Superintendents have to watch where and how they use the “C” and “F” words—but at the same time be more forceful in dispelling myths and misconceptions about chemical and fertilizer applications.
By Betsy Gilliland, Contributing Editor
Satisfying golfers’ expectations about course conditions, while at the same time following environmentally sensitive maintenance practices, has become a delicate balancing act for golf course superintendents. While turf professionals cannot maintain their properties without chemical and fertilizer inputs, growing scrutiny from the general public—many times based on misinformation that must be corrected as part of the process—now dictates that superintendents use these resources judiciously, and transparently.
“We couldn’t maintain the expectations of the community unless we had these inputs available,” says Certified Golf Course Superintendent Jim Ferrin.
“I’m very much a minimalist, but [chemicals and fertilizers] are very important in what we do annually, ” adds Ferrin, who as Golf Course Superintendent and Director of Landscapes for the Sun City Roseville Community Association in Roseville, Calif., oversees maintenance of the community’s common landscapes and 27 holes of golf at the Timber Creek and Sierra Pines courses.
Ken Kirby, Golf Course Superintendent of Hillcrest Golf Club in Durango, Colo., found himself battling local officials and public perception last spring, when he opposed a proposed ordinance that required any city-owned land, including his golf course, to use only organic fertilizers or pesticides. “We couldn’t go totally organic because it would affect our playing conditions and our costs,” explains Kirby. “Either the public would pay a lot more, or the course was going to suffer.”
He turned to the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA) and its Rocky Mountain chapter for help, and the associations jointly crafted a letter in support of Kirby’s position to present at a city council meeting.
SUMMING IT UP
- Safety for crew members, golfers, and wildlife must be a top priority for superintendents when making chemical and fertilizer applications.
- Superintendents should follow a written plan for their chemical and fertilizer inputs, but be willing to make adjustments as needed.
- Chemical and fertilizer manufacturers continue to produce safer products, and state and national associations can help superintendents educate the general public about eco-friendly practices in the golf course maintenance business.
Proponents of the ordinance often cited outdated information to advocate for their cause, Kirby says. “Even when you have cold, hard facts, they just don’t want to hear it,” he adds. “People are going to believe what they want to believe.”
Council members ultimately defeated the ordinance and adopted a resolution, which excluded golf courses, to appropriate general fund monies to establish an Organically Managed Lands Program in selected city parks.
Kirby, who has worked at Hillcrest for 26 years and served as its Superintendent for five years, advises his colleagues in similar situations to “keep fighting the good fight” and to gather information on both sides of the issue. “Don’t take everything at face value,” he recommends.
Of course, nothing beats common sense when it comes to chemical and fertilizer inputs, and superintendents have learned to follow a number of protocols for using the products in the most efficient and cost-conscious ways. First and foremost, safety for crew members, golfers, and wildlife is always a top priority. And safety begins with reading—and following the instructions on—product labels. Equipment should also be calibrated properly, and golf courses should have a good Integrated Pest Management system in place to scout for disease and measure the thresholds for individual properties.
“It is always very important to institute a well-balanced and well-thought-out fertilizer/herbicide/fungicide program to meet the individual needs of each and every golf course,” notes Kirby. “These needs should be based on soil and nutrient conditions or deficiencies, and then used to plot strategy for your best maintenance practices.
“Every course in the country will encounter different scenarios and needs, as no two courses are alike,” he adds. “We should have the ability to use all the tools available to us, to provide optimal turf conditions with minimal impact to the environment, in accordance with all applicable laws and regulations.”
Nevertheless, Kirby keeps inputs to a minimum. He fertilizes the golf course three times a year—once in the spring, summer and fall, and the course has about 25 to 30 acres of unmaintained land between fairways.
“We’re not susceptible to insects and pests in our area. We haven’t applied an insecticide in seven years,” he reports. “We don’t try to kill every bug or weed. A few weeds here and there aren’t going to affect play.
Mark Murphy, Superintendent at General’s Ridge Golf Course in Manassas Park, Va., also serves as Director of Environmental Programs for Billy Casper Golf. He cautions technicians to wear proper clothing, including protective suits, goggles, headgear and gloves, when making applications.
“Make sure the weather environment is proper for the application,” he says. “There should be little or no wind, and check for rain in the forecast. Some of the pesticides that are applied require certain temperatures.”
It’s also important, he adds, to make sure the applications have dried before allowing golfers on the course.
“Golf course maintenance is a natural process,” says Jim Ferrin, CGCS, Golf Course Superintendent and Director of Landscapes for the Sun City Roseville Community Association in California. “If I have healthy soils, I’m not going to have many pests and use a lot of inputs.”
