More of The Big Melt

More of The Big Melt

In this exclusive online content, Agronomist Carmen Magro, CGCS, and VP of Stevens Water Monitoring Systems, offers more insight about turf recovery and getting your course ready for spring play after this recent crazy winter.

April 14, 2014

EDITOR’S NOTE: We had so much great info we couldn’t fit it all into the April print issue. CLICK HERE to check out April’s feature: The Big Melt.

What can superintendents expect to find under all the ice and snow when it melts?
It depends on all the work they’ve done in the past year or years, the type of turf they have and how sound their general cultural practices are. If the property consists of turf that is not of high quality with regard to turfgrass performance under stress, this winter can prove to be one of the worst in many regions. For instance, Poa annua, a species that has many many varieties, generally does not tolerate ice and cold as well as Creeping bentgrass. However, there are varieties of Poa annua in nature that compete very well with the bentgrasses that generally were superior in cold stressed periods. Ironically, from a genetic backbone perspective, Poa annua turf looks fairly similar at the DNA level. However, the level of maintenance that we put upon it over the years ‘trains’ it to be a much more hardy, tougher and higher performing grass than the same turf on a property that has not employed such practices. So to answer your question, we won’t know what’s under the ice and snow until the ice and snow clears. Ironically, most ‘winter’ damage, or cold stress damage is done when the grass breaks dormancy coming out of winter, hydrates the leaves with moisture and nutrients, and they gets hit with too much stress too fast (mowing too low, aerifying to aggressively and being subjected to cold temperatures still). Many times we make it all the way through the winter only to lose the turf in one night from some erroneous practices in the spring. Don’t rush it…allow the turf to acclimate to the changing temperatures, feed it what it needs and don’t beat it up until we are out of the cold stressed periods.

What will all this excessive melting mean with regard to spring disease pressure?

Diseases are again linked to the strength of the turf in many cases. While the pathogens are always there, the turf does not always develop disease. It is like managing a see saw operation. On one side is the turf’s performance strength. The other side is the stress upon the turf. If the performance strength outcompetes the stress, no matter how high the levels go, we can maintain acceptable turf performance conditions. But when it comes to extended cold, wet periods, the disease of high likelihood includes Fusarium or variations of snow mold diseases. There are two quite different snow molds that primarily affect turfgrass on golf courses. These include Pink Snow Mold (caused by Microdochium nivale pathogenic fungi) and Gray Snow Mold (caused by Typhula incarnata and Typhula ishikariensis). The later is much more devastating to turfgrass and seems favor all turfgrass species found on golf courses fairly equally. The much more common Pink Snow Mold is not quite as devastating as far as infecting crowns and roots of turf, but it does favor the weaker Poa annua turf especially on putting greens. It’s important to note that many disease, specifically Anthracnose (caused by Colletotrichum graminicola) has been proven to be directly linked to low fertility and high stress turf conditions. So it is quite likely that with this winter’s stress, we will see similar grass types in similar regions experience different levels of stress this year. In addition, certain summer diseases such as Summer Patch (caused by Magnaporthe poae) have been shown to be controlled by applying early season fungicide applications long before we typically see the disease symptoms occur. This winter may be one of those years that sets us up for problems later in the year if we don’t head off the problems early on.

How can they get ahead of potential disease problems?
As soon as the grass can be vented or allowed to be exposed to sun and air, do it. But do not aerify the turf too soon which can actually cause some cold, dry initiated desiccation. Remember that roots are limited as we first come out of cold and ice coverage. There is much less energy mass present in the root system. If we slowly, over a period of 7-10 days of exposed sun and warmth begin to clear the greens, mow the dead plant material off and being our nutritional and IPM management program, we will allow that root mass to grow extensively and as fast as possible. Once we are getting clippings on a regular daily basis, we can then consider performing cultural practices that are necessary. I would not suggest depending on a fungicide application as my first mode of salvation after this winter. Even when we see a lot of brown and off color on the surface, the turf plant may have much energy stored within its crown, just waiting for the opportunity to develop going into the new growing season. Some fungicides can even interfere with some key cellular activity early in the year. Only in the case where there are active fungi growing and thriving would I make a fungicide application my first priority. And if I am going to make an application, I would suggest doing it with as little stress on the surface as possible (i.e. Using a spray hawk or walk behind sprayer rather than a utility machine sprayer). I would otherwise focus more on the fundamental needs of the turf…stimulate growth down through the roots, manage my soil/moisture relationships, air out the turf any way I can to get gas exchange moving well. Those will serve nearly everyone very well.

