To the extreme

Features - Turf Health

More aggressive than aerification and visually jarring, fraze mowing may be the best thing you could do to your turf.

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November 6, 2014
Guy Cipriano

Glares are nasty. Verbal reactions are unprintable.

The process is, well, gutsy.

Ultra-aggressive and developed by a European sports field manager, Universe fraze mowing has entered the North American golf market.

The process involves removing the top layer of turf with a Koro Field Topmaker. The height of the cut can be adjusted to fit a user’s needs. A proper fraze mow leaves turf looking like it endured an extreme scalping.

“The first words out of people’s mouths are, ‘What have you done? You have ruined this or ruined that,’” says Sam Green, director of business development for Aqua-Aid Inc. and a former superintendent. Simon Gumbrill, sales director of the United Kingdom-based equipment company Campey Turf Care Systems, succinctly says: “It immediately gets people’s attention.”

Recovery time following a fraze mow is longer than it would be after other cultural practices such as verticutting, grooming and topdressing. But Jerad Minnick, the president/founder of Growing Innovations, says the process immediately eliminates thatch, black layer and weed seed.

Fraze mowing was established to benefit cool-season grasses found in Europe. Minnick started tinkering with the process on warm-season grasses in 2012, and Green says a dozen Southeast golf courses have experimented with the process. Numbers are similar on the West Coast, according to Jock Eddington, owner of Phoenix-based Sports Turf Services. “Everybody that has done work has come back to do more work, which tells you the benefit of it,” Eddington says. Shadow Creek, a Tom Fazio-designed course in Las Vegas, and the Titleist Performance Center are among the high-profile West Coast facilities dabbling in fraze mowing.

Recovery time remains the biggest challenge in the golf market. The process has evolved to a point where Bermudagrass can be ready for play less than two weeks after being removed. The recovery time is longer for cool-season grasses.

Green views fraze mowing on courses that aren’t being renovated as a process that could work in chunks, meaning portions of the course such as driving range tees, tee boxes and fairways can be completed periodically. “From a golf standpoint, it has to be approached completely different than the sports turf market because in the sports turf market you can stay off something for 21 to 30 days,” he says. “The golf market doesn’t have that. In today’s world, unless you are closing for a project or in the upper echelon of clubs in Florida, name me a course that closes for a period of time? If you are trying to market this to the average golf course, there has to be a plan in place. It’s an education to start with.”

Some courses are already pairing fraze mowing with renovation work or implementing it with overseeding. The Golf Club at Cuscowilla in Eatonton, Ga., recently fraze mowed tees and its driving range in conjunction with a transformation from bentgrass to Champion Bermudgrass greens. The course had a 60-day window to complete its work. Tee regrowth took 14-21 days. The course reopened in early September. “The tees looked perfect,” superintendent Sam Murphy says.

The work stemmed from a demonstration Murphy witnessed last year. Murphy researched the practice’s European beginnings and started pondering potential uses. At first, he wondered whether the technique would work on the slopes surrounding Cuscowilla’s greens. He opted for a conservative entry into fraze mowing, performing the operation on flat surfaces, although he now says the process could have worked on areas surrounding the greens.

“My first reaction was that it would be a good seedbed for overseeding,” he says. “That’s the closest thing I have seen to the final product or finished product. It looks like you severely scalped. I guess that’s what started running through my head, ‘Jeez, that’s really severe.’ I also worried about it coming back in time for our purposes. It came back in plenty of time.”

Those involved in fraze mowing since its early stages see an opportunity to enter a market they have wanted to reach for almost two decades. A multi-continent investment in the process means more courses will pursue what Cuscowilla recently completed.

“Golf did cross our mind because golf is a bigger marketplace than professional sports turf,” Gumbrill says. “The golf market is huge in the world, but also 17 years ago it was a lucrative business. I know the golf market has been beaten up in the last few years, but it still has high demands and cash behind it.”
 

Expanding past “pitches”

Ko Rodenberg had a job with high demands: overseeing the maintenance of more than 100 grass fields operated by the city of Rotterdam. To clean Poa annua seed off the top layer of the city’s fields, Rodenberg invented a topmaker in 1996.

“He was like everybody else,” Gumbrill said. “He had a good gene set, but he had standards that he wanted to meet and he couldn’t do it, so he developed his own range of machinery. But he never saw potential for it as a sales idea. It was just for his own personal use.”

Like many good ideas in the turf industry, the topmaker developed by Rodenberg reached the commercial market, sparking a rise in the volume and scope of fraze mowing throughout Europe. The machine and process was geared toward helping off-season renovation work on soccer “pitches.”

