How do you make eco-budget work enticing? Because it isn’t. It takes planning, common sense and grit to help the environment and your course, but it’s not as daunting as it seems. Plus, intrinsic bonus, the world — and your boss — will thank you.
Tim Hiers, director of golf course operations, works at an exclusive property in Florida with more than 17,000 acres dedicated to the care and conservation of endangered and threatened species. Think exotic okapi, bongos and dama gazelles. Hiers estimates that since 1970 the average maintenance budget for most golf courses has gone up by about 800 percent. “Is there anybody smart enough to reduce their budget, without compromising quality, without reducing acreage of turf?” Hiers asks. Unlikely. So, Step 1 is to reduce maintained acreage.
Located in downtown Columbia, Missouri, by Faurot Field on Stadium Drive, Isaac Breuer, superintendent for the A. L. Gustin Golf Course at the University of Missouri, agrees. “We are easily saving $300 to $400 per acre per year in not mowing,” he says. “That’s mowing once a week, in the Transition Zone, April to November, factoring an hourly wage and fuel.” The amount saved could increase if you include wear-and-tear on machines, watering, and the elimination of fertilizer or herbicide applications. Multiply that by a few acres and a few years and those savings become significant. A. L. Gustin was the first university course to be fully certified by Audubon International in 1997 and it has been ever since, with Breuer at the helm.
Pollinator plots are one way to reduce maintained acreage and to add to the aesthetic and carrying capacity of a property. “I think there is room for a pollinator plot on every course in America,” Breuer says. They don’t need much area and directly benefit birds, bees and butterflies, with seed costs for half an acre approximately $150. At A.L. Gustin, 20 to 25 native species are planted in each of five plots, including purple coneflowers, foxglove beardtongue, wild bergamot, butterfly milkweed and black-eyed susans. They are utterly gorgeous.
“If your new plantings affect less than one out of 100 shots, you’re OK,” Hiers says. “But they have to pass the aesthetic test, the functional test and the playability test. Native plants are not a panacea and most people fail physically or psychologically when they try to naturalize.”
You have to pick the right plants at the right size, density and time of year, irrigate properly, and keep the weeds out. You have to be patient, too. Maturation takes three years.
Financing excellent environmental practices is a long-term investment and staff and owner support are important. Breuer’s enthusiastic assistants, Nick Gilbert and Eric Acton, and the head pro, Jim Knoesel, all work together. “We talk through ideas,” Breuer says. “This is what we are trying to do, will it work, and these are the costs. They have been 100 percent on board with everything.” Knoesel helped with the 26 original bluebird houses on the 18-hole property, which also has four beehives that produce honey to be sold in the pro shop (with profits reinvested nto maintaining healthy beehives). To date, more than 3,000 bluebirds have been fledged in 25-plus years.
Environmental savings grow when your staff truly knows the course. The greens are Cohansey creeping bentgrass and the rough is a tall fescue. The tees and fairways were switched from fescue to zoysiagrass. “It can be taken to the edge,” Breuer says, “and our fairways are known for being firm and fast. Players appreciate that long roll.”
Spraying on a curative instead of a preventative basis is another potential way to help the environment in the right situation. If you take this approach, you must pay close attention to conditions.
“We know if we’re going to get dollar spot, it’s going to show up at this place, on this marker green,” Breuer says. When the staff see that, they can take care of it. Various models help to save a few applications each year and that adds up in supply costs and labor. “We watch the weather to stay lean on fertilizer,” Breuer says, “and that helps, too.”
An observant staff saves money. “We talk about the environment all the time and not esoterically,” Hiers says. “When you ask someone to do a job, tell them why we are doing it so everyone feels a part of what we are doing.” Know your people, know your course and help your people know your course. Invest in the right people, retain them and when you don’t know something, find an expert. Mistakes are costly.
Irrigation is a head-spinning topic when it comes to ways to save. Moisture meters, preferably in-ground, help take the guess work out of watering. Hand watering can often be more efficient. “A lot of sprinkler heads can be dug up and capped,” Breuer says. That saves money every time you turn on the system.
A prescription irrigation system will initially cost more, “but save money and resources in the long run,” Hiers says. Self-audit your irrigation system every year and get a professional audit done every three to four years. Water costs compound quickly. Check every head, constantly service your pump station, and if possible, consider premium efficient motors.
“Ideally, the whole course can be watered in five hours or less,” says Hiers, which makes it easier to use off peak rates. “Work your coverage from the perimeter in instead of the opposite. Think about a lower PSI system, which pulls fewer amps and creates heavier water droplets, so you lose less to misting. Heads distributing water with the right pressure at the correct angle help the environment and your budget.
Safe equipment for protecting the people, wildlife and land at your property shows you care and is definitively less expensive than lawsuits. Don’t overlook the upkeep of your maintenance facility, where proper storage of chemicals is non-negotiable. Without a secure maintenance facility, your entire operation is at risk. Accident prevention saves money.
Electric equipment can be more expensive but offers potential. If your course can be maintained earlier or more easily with quieter machines, that opens up your tee sheet and saves labor hours. Now you have cut your fuel budget, upped your efficiency, done something positive for the environment — and hydraulic leaks are impossible.
Technology can help you manage your property in a more environmentally friendly way, but if you don’t master it, you’re leaving money on the shelf. A drone that provides information you can’t get by walking the course is a great example. “Is the technology going to help you use your resources more efficiently?” Hiers says. “Make your operation safer? Improve the condition of the course? Help your employees?” Research your purchases so dollars saved can be used for environmental extras.
“I’m shocked at the number of courses that don’t have covered booms on their spray vehicles,” Hiers says. “The cover knocks the drift down by about 90 percent and provides a better distribution pattern.” Booms cost about $10,000 per machine but if you lease or buy new machines you can still use them. Take care of them and they’ll work for 10 to 15 years. Use them and you ensure that applications are staying where they should while not interfering with birds, bees, wildlife and habitats.
“Smart people can be very emotional about trees,” Hiers says. But if they’re affecting the environmental health of your course, address them. There can be problems with roots, shade, air circulation and competition with turf for nutrients and water. Tree maintenance is cost effective and environmentally sound.
To do your best for the environment, “visit courses, continuously communicate with superintendents about their best ideas, go to pertinent seminars, and just don’t stop,” Hiers says.
“People have a more favorable impression of golf courses if they know you’re doing something for the environment,” adds Breuer, who gives tours, and lets children make and throw seed balls to create pollinator plots.
Encouraging everyone to be environmentally considerate might even make long-term eco-budget work enticing.
Lee Carr is a Northeast Ohio-based writer and frequent Golf Course Industry contributor.