Dave Davies has garnered a solid reputation for his environmental prowess. So it was no surprise that Davies, the certified golf course superintendent at TPC Stonebrae Country Club in Hayward, California, received one of three national Environmental Leaders in Golf Awards issued by the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America at the Golf Industry Show earlier this year.
But Davies’ goal to preserve the environment at Stonebrae doesn’t mean he shuns the use of conventional and synthetic pesticides and fertilizer at the 18-hole course, which opened in 2009. Davies realizes that such products can make environmental and economic sense, and be used in a socially responsible manner as part of his operation.
“It’s about balancing thresholds,” Davies says. “We are constantly willing to look at new technologies, new scheduling, new application rates and new combinations of products.”
Chris Flick, director of grounds operations at Cog Hill Golf & Country Club in Lemont, Illinois, also considers himself an environmentally minded superintendent. But Flick realizes he would be foolish to ban synthetic products from his agronomic program at the public facility, which features four golf courses.
“Not using any synthetic pesticide or fertilizer is not sustainable,” says Flick, who is in his third season at Cog Hill. “If you use them responsibly, they shouldn’t have any impact [on the environment].”
At Leavenworth Golf Club, an 18-hole semi-private track in Leavenworth, Washington, Golf Course Superintendent Ivan Gibbs wants to do his part to preserve the course’s picturesque setting and bustling ecosystem. But like Davies and Flick, Gibbs also has no problem using synthetic products to maintain the 80 acres of turf.
“I believe synthetic products have a place in a sustainable operation,” he says.
While Davies, Flick and Gibbs are environmentally minded superintendents, they are also sustainability minded. Sustainability – defined as ensuring profitable businesses while making decisions in the best interest of the environment and the community – is not about not using synthetic products in golf course maintenance. It’s about using the products discreetly and cautiously. From an economic standpoint, Davies, Flick and Gibbs realize where their courses would be without the use of synthetic products: in trouble because they would not be able to achieve playable golf courses and satisfy golfers with desirable conditions.
“It’s about doing the right thing for the right reasons,” Davies says.
Doing their homework
Preserving the environment was a focal point when Stonebrae was built in 2007. Davies is in charge of maintaining 90 acres of turf, which is bordered by naturalized buffers vegetated with native grasses to reduce surface runoff and capture any contaminants before they reach wetlands. The course is recognized as a Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary for its enhancement and effective management of natural resources.
Davies, who has a bachelor’s degree in business administration and a knack for math, is putting that knowledge to work at Stonebrae. He uses numbers and equations to develop a threshold for pest control and fertilization. For pest control, Davies considers a number of factors, including a pesticide’s cost per acre, its length of control, its plant health capabilities, its re-entry period, resistance management and application rate related to active ingredient.
“Math and science are the basis for everything,” he says.
For instance, if the goal is to achieve 90 percent turf quality with 140 percent of agronomic resources, including pesticides and fertilizer, then the turf quality goal may be too high, Davies says.
“So you need to evaluate different materials and different application rates along with cultural practices to bring that agronomic resource number down closer to 100 percent,” he adds.
If it makes environmental and economic sense, according to Davies’ analytics, he would pay more for a pesticide knowing he would get a return on the investment.
“The cost of doing business is not always just the cost of the material you are buying,” he says.
At Cog Hill, Flick must plan strategically for each course to be sprayed for dollar spot, the turf’s biggest disease threat, so he and the crew can stay in front of golfers and not cause any delays. But when Flick began as superintendent at Cog Hill two years ago, he says he felt like he and the crew were spraying all the time on the four courses. But things changed when Flick incorporated a new fungicide into the rotation that offered up to 28 days of control for dollar spot. Even though the fungicide cost more, using it made economic sense for its length of control. It meant that Flick could skip a spray – and all the time and labor that comes with the maintenance chore.
“I’m willing to spend the extra money to get a quality product that can be trusted,” Flick says.
Gibbs worked at Leavenworth for eight seasons as the assistant superintendent before being named superintendent in 2012. He knows the property well and the problem areas for pests and poor fertility, which allows him to make sound decisions for treatment. Gibbs also pays close attention to the course’s microenvironment, which has enabled him to get a good grasp on when disease might break out.
