Superintendents are looking at less traditional products to help them irrigate more efficiently.

Scott May just returned from a trip to drought-stricken California, specifically the central part of the state, where potable water is no longer regarded as a commodity. May, the inventor of Turf Screen, visited the state, where Gov. Jerry Brown recently introduced a mandate to cut urban water use by 25 percent, to tout the water-saving benefits of his product to various golf course superintendents.

“I received a very positive reception,” May says.

That’s no surprise considering superintendents throughout California are looking for any possible leg up on the unprecedented water crisis so they can become more efficient irrigators.

California isn’t the only U.S. state in a drought. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, about half the country is in a drought. But that’s not all. The price of potable water is going up and up, and isn’t coming down. So is the cost of electricity, which golf courses use plenty of to pump water to irrigate their courses.

While irrigation system manufacturers are working and have made their equipment more efficient, superintendents are beginning to look at other products to help them save water on the course.

Enter Turf Screen, which May invented in 2006 while he was a superintendent to improve turf quality and health by filtering ultraviolet and solar radiation and shielding plants from stress, even in extreme heat. He brought it to market in 2010. May quit his job as a superintendent and became president and CEO of his company, Erdenheim, Pennsylvania-based Turf Max LLC, with Turf Screen as the flagship product. He has since discovered through research that Turf Screen has water-saving capabilities.

Turf Screen improves the turf’s heat tolerance by reflecting 76 to 90 percent of harmful ultra-violet (UV) radiation to reduce sunburn. It also reflects heat-producing IR radiation, keeping the plant 7 to 12 degrees Fahrenheit cooler, which can improve water use, among other things.

“It’s the simple fact that UV light rays from the sun are damaging to a plant’s ability to photosynthesize,” May explains. “If you can make photosynthesis work more efficiently, you’re going to have a plant that requires less water. It’s that simple.”

Turf Screen isn’t the only product that superintendents are considering to save water. There are plenty of them in the marketplace, and you can bet more are on the way. Also, more superintendents than ever before are using surfactants and wetting agents to achieve irrigation efficiency.

Technology rules

“We’ve gotten so used to technology changing, whether it’s the latest iPhone or computer,” says Jim Spindler, the certified professional agronomist for Ocala, Florida-based Ecologel Solutions. “Things are changing so rapidly. I think people are now aware that technology changes in all fields, including turf management.”

That includes water management, Spindler adds. And superintendents are realizing modern technology can help them in new ways.

“There’s a whole host of technologies that aid in managing and conserving water,” Spindler says. “I view it as a holistic-type program where it all goes together in the proper management of water in turf.”

Ecologel offers Hydretain, which the company says can reduce watering by up to 50 percent. Available as a liquid and granular, Hydretain manages root zone moisture.

Hydretain isn’t a new product – it came to the U.S. from Australia in 1991 – but it’s fairly new to the golf industry. Early on, Spindler says, the product wasn’t well-received because it wasn’t understood. But with positive university research behind it, Hydretain has caught on the last five years, Spindler says.

It’s no coincidence that its popularity has increased along with the price of water and the decrease of its availability in some regions. Water-use regulations also have contributed to its increased use.

“Anything superintendents can do to better manage water gives them a better product,” Spindler says.

Hydretain often is mistakenly placed in two categories – as a surfactant/wetting agent or a super-absorbent polymer, Spindler says.

“We go through great pains to say it’s neither,” he adds.

A Hydretain molecule can attract, hold and then transfer water molecules into plant roots. One end of the Hydretain molecule anchors itself to soil particles and root hairs coating their surface, according to the company. The other end is available to “grab” free water molecules from humid air circulating in the soil, applied waterings and rainfall.

Once Hydretain has “grabbed” a water molecule, it releases it into the plant’s root through osmosis, preventing it from being lost to evaporation or leaching.

Spindler says the product functions much like a cold drink at room temperature when it condenses water.

“That imagery can help people understand how it’s different from a wetting agent,” he adds.

In addition to the cost and availability of water, superintendents are concerned about the cost of moving it, Spindler says. He notes that a Texas superintendent told him that the money he saves on electricity from pumping the water every month pays for the product.

“Everyone is being forced into being more economically efficient,” Spindler says. “Certainly, the cost of moving water and the cost of water itself will be economic issues that are affecting people.”

Earlier this year, Fairfield, Iowa-based Soil Technologies Corp. introduced Bio-Mega, a formula of beneficial microbials that are known to improve turf rooting, nutrient uptake and plant health, in addition to conserving water.

“Our strategy was to provide as much technology as possible in one comprehensive solution,” Nichols says. “Our approach is (that), the more technology we can deliver in a comprehensive formulation, the better the economics of making just one application versus multiple applications,” he says.

Bio-Mega contains several modes of action through several forms of microbials, Nichols explains. One of those microbials is mycorrhiza, which helps root growth. Then roots can seek water from a larger space, Nichols explains.

“That could mean roots that are 6 inches long compared with 3 inches,” he adds.

The seaweed extract in Bio-Mega allows turf to offset stress and survive in a low-moisture environment, Nichols adds.

Even though the product was just introduced a few months ago, Nichols says superintendents are interested in what it offers.

“When the cost of water gets to the point where it interferes with their ability to provide water to the turf to the degree that they would like to, then they start looking at other things [to help them],” he says.

Nichols believes the demand among superintendents is growing for versatile products.

“It’s a combination of a bunch of issues, including moisture management,” he adds.

Don Spier, vice president of turf and ornamentals for Waukegan, Illinois-based Precision Laboratories, says more superintendents are using surfactants, but in different ways.

“I think we’d be hard-pressed to find a golf course not using a soil surfactant somewhere,” Spier says.

There also are more schools of thought into how superintendents are using surfactants, he notes.

Some superintendents use penetrant or infiltration surfactants, and that’s the only type of surfactant they use.

“They’re trying to move water through thatch,” Spier explains.

There’s another group of superintendents who use “long-term surfactants” as the backbone of their programs.

“They have the ability to maintain diametric water content over time,” Spier adds.

More than half the U.S. is in some stage of drought, which means golf courses need to make the best of their water use.PHOTO BY SKODONNELL/SIGNATURE/ISTOCK 

But what Precision Laboratories wants superintendents to understand is that both types of surfactants have their place in water management programs because superintendents don’t know what’s coming down the pike as far as weather trends.

“[Superintendents should] be flexible with what they’re using so they can decide what products fit, based on the conditions that they’re faced with at the time,” Spier advises.

The ROI factor

No doubt that third parties, from university research to superintendents themselves, are spurring the use of these products. Superintendents also are studying their return on investment with the products, which could involve everything from water to healthy turf to labor.

“All of that translates into money,” Spindler says.

There’s a perception that some surfactants are expensive, which isn’t necessarily true, Spier agrees.

But the cost depends on where superintendents are using surfactants on their courses.

“If the focus is on the high-value parts of the course – the greens – then I don’t think there are many superintendents who will say they don’t have money in the budget for surfactants,” Spier says.

The cost conversation usually surrounds surfactant use on larger areas, such as fairways, he notes. There, superintendents tend to take a targeted approach – applying a less-expensive penetrant on occasion in accordance to weather conditions, Spier says.

“But the higher-budget clubs are on full-bore water management programs – greens, tees and fairways,” Spier says.

Conventional wisdom says the industry will see more of these products simply because the weather will dictate it.

“There’s absolutely a warming trend,” May says, pointing to ozone depletion as a cause.

Says Spindler, “Mother Nature is forcing people to rethink how they manage water and look for new solutions.”