Golf courses are valuable assets to the communities they are located in and beyond, providing open space, wildlife habitat, storm water infiltration and treatment, and healthy recreation. Providing supplemental nutrition through fertilization, including enhanced efficiency fertilizers, is almost always necessary in order to maintain healthy turf that functions at its best and can be accomplished using best management practices that protect natural resources.

Dr. Eric Miltner, agronomist for Koch Turf & Ornamental, says despite what seems to those in the industry the obvious benefits of golf courses, superintendents would be wise to quantify their fertilizer usage so they can explain exactly what is going on with their turf and the surrounding environment. Why? Having the right answers to potential questions from management, ownership, members, and the community at large can point out the financial benefits of fertilizer usage and allay fears of potential damage to the environment. “As with any maintenance operation, records can be a critical tool in evaluating your practices and measuring their effectiveness,” Miltner says. “But be aware that the cost of inputs is only part of the equation. A premium product can result in savings in other operations, such as mowing or pest management.”

Dr. Beth Guertal, Alumni Professor for the College of Agriculture Agronomy and Soil at Auburn University, says superintendents should be able to calculate the cost of their fertilizer per pound of nutrient, and not just for the product. “What does the nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium in that material cost you?” Guertal says. “Also, use some type of soil testing (and there have been some excellent recent articles about soil testing strategies) to determine if nutrients other than nitrogen are ever necessary. Do not pay for nutrients that you may not need.”

Basing a fertilization program on science in order to protect the bottom line of a course and the environment can shield superintendents and courses from environmental backlash, according to Dr. Michael Richardson, Professor of Horticulture at the University of Arkansas. “I still hear too many superintendents say that their fertilization program is based on a long history of `doing it a certain way’ rather than a constant refining of the program based on data collected,” Richardson says. He adds that annual soil testing should be an integral part of every golf course management plan. Changes then can be made each year after asking what Richardson considers are some key questions:

  • Are soil nutrients at a sufficient level?
  • Are specific soil nutrients increasing or decreasing?
  • Are growth responses to nutrients being observed?

The use of a non-treated control area is one of the best tools a superintendent has to determine if he is really getting a response to a nutrient application, Richardson says.

Years of detailed record-keeping from soil tests and documentation of fertilizer applications and responses can be a significant resource if the golf course is ever accused of environmental contamination. Dr. Tamson Yeh, Pest Management and Turf Specialist at the Cornell University Cooperative Extension, says that keeping detailed records of fertilizer use also allows the superintendent to track success at reducing costs while documenting the nitrogen and phosphorus footprint if the course’s water is sampled. It also provides a great public relations tool when it comes to application transparency. It can also help obtain Audubon International Certification, or allow the course to be nominated for awards.

Miltner adds that community outreach can be an important tool to ease concerns the public might have in regards to effects from fertilizer use on a golf course located near where they live. “We all know that there is a lot of misinformation out there regarding fertilization and other golf course maintenance practices,” he says. “It’s important for people to understand that superintendents are highly trained and knowledgeable, that they understand the risks and challenges, and that they make purposeful decisions to maintain healthy, playable turf while limiting the risk to the environment. As in many other areas, such as cars or electronics, technology has made things more efficient and effective. Enhanced efficiency fertilizers are no different. Some of these products have been around for decades (Nutralene, Nitroform, Polyon), others are newer (Duration, UMAXX, HYDREXX), but they can all be used to maintain turf with decreased inputs, because they are more efficient in delivering nitrogen to the plant.”

Dr. Travis Shaddox, Postdoctoral Research Associate of Environmental Horticulture at the University of Florida, says documentation and transparency are becoming increasingly important in the industry.

“We need to remember that our activities are governed by policies that often times are made by elected officials that may not be knowledgeable on these issues,” Shaddox says. “Outreach and extension education are valuable methods of educating the general public. For example, in Florida, about 5 percent of the annual nitrogen applied is applied to golf courses, while 90 percent is applied to non-turf acres. Very few people realize this, in large part because we are not communicating to the public as much as necessary.”

Guertal urges superintendents to be proactive when it comes to explaining fertilizer usage, rather than waiting to be asked about it. “This may depend on the community,” she says. “In some cases, it makes sense to stay ahead of the issue and provide sound, science-based information on your management practices. In other cases, it might make more sense not to invite attention, but to be ready to provide appropriate information at any time you are asked.”

“I think a superintendent should be able to talk about their fertilizer use and use rates,” Guertal adds. “It's important to remember that the vast amount of research data clearly shows that, when applied at the correct rates and with the correct products, turfgrass is an excellent filter of nutrients. Superintendents should be able to talk about their use of slow-release or enhanced efficiency fertilizers, use of soil testing, and how they avoid environmentally sensitive areas, such as around water.”

Yeh believes that because fertilizer use and its environmental impact is a “supercharged environmental platform for stakeholders and politicians,” detailed information and the ability to explain fertilizer use is crucial. “There should be solid knowledge and ability to inventory and adjust potential hazard points for fertilizer pollution issues, such as runoff, leaching and a simple understanding of the pros and cons of practices and products,” Yeh says.

John Torsiello is a writer based in Torrington, Conn., and a frequent GCI contributor.