“I like to look at the environmental factors that go into disease development so I’m not just spraying every two weeks because there might be a chance for disease,” he says.
Anthracnose is the course’s top disease threat. Gibbs aims to control it through fertility and cultural practices to keep turf from stressing. But if there are even the smallest signs of disease, Gibbs will make a fungicide application.
“I’m not going to play around with it,” Gibbs says, noting that he is also apt to spray for disease when purposely stressing turf through aerification, verticutting and other cultural practices.
“I’m not opposed to spraying a preventive application at all,” he says. “I have to keep my job, right?”
Davies, Flick and Gibbs have also implemented blueprints for fertilization. Davies utilizes foliar fertilization on greens, tees and fairways. The spoon-feeding process allows him to manage growth more effectively.
“We generally have the spray rig on greens at least one time per week but sometimes two or three times depending on time of the year and the specific goal we are working toward,” Davies says. “Our regular fairway applications are generally once every three weeks. We use a combination of synthetic and organic products, leaning whenever possible to more organic materials.”
Four crew members use walk spreaders to fertilize Stonebrae’s 35 acres of rough with a slow-release synthetic granular fertilizer twice a year.
“We have found a product that allows us to accurately forecast future applications based on historical data pertaining to rates and weather,” Davies says. “We also know that we can minimize product waste by our method of application. Ultimately, this allows me to justify a potentially more expensive material by balancing the overall efficiencies.”
At Leavenworth, Gibbs fertilizes fairways once a year in the spring with a nitrogen-heavy slow-release product at 1 pound per 1,000 square feet that lasts up to 120 days. He also embraces fertility for weed control.
“If there are weeds, it’s because the grass plant can’t outcompete them,” Gibbs says. “So the focus is on getting the grass plant healthier than the weeds and doing it with soil chemistry.”
Flick says some synthetic fertilizers “get a bad rap” environmentally, but he believes they can be used responsibly. He often relies on soil and tissue sampling on areas of the course to discover what the turf needs.
“So we are not wasting a fertilizer application and not guessing what the plant needs,” he says. “We do our due diligence to figure out exactly what the plant needs to not give it any more or any less.”
Sustainability: What It Is, What It Isn’t
- Sustainability isn’t an environmental movement begun by a left-leaning political group.
- Sustainability isn’t about breaking your golf course’s maintenance budget.
- Sustainability is not about using strictly organic products, but such products can definitely have their place in sustainable programs.
- Sustainability is about using synthetic pesticides and fertilizer.
- Sustainability is about the environment — it’s also about the economics of your course and your image in the community.
- Sustainability is for high-budget courses as much as it is for low-budget courses.
- Sustainability will mean different things to different golf courses.
Learning and evaluating
Davies believes synthetic pesticide and fertilizer manufacturers know the challenges that superintendents face from a sustainability standpoint, including regulatory pressures, and have reacted with new technology that is more environmentally friendly and makes economic sense.
“The manufacturers are finding new technologies that allow us to do the things we need to do and to be more responsible,” he adds.
Flick likes that many pesticides feature softer chemistries with less active ingredients.
“We used to load up a pickup truck with fungicide for fairway sprays; now we load up a John Deere Gator,” he says. “That tells you how much material we are exposing to the environment.”
Talk among superintendents is how to reduce inputs, including pesticides and fertilizer. Flick knows manufacturers are listening and reacting.
“Everybody in this industry is being asked to do more with less,” he adds.
Flick has turned Cog Hill’s Course No. 1 into a science project of sorts, where he is studying the Environmental Impact Quotient (EIQ) of certain fungicides. He wants to discover what fungicides work best and last the longest; fungicides that can stand alone and don’t need to be tank mixed with another chemistry; and fungicides that have a low EIQ value (the higher the value, the more sustainable the fungicide). Flick is also using organics such as seaweed extracts and phosphites to improve plant health.
He believes sustainable synthetic products will have a place, but he wants to be prepared to stay ahead of potential regulations.
“I want to be ahead of the curve. Everybody knows that [more regulations] are coming. It’s only a matter of time,” Flick says.