Noel Mackenzie: The growing season is lasting longer – costing your club more money

Seamus Rotherick
By Seamus Rotherick October 19, 2011 16:11

Are you getting your kit out more often? And are you giving it a good service if you do?

At our rather mundane level we, as maintainers of golf courses, have an issue that is rather interesting. At one time mowers could generally be put away for most of the winter. Just 10 years ago it was pretty much guaranteed that by the start of November a series of sharp frosts would check the growth (and the worm casting and disease) and that would pave the way for winter aeration, key course work projects such as bunker refurbishments, tee building or re-surfacing and, very importantly, machinery servicing. Management time was also available to look at the up and coming budgets, to purchasing new machines and so on.

The current, longer, growing season has begun to have some very important implications in relation to machinery, budgeting and purchasing.

The obvious issue is that mowing equipment is going out more often in the autumn and winter months. In some periods, the amount of mowing almost rivals that of the spring cut! Indeed as the days grow darker and shorter the grass tends to etiolate more to catch what little light is available which, of course, requires more cutting. This growth habit is something I don’t recall occurring 10 to 20 years ago; maybe I was unobservant or maybe the warmer temperatures are triggering genetic or metabolic changes within the plant, creating growth at a time when the light presence is insufficient? The mechanism is immaterial but the impact is not, it is certainly the case that more mowing is being done later in the year than previously due to a prolonged growing season. This means that mowers are out cutting more often later in the year, making scheduling in major services rather more demanding.

Beyond the actual opportunity to fit in servicing with the other winter work there is also the matter of additional wear. We may just accept, without thinking, that there are just a few extra cuts. Well it seems to be more than a few extra cuts now. Essentially we are experiencing an extension of the growing season by about one and a half to two months! The extra time equates to perhaps a 10 to 20 per cent increase in the cutting period, perhaps more nearer the coast, and means that machinery is being used more often and in less hospitable conditions than previously.

It is very important not to underestimate the issue of working the machinery when the weather is poor. Mowers (and other equipment for that matter) have to work harder and in conditions where corrosion is more of a problem. In these damp or wet conditions soil particles can be picked up more easily, especially if on greens where verti-cutting or scarifying work is still on going (remember growth is not always upwards, it creeps horizontally too). Sand and other mineral particles really wear bearings and bushes badly and even judicious greasing does not stop the problem entirely. Therefore we have not only an extra 15 to 25 per cent increase in mowing operation time but an increase in damage to the machines through working in harsher conditions. Evaluating the quantity of damage is very difficult but it may not be difficult to add 15 to 20 per cent extra damage when operating at this time. In real terms what this may mean is an extra 30 to 40 per cent of the wear a machine experiences occurs during the autumn and winter period.

So does this mean we need to replace mowing machines more often? In some instances yes it probably does. However, in most instances it probably means that machines are a little more ‘tired’ than they would be by the time of trade-in so their value may be affected. On a brighter note the machines today continue to be better engineered than those of the past and this may help, although the over-engineering of very early mowers and other equipment is largely a thing of the past so no-one should expect their greens’ triple to still be going in 50 years!

Mowers working in less than ideal conditions should be subject to extra maintenance. Regular grinding after 30 to 40 hours cutting will maintain cut quality when otherwise it would decline to an acceptable but rather poor finish. Such a decline in quality is subtle and familiarity with the machine and its behaviour may mean that cutting quality isn’t something that is high in the awareness stakes of many assistant greenkeepers. Naturally, any cutting that can be done in dry conditions should be, as this will not only keep the damage to the machine and the course to a minimum but also enhance the quality of the cut for the players, especially on greens, where putting quality is paramount.

On other fronts there are advantages to changing conditions. The longer growing season extends the ability of the grass to respond to treatments that would normally be reserved for the spring / summer months. Verti-cutting and topdressing can, under dry conditions, be carried out to a good standard with a sound expectation of good recovery. Of course, both sets of machinery undertaking this work will, just like mowers, be subjected to longer periods of use through the year. Verti-cutting in particular is a damaging operation in equipment terms because of the tendency to lift some of the topdressing out of the sward and into the machinery. Bearings in particular are prone to sand ingress and abrasion and their life span will be shortened proportionately by greater operation through the autumn and maybe even into winter.

Away from the fine turf, equipment suffers from contact with abrasive material. In areas with alkaline or neutral soils the presence of worm casts is now becoming a significant additional wear factor on equipment. The casts get between blades on cylinder mowers to form a highly abrasive paste that dramatically shortens the life of the cutters as well as getting into roller bearings. Short term control can still be achieved with worm control spraying using carbendazim (Mascot Systemic, TwinCarb, TurfClear, Ringer or similar proprietary products), especially if used in conjunction with enhancers such as Mascot Sward. Thiophanate-methyl is also an approved control (snare or mildothane), though either of these chemical methods are very short term and greater resistance to treatment is being encountered during our consultancy visits. Where worm casting is problematic it therefore demands actions to either control the worms during the peak cast period (that is, mild damp conditions) and maybe the alteration of mowing heights and other management practices to minimise mechanical damage and enhance course conditions.

Player expectation remains high and so the pressure is on to cut well and frequently to keep the course in good condition right through the autumn and into winter. Extended growing seasons are being mitigated to a degree by better engineered and built machines, especially mowers, but it should be born in mind that cutting quality will decline unless maintenance is well tuned to overcome the challenges thrown at the equipment on a daily or weekly basis. Servicing and maintaining equipment should not be allowed to fall by the wayside in the shorter winters we are experiencing by giving way to the pressure to finish course re-building works on tees and bunkers. Those buying second hand machines, especially from courses situated in the south of the country where winters are mildest, need to be aware of the patterns of use and the conditions within which it may have operated.


Seamus Rotherick
By Seamus Rotherick October 19, 2011 16:11
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