“We have a lot of means, measures and technology available, but we also do a lot of soul-searching,” notes Ferrin. He recommends that golf courses use scientifically proven products and minimize exposure to the people and wildlife around the applications. Each day, he follows a written plan of action based on soil tests and potential problems.
“Golf course maintenance is a natural process,” says Ferrin. “If I have healthy soils, I’m not going to have many pests and use a lot of inputs. We adjust, though; some things you can’t predict.”
As Manager of Golf for Westminster, Colo., Lance Johnson, CGCS, oversees two 18-hole courses, The Heritage at Westmoor and Legacy Ridge. Colorado’s dry climate limits the use of fungicides in the state, Johnson says, and Westminster’s use of reclaimed water on the golf courses further reduces the need for fertilizer inputs, because the turf gets many nutrients through the water.
The Westminster maintenance staff conducts soil tests at both golf courses twice a year, as part of revisiting its chemical and fertilizer inputs strategy. “We’re trying to create the healthiest turf possible,” Johnson says. “With soil testing, we know what we need and where we need to apply it. We also save money when we only use what we need.”
Cost efficiency extends to purchasing habits as well, and superintendents typically order chemicals and fertilizers as needed. “We’ve worked out an arrangement with most of our vendors where we can buy in bulk and have it delivered on an as-needed basis,” Johnson says.
While he has the capability to store up to four or five tons of fertilizer in a locked, secure facility if necessary, vendors have adapted to the as-needed delivery pattern, he says.
Golf courses have also come to use agricultural products, which are more cost-efficient, with greater frequency than synthetic products. “We’ve gone through trial-and-error to determine what’s best,” notes Johnson. “We still have a lot of farmland and ranches in Colorado, and the ag products that work on those properties serve the same purposes for golf courses.”
Murphy also orders products as needed, but General’s Ridge stores chemicals and fertilizer in a secure, separate building that is heated and properly ventilated. When making purchases, he advises superintendents to ensure the products will achieve the desired results for the insect or pathogen they are trying to treat. While generic products might cost less, he adds, they don’t always work as well as name-brand products.
Murphy is willing to try new products he has researched, particularly from major companies. “You know they’ve done the field work and the tests,” he explains. He also talks to salesmen and networks with other superintendents about new products. “I’ll try them on a small area first, instead of making a blanket application,” he reports.
While Ferrin has a close relationship with vendors that represent product manufacturers, he generally does not purchase chemicals, fertilizers, and pesticides that are new to the market. “I like to wait for feedback and see how the products are working in other areas of the U. S.,” he explains. “We study things a lot prior to putting anything down.”
Ferrin also tries to minimize orders so he doesn’t have too many products on hand. However, he adds, “Everything we have is inventoried and locked down.”
Decreased Usage, Increased Satisfaction
Johnson, who has been at the Westminster courses almost 20 years, has changed little about chemical and fertilizer inputs since Legacy Ridge, a certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program (ACSP), was built in 1993. As an Audubon Signature Program, The Heritage, built in 1998, has been following eco-friendly practices since it was under construction.
“The plans we’ve had in place have held up; what we’re putting on the golf course is staying where it’s supposed to be,” Johnson says. “We have buffer zones around drainage areas, and we can’t spray within 25 feet of a water body. When someone comes to the golf courses—whether they are a golfer, citizen or businessperson—they can see our certification plaques on the wall. They know what we’re doing is not random.
The Westminster courses have made at least one change, however. For the last five years, the 13-member crew has used compost applications on the golf courses.
“Compost applications are the only fertilizer source we use for the fairways and rough at Legacy Ridge,” says Johnson. “We do two applications—one in the spring and one in the fall—and we get all the nutrients we need.”
Ferrin, who is in his sixth year at Roseville, says chemical and fertilizer inputs have changed dramatically during the time he has been at Timber Creek and Sierra Pines, which have each earned ACSP certification.
“The inputs have been reduced and the quality and satisfaction with the product we’re producing has improved,” he reports. In addition, he’s learned that “post-emergent products don’t work as well as pre-emergent. Pre-emergent products can attack the problem, and preventative programs use far less product than reactive programs.”
Since he arrived at General’s Ridge two years ago, Murphy has decreased his chemical and fertilizer usage. “We have taken 15 acres of managed turfgrass out of high maintenance,” he explains. “We only mow the area once a year, and it doesn’t receive any chemical treatments.”
Murphy also has seen some industry-wide changes in the 22 years he’s been in golf course maintenance. “Manufacturers have developed more products that will control specific pathogens we may encounter,” he explains. “The products also become safer. Manufacturers have done their homework, and they have taken a lot of harsh metals out of the products.
That’s also made it easier for superintendents to join forces with product manufacturers to help properly educate the public about what’s now available and how it’s being used. “Superintendents are environmentally conscious,” notes Ferrin, “and we take pride in being caretakers of the environment.”