Getting there first

Features - Turf Management

Global Soil Survey for Sustainable Turf guides superintendents to reduce nutrient inputs.

August 5, 2014

The routine of a superintendent in a scrutinized part of Massachusetts involves monitoring volatile political situations.

Environmental bills are passed. Measures are enacted. Somebody leaves office and debates involving new initiatives begin.

Matt Crowther, the superintendent at Mink Meadows Golf Club in Martha’s Vineyard, understands the political momentum policy makers can generate by limiting the dispersal of nutrients found in products used on golf courses. Whether the initiatives have scientific legitimacy or not, they represent the conundrum of maintaining a golf course in a place where the President often visits.

“It’s as much of a feel-good thing as it is the reality of changing anything,” Crowther says.

The frequent bickering and enacting has further sparked Crowther’s interest in altering cultural practices. Proactive tinkering guided Crowther to the Global Soil Survey for Sustainable Turf. The survey, developed by PACE Turf and Asian Turfgrass Center, is designed to establish reduced nutrient recommendations for golf course turf.

Google Hangout sessions led by Dr. John Kaminski of Penn State directed Crowther to Dr. Larry Stowell, one of PACE’s co-founders. Stowell, who has interpreted data with PACE co-founder Dr. Wendy Gelertner and Dr. Micah Woods of the ATC, mentioned the Global Soil Survey during one of the sessions.

“It only made sense to have it done, be part of it, investigate it, try to be in it and be ready for the next phase of regulations coming our way,” Crowther says.

The survey requests three turfgrass samples from good performing areas of the course. Crowther submitted a green, fairway and tee sample. He calls his cultural approaches “fairly organic,” but he has been forced to rewrite his annual programs multiple times because of proposed changes in local and state regulations. Crowther has his course’s survey results for this year, and he says he will examine them before constructing his 2015 maintenance program.

Mink Meadows features 45 acres of irrigated turf. Only 3 ½ acres of the golf course are being conventionally maintained with fertilizer and pesticides, according to Crowther.

Fertilizer restrictions haven’t reached the Oregon woods. But Akoni Ganir, superintendent at Tokatee Golf Club in Blue River, Ore., opted to participate in the survey because of his personal relationship with Woods and respect for PACE’s work. “It’s a very logical approach,” he says.

Ganir has implemented Minimum Levels of Sustainable Nutrition (MLSN) recommendations into Tokatee’s 2014 program. Stowell says participants who follow MLSN guidelines are trimming rates of nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus usage without reducing turf quality.

Because he’s only in his second year at Tokatee, Ganir says it’s difficult to quantify the benefits of reduced nutrient usage. But he’s a proponent of the project’s principles. “I feel like I’m not applying anything to the grass that’s unnecessary,” he says. “I feel as a turf manager there is a purpose to all of my applications. I’m not putting ‘X’ or ‘Y’ product out there because someone said, ‘Try this because this is great.’ I know why I am putting everything down and for what reason.”

Tokatee, located between Eugene and Bend, experiences four distinct seasons. Ganir has applied MLSN guidelines on Tokatee’s greens and some fairway and tee sections. Water usage represents the biggest political issue facing golf courses in Oregon, although Tokatee averages between 80 and 90 inches of rainfall by year.

“Whether we are under any pressure to reduce inputs or not, it’s still a good idea to investigate and look into ways to reduce inputs, not only for political reasons, but financially,” Ganir says. “For our own business and our own golf course at Tokatee, if we are reducing inputs and putting less out and maintaining a quality product, then that gives us a chance to use that money in other areas to improve the golf course.”

The Global Soil Survey launched in 2013 and a database of more than 17,000 soil samples has been established. It costs $250 to participate in the project, with superintendents receiving a report predicting nutrient volumes to maintain healthy turf.

Goals of the self-funded project include collecting as much data as possible in developing MLSN guidelines and to stimulate discussion about the guidelines and interest in fertilizer management. PACE Turf and ATC manage the project and samples are analyzed by Brookside Laboratories. “It’s really a common sense approach,” Stowell says. “We are just trying to develop some tools to make it easier for turfgrass managers to make the applications at the right rates they need to make.”

Following the guidelines will also help superintendents facing political pressure to change their practices, Stowell says.

“One of the things that inspires innovation – and you see this in the chemical industry – is regulation,” he says. “Regulations are starting to require that they make some of these changes. We would of course like to see all of these changes be adopted voluntarily, but it’s pretty hard to make changes without some sort of motivation.

“There’s always some risk involved when you make some change in your management practice no matter how simple that change may be. There’s always a chance something could go wrong. A lot of inspiration for these type of programs and new type of guidelines that are lower allow turf managers to have confidence that if they make these changes, they will have good turf, and make regulatory gains and meet environmental requirements.”