There has been much discussion in recent years about the benefits of applying fertilizer in the fall, and many golf course superintendents are looking for reasons to try it. Naturally, such a big shift in traditional cultural practices is bound to come with questions.
Fall-applied fertilizing - or late-season fertilization - involves applying a controlled-release fertilizer in the cooler months after you've stopped mowing and your golf season is over. However, that description covers a huge window of time and temperature differences, depending on what part of the country you're in.
Some superintendents apply late-season fertilizer while the turf is still growing, others wait until the grass is dormant. There are agronomic pros and cons to both practices, but the one constant is the key benefit of time savings. Applying fertilizer in the off-season simply frees up a lot of valuable hours in the spring.
Ongoing research at several major universities is studying the measurable advantages of fall fertilization, and a growing body of real-world evidence supports the belief that it's a highly beneficial option for most superintendents in cool climates.
Here are the top 10 reasons why fall fertilizing is a great idea:
1 You save time in the spring
Even if the list stopped here, it's worth it. Superintendents and other turf managers are always pressed for time in the spring, so taking care of your fertilizing chores in advance makes a huge difference later.
2 Workers can be more productive in the spring
As a result of those time savings gained from fall fertilizing, you and your crews can accomplish more of the other tasks that demand your attention every year. You get your course ready faster, and your golfers are happy sooner.
3 Nutrients are in place when turf needs them
A fall application supports the critical timing for fertilizing. It means the nutrients will already be available in the soil as soon as the grass comes out of dormancy next spring, when roots need feeding the most.
4 Coated fertilizers won't release in the winter.
Some superintendents worry that fall application will cause the fertilizer to be lost to snow melt or winter rains. That's not an issue with coated, controlled-release fertilizers in cold weather. The high-tech polymer coating on the granules activates only by temperature, not moisture. The fertilizer just sits in the thatch layer waiting for spring temperatures to rise, with virtually no chance of releasing nutrients over the winter.
5 No risk of overfertilizing
You don't want your grass to be too lush heading into winter. That was a legitimate concern with fall-applied soluble fertilizers, but not the coated ones because they shut down the nitrogen release in cold temperatures.
6 Weather is less of a factor
In addition to not being affected by winter rain or snow, controlled-release fertilizers applied in the fall give you another weather-related bonus: A very wet, muddy spring might prevent you from getting your equipment onto the course and cause you to miss the most timely application opportunities. But when your fall-applied fertilizer is already in the soil, that's not an issue.
7 Fertilizer distribution can be optimized
In the spring, it's likely that fertilizer applicators are in a hurry because there's other work to be done. That can result in less-than-ideal coverage. With a fall or winter application, you can slow down and work more deliberately, minimizing the problem of skips or overlaps.
8 Damage from mowers is eliminated
Even though the polymer coating of controlled-release fertilizer is very durable, it can't hold up to a sharp mower blade. When you fertilize in spring and then start grooming your course, there's always a chance your mowers can cut open some fertilizer granules and waste the nutrients. A fall application gives the fertilizer more time to work its way down to the soil and remove that risk.
9 Summer fertilizing can be eliminated
Most fall-applied fertilizers are coated, controlled-release products. They deliver nutrients to the soil gradually and consistently over an extended period of time, even for as long as six months after activating. With those products, a single application may effectively feed a golf course for an entire season.
10 Green, healthy turf is easier to get
That's the key. You want to produce the best and most playable course conditions possible, and fall fertilizing can help, whether by giving you more time in the spring, promoting healthier grass or maximizing your workers' performance.
A program like this is just a perfect fit for highly maintained turf. When you add up the benefits, it's hard to see any reason why a conscientious superintendent wouldn't consider a fall application.
Raley is an agronomist for turfgrass and ornamentals at Agrium Advanced Technologies.