The Economy of Agronomy

 As seen in Golf Business March/April 2022 

New research on three agronomic practices shows potential savings

By: Doug McPherson

New research published in the International Turfgrass Society Journal has found that three agronomic practices show potential to save money and improve playing conditions for U.S. golf courses.

Cole Thompson, director of turfgrass and environmental research at the U.S. Golf Association and one of the researchers for the study, says based on survey responses and modeling, this research predicts annual savings of 4% to 6.7% for U.S. golf facilities that adopt the strategies.

“This translates to $37,300 to $62,800 in annual maintenance costs, depending on the practice,” Thompson says. “Importantly, a large portion–between 57.5% and 71%–of the savings came from labor. This doesn’t necessarily mean that golf courses are eliminating labor costs at that rate, but rather that they complete these tasks more efficiently by adopting the practices.”

He adds that respondents also reported improved playing conditions when adopting the practices.

The three practices mentioned in the research are:

  • Evapotranspiration-based irrigation scheduling, which uses weather data to predict water use and irrigating rather than feel or a predetermined frequency.

  • Soil-moisture-meter-based irrigation scheduling, which uses soil moisture meters to estimate soil moisture and irrigate only when soils dry to a predetermined threshold.

  • Fertilizer and pesticide best management practices, which include application timing, rate, post-application rain/irrigation, considerations for soil type, product applied and buffers next to impervious surfaces or water. The practices are designed to reduce the loss of fertilizers and pesticides to the environment after application. Thompson says superintendents who follow these fertilizer and pesticide strategies can be confident that they are not contributing to nonpoint source pollution.

You can find the research paper here:

Thompson also says there is money-saving potential in re-grassing courses.

“The largest savings scenario in a re-grass is when a golf course–usually in the transition zone or the western U.S.–replaced a cool-season grass with a warm-season grass,” Thompson says. “This easily results in at least a 25% savings in water and water pumping costs.”
He adds that courses often achieve greater savings, especially when they include savings “from the lower pest susceptibilities” of these grasses.

“They have fewer serious pests and thus require fewer pesticide applications in these regions.”

He mentioned two examples of golf courses saving $20,000 per year—just under $1,000 per fairway acre—that saved up to 40% in water and $175,000 per year because of less fertilizer, seed and chemical applications.

Thompson shared that Corning Country Club in Corning, New York, had fairway turf with a mixture of bentgrass, Poa and ryegrass that were prone to both winter injury and summer decline. Additionally, the mixture of grasses wasn’t aesthetically pleasing in the spring because the different grasses grew at varying rates.

To improve reliability and reduce maintenance costs for fairways, Corning Country Club opted to re-grass its fairways with Luminary creeping bentgrass. The project reportedly freed up approximately 60 hours of labor annually because fewer plant protectant applications were needed.

Also, the Valley Club of Montecito in Santa Barbara, California, replaced its perennial ryegrass and Poa annua on its 35 acres of fairways with Santa Ana hybrid bermudagrass–a necessary move due to a steep surge in the cost of water (and even if it could afford the water, there wasn’t enough of it to keep the fairway grass alive during a dry year).

The conversion yielded a 40% reduction in water use and an additional savings of $175,000 annually due to less fertilizer, seed, and chemical applications. Golfers also reported that they liked the firmer, faster fairways.