywhere. It keeps us organized and thorough,” Dan Tolson reveals.
At Metropolitan Golf Links, Superintendent Gary Ingram submits monthly online reports about all of the property’s applications to the state.
To enhance safety, today’s spray technicians are well-educated and well-trained, and thanks to improved products and practices, their exposure to health risks is minimized as much as possible as well.
“Today, we have packets of fungicides that dissolve in the tank, and nobody ever touches it,” says Don Tolson.
Spray technicians now use personal protective equipment such as proper clothing, rubber gloves, and splash-proof glasses, and they calibrate their equipment before making an application.
3 Creek Ranch, says Dan Tolson, has had the same year-round staff—including a spray technician, irrigation technician, and assistant superintendent—for eight years. “They’re good at what they do,” he adds.
In the summer, he continues, the 3 Creek Ranch staff trains its interns on Best Management Practices and Integrated Pest Management.
“Training is the backbone of your whole operation,” Ingram emphasizes. “The more you train, the better your staff is going to be. We’re intent on making sure people understand what our goals are. We read material data safety sheets and labels together, so staff members apply the products safely and understand exactly what we’re trying to accomplish.”
Ingram, a licensed pesticide control advisor for California, also believes that all employees should know exactly what products are on site.
Less is More
Gary Ingram, a Certified Golf Course Superintendent and Director of Agronomy at Metropolitan Golf Links in Oakland, Calif., has also seen vast improvements in products during his 40 years in the golf course maintenance business.
“A lot of the products we used in the ’70s are not even available any more. Most of the products that are now used are tested substantially for how they’re going to affect the environment now and in the future,” Ingram explains. “They’re not just tested for effectiveness and cost any more.”
Along with the decreased risks posed by the products, superintendents have learned to use lesser amounts of chemicals and fertilizers, applying only what they need, when and where they need it. “Our herbicide usage is minimal,” Don Tolson says. “We apply products on an as-needed basis.”
The Stock Farm Club’s top priority is the application of the proper nutrients at the proper time, to give the golf course the greenest, healthiest turf. The maintenance staff makes applications bi-weekly on the bentgrass greens and every three weeks on the tees and approaches, depending on the air temperature and the need of the plant. Twice a year, the Stock Farm Club crew uses slow-release fertilizer on the bluegrass turf, which covers everything except the greens. And as a rule, the staff uses products that have little volatilization.
“We know what our need is, and we don’t exceed that need for financial and environmental reasons,” Tolson explains. “We only put down as much as the plant can utilize and as much water as the plant needs. And we put down a product that is stable in the first place.”
The Stock Farm crew applies fungicides in the spring to combat spring and early-summer diseases. To fight winter disease, one application is made in September, one in October, and one before the first snow.
Getting Their Goats
At 3 Creek Ranch Golf Club, a private 18-hole golf course built alongside wild creeks and native foliage in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, the staff starts with soil tests to determine the spray applications it needs. Decisions are based on test results and the time of year. “We live in an area that’s very sensitive environmentally,” notes Dan Tolson. “It’s a priority to make our decisions with that in mind.”
The 3 Creek Ranch staff does not make “blanket” spray applications to treat the turf, Tolson says. “We try to manage each area of the golf course individually, as opposed to doing it all the same,” he reports. “We use specific products in specific places in specific amounts.”
The grounds crew at 3 Creek Ranch makes an application for snow mold in the fall as closely as possible before it is likely to snow, and uses a surfactant to make the product stick to the plant. The property only needs to use a few pesticides for insects and turf disease, Tolson says.
“Our main pest problem is voles, [so] we have an expansive IPM [Integrated Pest Management] program for vole management,” he says. “We’re restricted in the use of toxins, so we have to use natural, cultural things to control them.” Those methods have included the installation of kestral hawk boxes (see photo, opposite page) that encourage those natural predators to nest on property.
To further reduce the property’s dependence on herbicides, 3 Creek Ranch got four goats last year to graze on weeds in native areas. The course will get three more goats this year, Tolson says. “In the shoulder seasons, they’ll be on the golf course for a week at a time in one place, and then we’ll move them to a new area,” he says.
The 3 Creek Ranch property has Kentucky bluegrass on its fairways and rough, and creeping bentgrass on its tees and greens. The maintenance crew follows an aggressive program to control any poa annua in the bluegrass and keep it from spreading to the greens.
“The bentgrass is more sensitive to herbicides and plant growth regulators,” Tolson notes. “Once [poa] gets on a green, it’s really hard to kill, because the bentgrass is less tolerant of products that control it.” To control the poa, the 3 Creek Ranch crew makes a series of applications with three or four different products for six weeks in the spring and six weeks again in the fall.
At Metropolitan Golf Links, which is a certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary, the maintenance staff has developed thresholds under its Integrated Pest Management program to carry out spray applications. “We go out and scout and monitor our course daily,” says Ingram. “After we scout, that’s how we determine what we might need to do.”
The basis for making a decision depends on the plant health, soil, water and weather. Ingram has a microscope on site, but sends water, soil, and plant samples to labs or talks to other superintendents before deciding on applications. “It might take a little bit longer, but the more information you have, the better decision you can make,” he notes.
