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Choosing the right wetting agent (in 10 years)

Features - Course Management

What's coming down the pike? What problems will they solve and what problems do we still need them to fix? GCI shakes its magic eight ball: "Future looks bright."

John Torsiello | May 16, 2011

Wetting agents have become a vastly important tool for superintendents as they attempt to maintain optimum turf conditions in the face of local, state and federal restrictions on water use, as well as cope with seemingly-common drought conditions that have plagued various parts of the country.

And, wetting agents can help supers with their bottom line by allowing them to maximize and in some instances limit the use of increasingly-expensive water supplies.

A myriad of wetting agents are being produced by dozens of manufacturers, with the product likely to increase in number, effectiveness and value to superintendents in the coming years.

“I believe they will be a more important role in a course’s agronomic plan,” says Jeremy Hreban, superintendent at Indian Spring Country Club in Marlton, N.J. “With water being such a valuable resource, anything that allows superintendents the ability to better manage it will be a necessity.”

“Wetting agents will undoubtedly become more vital in the future,” says Jim Richardson, superintendent at High Bridge Hills Golf Club in High Bridge, N.J. “Less water used means less electricity and labor used. They are an important tool in becoming more efficient.”

Wetting agents keep valuable moisture in root zones and control hot spots.Bill Kistler, superintendent at Tampa Palms Golf and Country Club in Tampa, Fla., is a big believer in wetting agents and their role in his turf maintenance plan. He uses them in various ways, such as on greens in order to help keep moisture in the root zone during the dry season and to help control hot spots. He mixes wetting agents with fungicides to help control disease by getting fungicide to target areas. During the rainy season, he uses them to help push water through the greens. In the winter months, he uses them on non-overseeded greens to help prevent frost from forming by eliminating dew on surface of greens. He has also used wetting agents through his course’s fertigation system to help maintain fairways and tees during dry season.

“It has been trial and error, mostly finding which wetting agent works best for the environment at my course,” he says. “Once we found what works best, it has been something we use on a regular basis. Getting to that point can be a little time-consuming since everyone seems to have the best wetting agent on the market.

Some have a tendency to burn if not careful. Some last longer than others. Again, it comes down to trying different agents and talking with your peers to see what others may be using and the results they have achieved. When used correctly, wetting agents can be very cost-effective, saving on water and electricity.”

Brad Sparta, superintendent at Ballyowen Golf Club in Vernon, N.J., loves wetting agents.

“I like the savings we get with less hand watering,” he says. “That allows us to allocate our labor to different projects. They also allow us to be more efficient with our water usage, which saves on energy usage as well. I wish they weren’t so expensive but I do think they pay for themselves in the long run.”

Kathy Conard, of Kathy Conard Communications, a consultant to the golf course industry, says she “got to see lot of great looking golf courses, despite the weather last year.”

“It was back to the basics for superintendents, a lot of needle-tining and sound agronomics were keys,” she says. “Wetting agents were an important part of agronomic practices and really helped in survival.” The key is finding the right one not only for the golf course but for the way the course is managed.

To that point, Conard, who is an invited speaker at numerous superintendent association meetings throughout the country, says all wetting agents are not created equal. Conard works with superintendents individually to sort out all of the confusion about wetting agents so they can choose the right product for their site specific needs.

“Many wetting agents didn’t hold up last year. However, there were products that stood up to the 2010 extremes,” she says.

She witnessed that products that contained a “branch” wetter (for more uniform, complete and efficient wetting of soils), a “stripper” (a component that partially strips hydrophobic coatings from soil particles), and a water conditioning agent (which helps to buffer tank pH and deal with bicarbonates) performed the best.

“I have been in the golf industry, specializing in wetting agents, for almost 25 years and I have never seen wetting agent results like this,” she says. “All of these components together make for outstanding wetting agent performance no matter what the weather or stress conditions and that was proven on numerous golf courses in 2010.”

So, where are we headed in the wonderful world of wetting agents?

“For now we will continue to secure high-quality raw materials in order to make wetting agents that exceed our customers’ expectations,” says Jack Harrell, Jr., chairman and CEO of Harrell’s of Lakeland, Fl. “We just went through a very tough year and our wetting agents made top marks north to south. Superintendents are happy with the results and that is what we care about. As far as the next generation wetting agent that Harrell’s will make; we will keep listening to our customers, partnering with leading researchers and work hard to continue to bring our customers innovative solutions.”

“After 15 years of being a superintendent I finally found a wetting agent that performs as advertised,” says Mike Salvio, superintendent at Ocean City Golf Club in Berlin, Md. “Fleet [a Harrell’s product] didn’t have the peaks and valleys like other wetting agents I used. It got me through a tough summer.”

