Surfactants have been a game-changing product. and the game is far from over

More golf course superintendents are using soil surfactants these days than people are watching “Dancing With the Stars,” which is saying a lot.

Some reports say the number of superintendents using them is more than 90 percent. Yes, surfactants have been a game-changing product.And the game is far from over.

Representatives from surfactant companies believe the superintendents using surfactants will only use more of them in the future.

Mike Cavanaugh, executive vice president and co-owner of Collierville, Tennessee.-based Floratine Products Group, believes surfactant use will rise in the next decade, especially as water value increases.

“The costs associated with water have been on the rise and will continue to rise, and the need to manage this critical resource is paramount,” Cavanaugh says. “If we want to continue to grow plants, we had better get a firm grasp on how to manage our water.”

Andy Moore, director of sales for Paulsboro, New Jersey-based Aquatrols, agrees, noting that water prices will vary from region to region depending on availability.

“Superintendents who are paying more for water will see a major economic benefit to incorporating a quality soil surfactant into their maintenance programs,” Moore notes. “They will continue to work hard to get the most out of each budgeted dollar. We know surfactants can help them do that.”

Don Spier, vice president of the professional turf business for Waukegan, Illinois-based Precision Laboratories, says surfactant use will continue to grow in areas where water availability is limited.

Not only is water a precious resource, but increasing future regulations on fertilizer and pesticide use will make surfactant use even more important to help achieve plant health, says Ben Poole, president of Ambler, Pennsylvania-based Montco Products. Surfactants improve pesticide and fertilizer movement in the soil.

Colleen Tocci, marketing manager for Prescott, Arizona-based Engage Agro USA, says there will be increased use of surfactants that promote efficiency and are also cost-effective.

“It’s important to review data and field use to determine which products perform the best and address the water-movement issue you are trying to resolve,” Tocci adds. “While we all need to do our best to save water, superintendents still have budgets to comply with.”

Gordon Kauffman III, argronomist and technical representative for Albion, Idaho-based Grigg Brothers, says superintendents will have to rely more on several technologies, from drought-resistant turfgrass varieties to surfactants, to irrigate efficiently in the future.

“Surfactants will ensure that plants most efficiently acquire the inevitably lower volumes of applied water,” Kauffman adds.

Even though most superintendents use surfactants in their maintenance programs and will use more of them in the future, there’s some debate whether they understand the chemistries and modes of action of surfactants, which is crucial to using them correctly.

The key is to understand a surfactant’s mode of action and the purpose for selecting which one to use, Cavanaugh stresses.

“You can hold water or you can move water, and for superintendents the real challenge is knowing when either of those needs to happen to best manage what it is a superintendent is seeking to accomplish,” he adds.

Cavanaugh says there’s always room for continued education in surfactant use.

“Somebody smarter than me once said, ‘Learning never exhausts the mind,’ ” he adds. “There are a lot of products out there, including some good choices and some not-so-good choices.”

While superintendents need to understand the differences that exist among surfactants, knowing the chemistry is not as important as understanding a surfactant’s function, Spier says.

“At Precision, we classify surfactants into two categories: one, infiltration surfactants that treat irrigation water and improve the penetration and spread of water in the root zone; and two, hydration surfactants that treat the soil and are capable of sustaining volumetric water content over time,” he says.

After attending many trade shows and talking with hundreds of superintendents, Poole is convinced that superintendents need more education about surfactants.

“[Many] superintendents have been misled by company claims pertaining to speed of wetting, phytotoxicity and especially the importance of chemistry,” he says.

Because the surfactant market is “flooded” with products, Tocci says she’s a firm believer in continued education, be it formal or informal.

“Many companies have multiple products in their lines, and while product differentiation may be clear to the manufacturer, it can still be confusing to the end users,” she says.

Moore agrees.

“The countless products and competing claims in today’s market can create confusion for end users,” he says. “We try to present information in an unbiased manner to help superintendents make the best purchasing decisions for their individual properties.”

Kauffman agrees that it’s more important that superintendents are taught practical knowledge about product mode of action.

“For example, I’d suggest we focus on reinforcing basic agronomic principles related to why and in what situations, both site-specific and environmental factors, superintendents benefit from a surfactant program,” he says. “For example, [superintendents need to] learn when to back off their irrigation schedule, promote greater water-holding capacity, move water through the soil profile, and how to most effectively maintain specific soils/root zones consistently close to field capacity.”

What ‘Drives’ Your Soil Surfactant Choice?

By Colleen Tocci

In the world of automobiles, there are those who drive the $275,000 Mercedes Benz and those who drive the $13,000 Chevy. Then, there are those who drive a variety of cars valued somewhere in between. Similarly, in the world of soil surfactants, there are some who use the $100-a-gallon product, and others who use the $30-a-gallon product – and those who use a multitude of soil surfactants priced somewhere in between.

While there are far more brands of cars than surfactants on the market, it’s easy to see the analogy. Many drivers know exactly why they chose the make and model of the car they own – they know the engine, mileage and mechanics. Similarly, most golf course superintendents know exactly why they choose a particular surfactant – they know the chemistry, the features and performance they will get.

For years, various surfactant chemistries including block co-polymer, reverse block, methyl-capped block, and recently a tri – block/glucoether blend, have been available to superintendents. Each class of chemistry has a variety of benefits, treats localized dry spot, enhances irrigation efficiency, etc., but is defined mostly by its molecular structure and composition.

Surfactants come with the “standard package”… they will reduce the surface tension of water. Superintendents should then ask questions and explore the other options available. Do you want a greens, tees or fairway product? Are you looking to save water or prevent or treat water-repellency issues on your course? Do you prefer a liquid, granular or pellet formulation?

Regardless of what drove your past purchase decision, it’s a good idea to revisit the surfactants currently available. Going back to our automobile analogy, some of us just need a car that is reliable, efficient and gets us where we need to go. Likewise, some superintendents just need a surfactant that is reliable (controls water repellency and creates a more uniform playing surface), efficient (reduces water and energy), and gets water and what moves in that water where it needs to go (uniformly throughout the root zone).

If you need a high-performance product to do more than that, there are surfactants available – they might come with a slightly higher price – but will give you additional benefits.

Once you identify your purchasing driving factors, you can review the products and options available and pick the right “vehicle” for you.

Editor’s note: Tocci is the marketing manager for Prescott, Arizona-based Engage Agro USA, a supplier of surfactants and other golf course maintenance products.

Surfactant company representatives realize that educating superintendents is largely on them.

Cavanaugh says Floratine educates its distributors, sales consultants and customers as often as possible “on the science, agronomy and art of greenkeeping to include surfactant use.”

Says Spier, “We share this information in our marketing, on our website, at seminars, and by training our distributor sales representatives to recommend the product or products that address their customers’ needs.”

In addition to distributor training programs, participating in association meetings and talking to superintendents one on one, Moore says Aquatrols has embraced online education as a tool to educate.

“We continue to participate in webinars and digital discussions and make information available through our social media channels,” he adds.

Poole says Montco uses superintendent testimonials about their personal experiences with wetting agents to educate other superintendents.

At Engage Agro USA, the goal is to educate in a user-friendly manner.

“We want to provide information in a clear, easy-to-understand format via news articles, our literature, website, product summaries and videos,” Tocci says.