Noel Mackenzie: How to get value for money on seeds and fertilisers

Seamus Rotherick
By Seamus Rotherick October 20, 2011 11:58

Spending on machinery is normally better planned but materials’ budgets are depleted in an inconsistent manner due to the tendency to be affected by weather and other events. A cold dry winter may limit disease outbreak and growth, so little feed or fungicide has been used. Conversely, a mild, humid winter may drive up the need for fertiliser and fungicide to maintain growth and control disease and so more of the budget will be gobbled up.

It pays to review the usage and the sectors within which budgetary spending is incurred. Breaking the budget down to items such as seed, turf, fertiliser, specialty products, fuel, machinery parts and so on is undeniably useful. This can allow comparison between this year’s budget and previous years’ budgets and in doing so links to conditions can be a useful overlay.

Now that the new summer season is appearing on the horizon the main summer orders should be placed provided a facility has a suitable storage facility. Seed and fertiliser products should store well at this time of year with the chance of frost reducing now. All materials need to be kept frost free and dry to prevent deterioration (perhaps with the exception of topdressing stockpiles – though even this is better if it is kept dry).

Seed purchases need to be carefully thought through. Naturally, the type of turf already on the greens will dictate the kind of seeding policy that may be being pursued. If greens are already creeping bent then creeping bent cultivars will be the order of the day. If they are fescue and bent then this will prompt seeding with a seedmix that reflects this agronomic composition.

For the majority of golf courses the matter of how to deal with annual meadow grass is still under-considered. Even less considered is how to manage the subject of introducing new grasses successfully into an established annual meadow grass-dominated sward. Some clubs simply do not bother, which is distressing as British golfers (and indeed all golfers) deserve better than the type of surfaces that I illustrated in the January issue. Seeding practices must be employed as part of a holistic management plan to combat the presence of annual meadow grass successfully. Regrettably there are far too many greenkeepers and clubs that accept a single overseeding of a medium or even poor quality traditional fescue / bent seed mix as an appropriate level of input to the putting surface against the annual meadow grass.

Such practices are a waste of both time and money on the whole, though perhaps better than doing nothing at all. It might be that these species are not the most appropriate for that construction type or environment. It might be that they are appropriate, but local conditions do not suit application of a mix and it is better to undertake the seeding of each species at different times of the year to get the optimum establishment results.

Seed is important not just at species level but also there is some significant variation between cultivars of the same species. How the cultivars are combined and their ratios within a mix, or a seeding programme, is generally overlooked. It is not sufficient to simply choose the best rated cultivar in the turfgrass seed book because a top-rated grass is only rated on one or two criteria in many instances and then only in one location geographically. An agronomist with sufficient knowledge can identify those that will suit the conditions on the golf course with greater accuracy.

It may seem to the reader that I am getting off my original thought process and wandering to another area. The point I am trying to make is that the processes that are required on the ground to optimise the management of the golf course are important in their implications to the cash flow and expenditure on items of materials required for running the course. Unless there is particular merit in purchasing all the materials in one go that may be required to run the course it may be better to spread the overall ordering into three or four orders through the year so that seasonal demand is spread, as is cash flow, and the greenkeeper can distribute costs over time.

Fertiliser choice is important for all courses and there is now a bewildering array of fertilisers available for greenkeepers. The fertilisers are characterised by the description of their percentage nutrient content of nitrogen, phosphate and potassium (potash) within a NPK percentage ratio. Of greater significance must be the source from which the nutrient is gathered, be it inorganic or organic.

Inorganic nutrient ingredients such as potassium nitrate or sulphate of ammonia tend to create flushes of fast, lush growth if used carelessly. These nutrient forms also have a side effect or either increasing soil pH value (increasing alkalinity) or lowering it (making more acidic). There are different ways of bundling up the nutrient source ingredient to release nutrient more slowly.

Organic-based materials such as hoof and horn, dried blood and so on release their nutrient more slowly because the nutrient is often held in a complex organic form within the source ingredient. This requires that the material has to break down or decompose to release the nutrient, a process that may take just a few days to begin but not get fully underway for two to four weeks.

The fertiliser can be selected on the basis that ingredients have some effect on the pH of the soil and the nutrient percentage content. Some fertiliser ingredients increase alkalinity (for example, potassium nitrate) whereas others increase acidity (sulphate of ammonia), where the sulphur forms a dilute acid within the soil.

However, it should be noted that beyond this the actual breakdown of the nutrient forms, especially ammonia to nitrate, can release H+ ions, which further acidify the soil. Choosing the right fertiliser is therefore important within both the agronomic objectives of the course and maintaining growth.

Companies selling proprietary standard fertiliser products normally balance the organic and inorganic materials to give a quick green-up to the turf from the inorganic ingredients followed by a sustained and less-flushed growth from the organic material. In the last two decades the trend has been towards greater chemical engineering to spread the nutrient release over greater periods. This is achieved by a number of methods such as nitrogen-handling bacteria inhibitors, coating the fertiliser in a resin to slow the nutrient release, using different prill sizes and so on. The type of fertiliser(s) required will be contingent on the situation and using the wrong fertiliser or too much of the right fertiliser can hamper management of the course more than help it.

Spreading orders to reflect the timing of purchase and the needs on the course are important. Why order in the winter tees controlled release feed, or even the following spring’s feed at the current time? Such money, properly budgeted for, can be used to earn interest for a club. This is certainly preferable to saving sacks of fertiliser in a shed which will earn no interest and may be damaged in some way such as through the ingress of moisture.

Turf purchasing is normally made in the autumn but large orders on custom rootzones tend to be made in advance. Of course there are many mixes of species and cultivars available, though most of the time these tend to come under headings of ‘greens’, ‘tees’ and general ‘landscape’ quality turf where golf courses are concerned. Checking the quality of turf is essential, especially for large orders, so samples should be seen before delivery or a trip made to the turf grower.

The ordering of supplies is of great importance and the three examples here serve to illustrate that ordering each material is not just a technical turf issues but each has an impact on the cash flow and budgeting for the course. Purchasing materials at different times and through different suppliers allows cash flow to be manipulated so money is spent where it needs to be, when it needs to be. Sometimes there are sufficient benefits to purchasing from one main supplier that orders can be placed early in the year and a discount for the bulk order ensures that the club is still ‘quids in’ in comparison to holding the cash in account.

Seamus Rotherick
By Seamus Rotherick October 20, 2011 11:58
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