What are the tell-tale signs superintendents need to keep an eye out for?
Black colored turf is not good. That shows signs that the cells within the leaves have severely been damaged and usually occurs after the plant hydrates (coming out of dormancy) and then has stress put upon it like a cold snap through the night or too much traffic on the surface, too soon (like mowing too soon or even walking on the green while the ground is saturated and cold immediately following dormancy break). In areas where straw colored turf exists, rub away the straw turf and look at the crown. It should look whitish and firm, not brown, weak and capable of falling apart with a little finger pressure. Look also for small white root tips coming out of the grown and below it. Those are signs of life and good signs for sure. Also look for active pathogenic fungi in the way of anything colorful (white, yellowish, orange) growing on the turf tissue that may warranty a fungicide spray. Generally speaking, an IPM program that includes fungicides should kick in after we are able to mow the turf at least once or twice. This program also includes the implementation of key fertility applications at a time when the turf most definitely cannot take up what it needs from the soil, assuming the nutrients are there in the first place. Finally, note that certain nutrients simply do not move well in cold soils, but we can certainly spark key physiological stimulation in our favor with precisely applied nutrients, particularly as we are waking up the turf early in the season. This is something that many simply overlook far too often in nearly every region of the world that I visit.

What was the snow and ice cover like in the regions you cover?
I have the pleasure of visiting many countries with many golf courses performing at all levels of performance. While the US cold regions have been hit with as much snow as I can remember in a long time (Canada too), many parts of Europe where snow is a given every winter have not seen a single snowflake this year. That does not mean the diseases of the winter will not show up. We don’t always need snow even for snow molds to show up. We also certainly don’t need snow for Anthracnose and other diseases to show up as well. So while the snowfall in the US cold regions has exceeded all expectations this year and delayed the start of the growing season, other regions in the world have already seen their seasons begin earlier than usual. Ironically in both situations, the management of nutrients as we begin our growing season, and the results of nutritional and cultural practices last season may very well dictate what kind of season we have this year despite the weather stresses. For instance, in areas where the snow did not come but the season started early, if those keepers of the greens and golf course superintendents are managing fertility and IPM practices by the calendar, they are already in trouble for the remainder of the year. If you woke up early one day, did your exercise and moved around to do what you had to do, but didn’t eat because you usually don’t eat until later in the morning, you would certainly feel it. If you do that day in and day out, you will likely get sick and not perform to your best. Turf is no different. If it wakes earlier, we need to address its needs. If it wakes later but it then subjected to optimum growing conditions, things get into high gear very quickly. We have to be prepared for these situations without delay…and that is what makes one property succeed much better than another.

In regions that received excessive amount of snow and ice, what sort of damage can turf managers expect to find?
Ice damage where anoxia occurs, that is the sudden loss of oxygen in lieu of high levels of carbon dioxide, it may be very ugly. This happens often under covers or when we get ice overlaid with snow for a long time. Many think this length of time is 60 days but honestly, it can happen much sooner. I have seen this occur with some key monitoring technology we are using to understand how and when anoxia truly occurs. There is some nice work being done out of Calgary Canada at Olds College looking at this phenomenon. That work is very much in line with what I have witnessed through some monitoring tactics in properties all over the world. Generally speaking, however, I expect to see more snow mold than usual, more discolored turf than usual, more upset members than usual as their patience runs thin wanting desperately to play golf and unfortunately, more poor decisions being made than usual as supers and greenkeepers rush to move the turf along faster than it wishes to do so after this extended winter delay.

What will cause the most turf damage – excessive snow or excessive ice?
With snow, we still get some exchange of air…CO2 out of the turf system, oxygen into the turf system. However, under ice, this practice gets sealed off. Even under heavy snow which compacts at the surface and pretty much acts like ice, we get something similar. Even in cold freezing soil temps, there is still some microbial activity taking place and those microbes live around the plant tissue. As they perform their life functions, they release CO2. This CO2 continues to build up and exchange with Oxygen. However, the oxygen gets sealed off from coming in and the CO2 eventually cannot get out…whether it is a cover or just ice/snow cover. This leads to something called anoxia where all of the oxygen is gone…oxygen that even the dormant turf needs. Dormant means sleeping, not dead. So there are still key plant processes taking place that require that gas exchange. Ice limits that exchange much more than snow so the physiological stress on the turf is far greater than snow alone. At this point, it is not a disease pressure that causes the decline. It is simply a physiological occurrence that does the grass in and puts it over the edge. You cannot treat dead grass with fungicide. That will not solve the problem that caused the decline in the first place. However, grass that has been severely deteriorated from the above likely will have some turf trying to thrive and likely being hindered by some cold weather diseases.

