Noel Mackenzie: The winter diseases clubs need to be wary of

Seamus Rotherick
By Seamus Rotherick October 12, 2011 16:15

Late December and early January are not very nice times of year for grass. We are smart enough to be ensconced in warm centrally-heated buildings or cars for much of our existence. It is rare, even for the most ardent greenkeeper or golfer to spend more than a few hours at a time playing golf in the winter and, even then, the golfer is generally moving and keeping warm.  Greenkeepers tend to be less energetic these days due to ride-on and powered equipment so they tend to feel the cold more than perhaps they once did. They do have some appreciation of just how tough it is for the plant when it is cold and the course is being subjected to wear and tear.

When it is cold and light, exposure is low so the plant has to draw on reserves of nutrients (mainly carbohydrates) stored in the roots to sustain itself through the winter months. When we walk on it, hit it with a ball or impact on it in any way that damages the plant, it must draw on these reserves to repair itself or it will die. If it has insufficient resources it will not be able to repair itself and it will either die quickly or succumb to one of several pathogen organisms, perhaps a little more slowly.  Repeated damage can easily lead to a loss of condition in the playing surface. Whilst this damage is concentrated on tees and greens, fairways and carries can also take a lot wear and suffer significant loss of condition.

But why worry? OK, it is January but spring is just around the corner isn’t it? Growth is not far away, right? Well, no actually. Spring is a long way off and growth may be as much as three to four months away with any hope of good greens condition unlikely to be realised before late May or early June. Until 20 years or so ago this wasn’t really much of a problem as people were less serious about their sport and winter play had a less ardent following. Today player expectations are higher, people are playing more, clubs generally have high numbers of retired users and they are living longer.  All-in-all this adds up to a very significant change of circumstances. On top of all this player expectations of winter surfaces are higher. Players want it 365 days of the year, in better condition and are more than ready to complain and create political problems within a club if they don’t like what they are getting. So, from a commercial and political perspective there is plenty to worry about.

Loss of condition can take many forms but essentially fall into the main categories set out below:

• Sickly and sub-optimal. These surfaces need not be really bad, but just not quite right.  Herein lies the problem, the decline is subtle and easily miss-read or not picked up upon.  Good chairmen of greens, general managers and secretaries should be keeping an eye open on the course in case the greenkeeper has not. Of course, if you have a good greenkeeper he / she will have spotted decline arising some time in advance, but not all clubs are blessed with such diligence and even if they are, issues like family crisis, sickness, changing staff, or other problems can distract an otherwise diligent individual / team at a key time.  Sometimes over-reliance on more junior staff can let down the identification of gradual decline problems.

Within any course there are some surfaces, especially greens, that are prone to problems sooner than others. This may be the green in a hollow, or with a northerly aspect or that tee with the shadow from some confirers.  Good greenkeepers will know where these are and monitor their condition carefully for the first signs of trouble, using them as an early warning barometer for course condition.

Sub-optimal surfaces can and do crop up at any point in the year but there just seems to be a little peak in the number that arise just after the New Year with the first week in January setting the phone ringing a bit more actively than it has for the majority of the winter period.  Turning round a sub-optimal green may require little more than a simple management adjustment such as a winter feed, amino acid supplement application, altering the cutting height or taking the surface out of play briefly. Left unchecked the situation will, inevitably, lead to a more serious decline and more dramatic problems.

• Disease. It’s January 2nd, the phone rings with a greenkeeper on the other end: ‘I don’t know – I come back from my break and the greens are plastered in disease. When can you come?’  The two main culprits on the winter disease front are Fusarium and Anthracnose. Both diseases can indicate a lack of sufficient attention to the nutritional needs of the grass, so the turf will have been sub-optimal before disease attack. Fusarium can be triggered by over zealous nutrition (nitrogen) though this is rare to see these days; in fact it is probably the case that this disease is now triggered most often by insufficient fertiliser use in autumn / winter. The actual disease attack will be triggered by low plant immunity combined with ideal fungal disease attack conditions i.e. mild and humid conditions in the case of Fusarium or wet, water-holding surfaces after a period of summer stress for Anthracnose.

A range of fungicides are available to tackle these diseases although, worryingly, there is a general trend of companies to market and promote use of products as preventative treatments.  These are not cheap so when a greenkeeper tells me he has sprayed three times by the start of December and still got disease something is wrong! The key point is that that typical phone call is indicative of a larger issue, that is that someone has turned their back on the course and it has come back to haunt them. Despite a big educational push the issue of Integrated Pest and Disease Management (IPDM) seems to still be too easily forgotten over the break – and it will cost many clubs dear as panic spraying is undertaken to rein back the disease. Do not misunderstand though, disease will crop up on many courses and sometimes quite unpredictably and will require spraying.  But this should not occur after the course is plastered with disease damage that will scar greens for months because nobody looked closely at the greens for two weeks.

• Frost damage. Frost can cause damage to greens. The worst time is when they are in a state of partial freezing and the surface has thawed and yet below the ground is still solid. Under such conditions the roots may be sheared off when pressure is applied, causing substantial stress to the plant and often resulting in its total demise, represented by foot-shaped areas of dead grass over the green. Such damage is, fortunately, rare.

Prolonged frost that stays in the ground day and night may allow greens to be used as normal but there is a pitfall if this goes on for very long. Under such conditions the hole cannot be moved and the grass will get stressed and pressurised with no respite. In southern England we have just had two substantial periods of frost and it could easily be the case that a number of clubs suffer from prolonged stress lasting three to six months from such management.

• Waterlogging. In many winter months excess water is a greater problem than frost.  Wet greens cannot be turned around overnight unless the drainage system is found to be blocked by some obstruction. A long term approach is normally required although some maintenance techniques can mitigate otherwise disastrous surfaces into acceptable ones.

Waterlogged areas on the course can be managed though.  Traffic that moves through an area prone to waterlogging should be put on another route for example. So if problems of muddying are noted these should be picked up quickly during a post New Year course walk.

• Wear. All well-used courses will suffer wear and tear and correcting this through the winter is important before it becomes an issue. The practice of waiting for damage to be a problem is unacceptable. Yet such is the subtle nature of wear damage that it is often not noticed until it is severe, perhaps because of the Christmas break period when greenkeeping teams may tend to be less heavily staffed.

The period around the Christmas break is certainly a time when focus can shift off the course and the return to normal operations is met with the gut-wrenching realisation that something has gone badly wrong. Organising a course walk with the greenkeeper, chairman of greens and secretary early in the New Year is always a good plan as it allows focus on the issues of winter condition and with that ‘marker’ down it may help to keep the greenkeeping team on their toes.

Course inspections at this time also allow some attention to the winter projects that go on at most courses as well as an opportunity to assess if these are detracting from general maintenance and course condition and presentation.

Finally, try making use of your agronomist during the winter months as it really is useful to see courses at their worst and contribute usefully to the maintenance programme rather than visiting in the kinder months of the year when everything is likely to be at its best.

Seamus Rotherick
By Seamus Rotherick October 12, 2011 16:15
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