The type of soil in which the plant is growing is the top consideration, he adds. “If you improve the soil, you improve the plant health,” he states. “Then you don’t have as many diseases or weeds.”
Ingram selects the products he uses according to their effectiveness and cost, as well as plant needs and environmental issues. His staff uses very little phosphorus and has reduced nitrogen levels significantly. More iron, manganese and calcium is applied to manage plant health.
“We put down just what the plant needs,” Ingram reports. “We do not want the plant to grow too fast. Then we don’t have to mow as much, and the plant is healthier.”
Benefits for All
3 Creek Ranch’s Dan Tolson believes superintendents have to protect their greatest asset—the golf course—and the environment around it. And that, in turn, benefits everyone.
“If we’re proactive about what we do, there’s no need for more regulations,” he says. “It makes our job easier, and we have less disease, damage, and pests.”
Of course, superintendents’ sound practices can benefit golfers as well.
“We have green, firm, healthy grass that doesn’t grow very fast,” says Dan’s father Don, Superintendent at the Stock Farm Club. “We have the very best playing surface that we can provide.”
“We are environmentally responsible,” Don adds in discussing the need to achieve the proper balance between turf quality and eco-friendly growth and maintenance practices. “That has always been a high priority.
“We understand how the products work,” Don Tolson says. “We don’t let products run down the drain. We are not paying for stuff we’re not getting.”
The purpose of chemical and fertilizer applications is to improve the product, notes Gary Ingram of Metropolitan Golf Links, and golf course superintendents know this requires manage their resources wisely.
“When you do that, what happens? You improve your bottom line,” Ingram says.
“Good golf course superintendents are, by their education, experience, and nature, very good stewards,” Don Tolson notes.
“All I have to do is go online or make a phone call, and I can talk to someone who is very well informed about my specific problem or my specific need,” he explains. “If you have the time and the interest to know and learn the best way to acquire and apply products to suit your needs, the [chemical and fertilizer] companies are very good at providing that information.”
Communication with interested golfers about environmental initiatives is important as well, Dan Tolson adds. He keeps them informed with his blog, Twitter posts, and YouTube videos.
“The standards have gone up for what people expect on the golf course, but the importance of the environment has also gone up,” he says.
Scrutiny by municipalities and governments on the golf industry has contributed in part to making golf course superintendents better stewards of the land, Don Tolson believes. But the professionals in the field also take pride in their work and have a lot of passion for it. And as part of that, superintendents have a healthy appreciation for the improved chemical and fertilizers that are now available to them.
“They have made our job much easier and have made us more compatible with the environment we live and work in,” he says. “The health risks have significantly decreased.”
When making chemical and fertilizer applications, golf course superintendents take great care to protect their waterways as well. Golf course architects are doing their part, too.
“Contemporary golf course design has addressed the issue of surface water movement into waterways,” says Don Tolson. “The topography, finished grade, or surface-elevation changes manage water movement from the turf into the water. Golf courses that are well-designed and have been built in the last 25 or 30 years do a good job of managing surface-water movement.”
His son Dan agrees. “The planning stages of a golf course are the most critical in my mind—a lot of it comes back to the way the golf course is built,” he says. When 3 Creek Ranch was built in 2003, he notes, “We didn’t allow any drainage to enter directly into a lake or stream on the golf course.”
The Stock Farm Club golf course gets little rainfall, according to Don Tolson, so there is little surface movement of the products that the crew puts down. If the product is washed in with the right amount of water, he adds, the application travels up the roots to protect the plants.
At 3 Creek Ranch, spray products are filtered by a variety of methods before they can percolate into a lake. “Each lake has a buffer strip around it,” says Dan Tolson. “We use covers on all of our spray equipment to keep the wind from blowing drift off-target.”
The maintenance staff at 3 Creek Ranch tests its water once a month at three different places where the lake system discharges into the native streams. The staff also tests the water where it enters and exits the property. “We’ve improved water quality where it leaves the property,” Dan Tolson states.
Golf course properties are also paying much closer attention to chemicals and fertilizers when they are not being applied to the turf. At The Stock Farm Club, chemicals are stored in a contemporary facility that meets all state and federal regulations, and fertilizers separately in a similar structure. The facilities are fireproof, ventilated and temperature-controlled.
Products are stored at 3 Creek Ranch in a contained building that has spill-containment features and concrete walls. The staff mixes products in large tanks and pumps them into sprayers. In case of a spill, the materials can be pumped from the floor into another tank. “Nothing is connected to the outside and nothing can go through a storm sewer or be lost to the ground,” says Dan Tolson.
At Metropolitan Golf Links, storage buildings have containment features, so spills or leaks cannot leach into the soil or groundwater. “We have all our products stored under cover, and all products are contained,” notes Ingram. “We want to make sure we’re not only government-compliant, we do not want any products to leak into the environment.”
Metropolitan Golf Links’ spray technicians also follow a stringent preventive maintenance program to ensure that their equipment is always in proper working order. They check the equipment before and after each use, clean it thoroughly, and replace old hoses when necessary.
“We make sure the engines and pumps are running effectively so our rates are good,” Ingram says. In addition, he notes, the county agricultural inspector checks the equipment and storage facility annually.