How much damage will turf managers in traditionally warmer zones expect to see from cold, snow and ice?
Again, this depends on how well the grass has been maintained prior to this ‘new’ stress. Most warmer season environments have warm season grasses that lie very dormant in the off season…and also have a tremendous amount of energy hidden in the plant tissue beneath the surface, away from surface cold stresses. Fortunately, the cold season grasses that these properties employ to have winter playability, even if they are affected by the cold weather, they will give way to the underlying warm season grasses breaking dormancy in no time. I expect to see much more damage in cool environments than warm environments this year, but I caution even those warm season folks to not neglect the timing of the dormancy breaking, nutritional needs and IPM strategies. Again, don’t follow a calendar. Follow the turf’s life processes…it will serve you much better.

How difficult will the green up process be this spring?
While it may be delayed from cold, once it gets going, there will no stopping it. It will surely depend on how well the greenkeeper or superintendent addresses the turf’s needs as it breaks dormancy, and it will also depend on the practices put in place prior to dormancy. If the turf survived the ice/snow damage in the North, then it will green up perfectly if we allow it to transition properly. If we are delayed in the south by extended cooler temperatures, then the cool season grasses (or painted warm season turf) will hang around a little longer than usual, but be assured that once the soils begin to warm ever so slightly, the deep green turf we want will be on us quickly.

All this melting snow and ice -- not to mention spring rains -- could mean an excessive amount of moisture entering the soil profile. What are the dangers to the soil (leaching of nutrients) and turf (ideal conditions for fungi) to be aware of?
Managing soil/water and nutrient relationships is something I have dedicated much of my career to in both turfgrass management and agricultural/environmental applications. It is by far the single most important thing we can do to prepare our turf for the highest level of performance. Using the new and unique POGO Turf and Soil Insight tool from Stevens Water Monitoring Systems as well as their academically acclaimed Hydra Probe sensor has allowed me to collect millions of data points indicating the key things that need to be done to optimize turfgrass performance. Managing the excessive water that is coming from the winter thaw and likely from spring rains will be the make or break point of success for many this year. Far too often, I see excessive moisture being held in the profile from compacted organic matter layers (something very unique to turfgrass). If we have poor soils going into this past winter, we can expect more damage than those that have well drained (surface and internal) putting green rootzones and fairway conditions. It’s that simple. If the user is not managing moisture and salts together on a regular basis (remember that all nutrients are salts and should be monitored often as they have a huge impact on the availability of water to the turf…i.e. 20% moisture is not always 20% and can only be compared to like salt level conditions), he or she is setting himself or herself up for failure for sure. This winter’s stress will do a lot of folks in if they do not manage moisture and salts right out of the gate this spring, no matter where they are managing turf in the world. As an instructor, I always told my students and now my clients around the world that turfgrass management has many unknowns that only nature can dictate. However, the least we can do is manage the things we can manage and control…like moisture and nutrients in our turf system. Monitoring those is simple with today’s technology from the POGO, a portable and affordable piece of equipment that is becoming as common as a standard soil probe, and for good reason. It will prevent leaching of nutrients from the turf, allow for the most air exchange to take place, allow for the most extensive rooting to take place and simply help to setup the turf to withstand this year’s stress and future stresses yet to be encountered.

What key turf care lessons will be learned from this winter?
Learn that what we do throughout the year will have an impact on what happens when the turf is dormant. It’s that simple. The turf system’s performance level is highly dependent on what we do throughout the year, from year to year. It is why tournament courses begin to prepare for major tournaments years in advance. We can only achieve great success by learning to manage all the things that are manageable to the best of our ability…these include soil management, irrigation management and nutritional management in no particular order but of equal importance.

When was the last time you saw winter conditions similar to Winter 2013-14?
The last time I saw weather like we have seen this year was when I was a kid growing up in the Philadelphia area. Herb Stevens, the Weather Channel’s first meteorologist talks much about solar cycles and how they impact our weather. About 7 years ago I witnessed a talk of his saying that those of us that remember the winter snows of the 70’s and early 80’s will see it again after 2012. So far he has been right on and I expect we’ll see a couple of years like this before things get ‘normal’ again…whatever that may mean. One thing that is normal…we simply cannot forget that changing and unpredictable weather is the norm…so manage the things we can manage the best we can. That will prepare us best.

What was the result from that winter and what lessons were learned?
Well, that was before I was in turfgrass management…and I learned how to make a long tunnel through the snow and build my own bobsled track…something I did for the first time in a long time this year with my 10 year old. As far as turf management goes, I can only remember one year that was worse and it was a year of mainly ice damage about 12 years ago. Many people lost their turf that year and we all suffered. But since then I’ve learned how important it is to manage what we can and set ourselves up to succeed no matter what the stress. It is likely that we will see some mixed results and successes in the industry. While in many cases we may just succumb to the tremendous cold weather stress this year put upon us, some will be lucky and successful at pulling through it. At the very least, let’s learn what our limitations are this year and improve on them so we can be better prepared in the future.

Regular contributor Steve Trusty authored April's article "Big Melt" and conducted this interview.