Similar to U.S. football fields, elite European “pitches” receive extended periods to heal from a season’s worth of abuse. The typical recovery time for a ryegrass soccer pitch following a fraze mow in the late 1990s was a minimum of eight weeks, meaning what worked at Premier League pitches would cause discontent at a golf club. “You can’t close a course down, certainly in Europe,” Gumbrill says. “You have to be open all of the time.” Improved technology and enhanced fertility practices have trimmed recovery time on ryegrass from five to six weeks.

Other varieties, though, require less recovery time, and creating a rotor with what Gumbrill calls more “finesse” represented a path toward entering the golf market. A more precise rotor also fascinated Minnick, who received his first exposure to fraze mowing while attending a demonstration day in the Netherlands in the summer of 2012.

Minnick was working as the sports field manager at the sprawling Maryland SoccerPlex and developed a friendship with Gumbrill. The pair quizzed each other about their respective continent’s turf management practices, leading to a fraze mowing trial on the SoccerPlex’s thatch-heavy Bermudgrass. The re-growth period lasted three weeks.

Minnick also performed trials on Kentucky bluegrass. A bluegrass field inside the SoccerPlex needed 35 days to become playable following a renovation. “Historically, they tell you that takes three to six months,” Minnick says. “It was a whole new world.”

Discussions about fraze mowing in the United States intensified after Minnick and Gumbrill attended a Washington Nationals game. After the game, the pair noticed members of the grounds crew scarifying. Gumbrill asked Minnick why this was happening. Minnick offered an obvious answer: to remove organic material. Gumbrill then made a bold claim, saying equipment could be developed to eliminate thatch by removing as much as 50 percent of the surface layer.

Three months later, Eddington operated a prototype rotor on a Bermudagrass golf course tee in Phoenix. Minnick flew to Arizona on his own time and money to watch the rotor fraze mow. “We ran the prototype rotor for 10 feet,” he says, “and I knew we were on to something because there were so many plants left behind for regeneration.” The pair immediately called Gumbrill. The excitement was palatable. “They said, ‘We have stumbled upon the future of Bermudagrass maintenance,’” Gumbrill says.

The rotor was refined and more trials continued throughout 2013, with some occurring on fields at Major League Soccer venues and the SoccerPlex. While Minnick explored uses on soccer fields, Green performed trials on golf courses in the Southeast. Minnick calls golf a “really big piece” of fraze mowing’s 2014 evolution.

Regrowth rates will likely dictate success in the golf market. Minnick has tested 10 different fertility regrowth programs on Bermudagrasss, including some on an ultra-exclusive Florida country club that keeps its activities private. By seven days, he says Bermudgrass can recapture its green hue. By 14 days, he says grass can experience 100 percent regrowth. He adds fraze mowing Bermudagrass fairways once every two years could make a big difference in turf health.
 

Ready for acceptance

Another big part of 2014 has included performing tests on cool-season grasses in the United States as a technique to control Poa annua. Cleaning Poa annua seed off the top of turf circles back to one of Rodenberg’s primary goals when he designed the topmaker.

“You know the genetics of grass,” Gumbrill says. “It creates its own problem. We feed it, water it and then you create a problem. It’s purity. You can remove the problem.”

Cleaning any type of grass with a fraze mow is an extensive operation. The topmaker attaches to a tractor and hurls massive amounts of clippings to the side. A line of vehicles with beds travel alongside the topmaker to collect clippings. Boards prevent clippings from exiting the far sides of beds. “It’s logistically a big operation,” Eddington says.

The process resembles shaving a head: fluid and controlled but with a shocking result. Turf, though, can be manipulated to regrow at faster rates.

Educating the golf market about the technique and regrowth options represent a big part of Green’s 2015 plans. “You can talk all you want at a trade show, but the superintendent is going to say, ‘You know what, I want to see that on my property,’” he says.

Fraze mowing will eventually become an “accepted” practice in the U.S, with courses cleaning out Bermudgrass fairways and tees every two or three years, Eddington says. As far as fraze mowing on cool-season grasses, Minnick says, “that’s up to the golf community” to decide.

Fraze mowing has achieved a significant breakthrough in its short existence in the U.S. The practice promotes dialogue between superintendents and sports turf managers, groups Gumbrill says are trying to solve similar problems. “The job description is exactly the same in sports turf as it is for golf,” he says. “You’re trying to keep a fit and healthy plant.”