Says Chuck Champion, president of KALO, Inc. of Overland Park, Kan., “Superintendents are much better educated about wetting agent performance in recent years. They understand the value of these products as “water management tools.”

He believes superintendents want to have a product that can be applied with the least volume of water carrier possible, avoid having to water the product in after application and they want to mix the wetting agent with other plant protectant or nutrient products for a single pass application.

“Trends have been getting away from the single application, long-lasting residual performing wetting agents in favor of more frequent maintenance applications either bi-weekly or monthly with smaller use rates,” says Champion. “Preventative treatments involving use of metering pumps that draw wetting agents from a drum, tote or on-site tank and inject the wetting agent directly into the irrigation flow offer a labor-savings method of application.”

KALO offers a range of wetting agents formulated for specific use. Its Tournament-Ready Soil Surfactant is the company’s featured product. It provides three modes of action that result in a wetting agent that can be used both preventatively and curatively to maintain quality turf. Tournament-Ready is formulated in part from renewable-resource chemistry (carbohydrate-type surfactant). This ingredient, says Champion, provides “excellent flash wetting properties for immediate relief of LDS by water’s infiltration of repellent soils. The two remaining ingredients are petroleum-based chemistry, which are effective at altering the property of water to enhance soil absorption and increase vertical and lateral movement of water in the soil profile.”

He adds that KALO will be introducing a new soil surfactant in 2012 that will be expanding on the success of Tournament-Ready by using a unique surfactant companion ingredient not widely used today.

Champion believes the focus on the marketing of wetting agents will shift more toward water savings benefits and beyond the treatment of localized dry spots. The number of courses using wetting agents will expand, he says, to include lower budget golf courses and 9-hole courses. Improvements and a wider offering of injection equipment will allow for expanded use of this labor savings method of application.

“Surfactant chemistries will be developed to assist as a follow up or pre- and post-treatment of certain fungicide and insecticide applications to lower the cost while enhancing treatments. Wetting agents can assist in the movement and translocation of certain pesticide products. The positioning would be as a separate treatment, not the same tank mix, as such use requires labeling as an adjuvant.

Andy Moore, director of business development of Aquatrols Corporation of America, based in Paulsboro, N.J., claims that his company’s product, Revolution, “meets the demands of today’s expectations because it allows the superintendent to manage the air and water in the root zone to a level not attained by other products.”

He adds, “Revolution also improves the plants’ ability to withstand the stresses of today’s management practices so it is healthier and survives better. We also offer Dispatch to help supers use significantly less water, which helps them be good stewards of water and get by with less when regulations or environmental conditions mandate that. Dispatch also makes fertilizers more efficient and more available in the root zone, so superintendents can get the most out of what they spend money on. In this day of tight budgets these two tools can really help.

As for the future of wetting agents, he quips, “Ah, the $64,000 question. Water will continue to grow as an issue. Managing the quantity and quality will be an increasing area of focus for all people growing plants, whether it is superintendents at a golf course or farmers growing food. Products that work better and address issues beyond just soil water repellency will be developed to address the growing issues that will develop as water is more scrutinized.”

Says Dave Mitchell, owner of Mitchell Products in Millville, N.J., which developed and markets TriCure, “We offer several soil wetting agent products but our signature soil surfactant is TriCure AD, which is used extensively throughout the U.S. and overseas.”
The product, he says, is designed to work with all soil types and organic surfaces, making it “unique compared to other products that are more limited in use and scope. It is also designed to work effectively at very low rates, often only half as much required compared to competitor’s rates, which adds flexibility and significant cost savings, and to work and penetrate throughout the depths of a soil root zone acting as both penetrant and soil treatment. The use of this particular product eliminates the need for superintendents to carry multiple wetting agents, each for specific use.”

He says of the market for wetting agents in the next five to 10 years, “It’s hard to see that far into the future but I don’t believe we’ll see a trend toward combining products with different usages as some companies have moved to. Course managers want flexibility, results, and cost effectiveness; combining products with different uses normally reduces all three of these concerns. I also worry about companies that promise benefits from their products that are unrealistic and not scientifically sound in attempt to separate their products in the market.”

Jim Richardson knows what he would like to see.

“A wetting agent that last longer without holding too much water and that is not too expansive would be ideal but is probably only found in fantasy land. Combining the properties of different types would be the ticket.”

A fantasy?

Maybe not, Jim. Stay tuned. Researchers and wetting agent manufacturers are trying to make fantasies a reality.

John Torsiello is a Torington, Conn.-based freelance writer.

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