Arkansas Turfgrass Association – Looking To the Future – Where Will the Turfgrass Industry Be in Ten Years Equipment and Technology of the Future
This article was a collaborative effort by turfgrass professionals. Appreciation is due to all those listed as article references!
The Need for Lawns and the Equipment to Maintain
The evolution of mankind has intrinsically been tied to the development of turfgrass. Thousands of years ago early man used the advantage of low growing turf across savannas to stalk their prey and watch for approaching danger. During medieval times, only grass was allowed around castles so anyone approaching could easily be seen. The Early Modern Era saw great lawns and gardens fill the landscape around palaces and public malls. All the while, the only practical way for most people to maintain turfgrass through the mid-to-late 1800’s was by grazing animals and/or scything. However, scything was done most effectively when the grass was wet. Some say the commercial turf equipment industry was born in the mid-1800’s when Edwin Budding re-engineered a rotary cutting machine used to remove nap from carpet to cut turfgrass. This first-generation mechanical lawn mower could cut dry grass.1 The race for better, faster, bigger, stronger, safer, smarter, more efficient turfgrass equipment had started. And it continues today!
What Turfgrass Managers Have Witnessed the Last 30-40 Years
Any member of the Alabama Turfgrass Association approaching retirement today has seen amazing advancements during their career. Here is a partial list of the “next new invention” that propelled our industry forward, as submitted by several of our Alabama Turfgrass Association colleagues.
- Golf and Sports Fields: cable steer greens mowers; pull-behind rolling drum aerifiers; independent hydraulic aerifiers; hollow tine, solid tine, slicer and spiker variations; core and thatch collecting equipment; drill and fill aerifiers; sand injectors, water injectors; rotary-quaking de-compaction equipment; slit drainage equipment; pull-behind and independent top-drop topdressers of various sizes ; rotary topdressers; sprigging machines; turbine-type debris blower; greens mowers with GPS steer; hydraulic triplex greens mower; cruise control on rough and fairway mowers; Fraze mowers; electric and hybrid equipment; sprayers with GPS guidance, utility vehicles; infield groomers; light weight rollers; gang rollers; the progression of drive systems from chain to belt to hydraulic to electric; LED lights; battery operated golf carts, mowers, hand tools, including mechanic tools; ‘Equipment Lift’; tools that measure playability such as the Stimpmeter for ball roll and the Clegg Hammer for surface hardness; laser guided grading equipment; turf planers; larger vacuums/sweepers with hydraulic dump beds; drones with cameras, sensors and sprayers. 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7
- Lawn Care and Landscape: line trimmers; stick edgers; mulching mowers; backpack blowers and sprayers; Chem-Lawn spray gun; foam marking boom sprayers; walk-behind mowers; zero-turning radius mowers; foam-filled tires; ride-on spreaders/sprayers with boomless spray nozzles; slope mowers; remotely operated slope mowers; skid loaders; articulating skid loaders; big roll installation equipment; dump trailers; live-bed trailers; hydraulic trailer ramps; power augers; Rollover Protection Systems, ROPS; safety cutoffs bars; pressure switches cutoffs; neutral start gear shift; chainsaw chain brake. 2, 6, 8
- Sod Production: walk behind harvesters; tractor mounted harvesters; harvesters with automatic stackers; fully automated, one-man harvesters, using GPS guidance, cutting and stacking sod; big rolls harvesters; truck mounted forklifts; wide rotary mowers up to 36 feet; sprayers with GPS guidance, rate control and shut off; variable rate lime and fertilizer application in conjunction with grid sampling; center pivot irrigation, and center pivot irrigation controlled using a smart phone. 9
- Irrigation: PVC and HDPE pipe, pin and dial irrigation timer; advancements in glue and cleaner – hot/fast curing; heavy, load bearing valve boxes; various types of quick couplers; novelty PVC couplers e.g. flow span; drip irrigation especially for landscapes and parking lots; sub-meters to separate irrigation water from other uses; digital controllers; smart irrigation controllers; soil moisture and salinity sensors; sprinkler head check valves; valve-in-heads (VIH); impact, spray, stream, rotating, fixed and adjustable arc spray heads; master valves; leak detection monitoring devices; two-wire irrigation systems; control of the irrigation and lighting systems through the controllers using a cell phone; the use of the old-world cistern idea to store water; and testing criteria for Water Sense Labeling for sensors and controllers; real time pressure sensing; precipitation sensors; Variable Frequency Drives for pump station applications; water audit software; integrated remote pump monitoring; mechanical joint restraints for piping systems; and trenchers of all sizes. 6, 10
All of the above were amazing, huge, labor-saving advances for the turfgrass industry, but let’s not forget what TECHNOLOGY has done! Many managers never even learned to type during their formative years, but as computer and cell phone use exploded even our most seasoned colleagues became proficient with technology. Everything we do evolves around the benefits of applied science. Today, technology touches every aspect of our lives: keeping time; storing employee data, customer files and inventory; aiding with design, sales and advertising; helping with identification of plants and pests; providing information, pictures and videos on any subject at a click, and let’s not forget communication – emailing and texting are taken for granted today. Faxing is almost as rare as MSMA!
- Technology: computers; laptops; digital tablets; pagers/beepers; two-way radios; mobile phones; flip phones; smart phones; digital cameras; GIS and GPS; software for all types of applications; podcasts by the thousands such as TheTurfZone.com; various apps such as Google Maps, Sun & Shade Analyzer, Landscaper’s Companion, Sun Seeker, Lawn Starter, iScape along with other “augmented reality” apps; weather websites such as Storm Tracker and Windy; Social media platforms: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Snapchat, WhatsApp, etc. 4, 6, 11
As Alabama Turfgrass Association members have witnessed, the advances in equipment and technology over the last 30 to 40 years have been unprecedented in turfgrass history. Past innovations have helped the turfgrass managers in more ways than can be mentioned or explained in this article. So, what’s next?
Where Do Innovations Originate?
David McCall, Ph.D., Virginia Tech answered that question this way, “New ideas originate from need or from somebody seeing a better way to get things done. Sometimes that comes from a golf course superintendent, a sod producer, a university researcher, an equipment manufacturing engineer, a sales rep, or the guy weed eating along fence lines. In the university setting, we get paid to come up with new ideas for improving how things are done and then testing those ideas. Sometimes they work. Sometimes they don’t. However, we can come up with the most high-tech solutions possible but if the solution is worse than the problem or the solution is highly impractical, then what’s the point. A lot of the truly game-changing ideas come when there is strong feedback from multiple players who think about the end-goal differently. Strong collaboration is key.”12
Chase Straw, Ph.D., Texas A&M, stated “Some inventions are revolutionary and completely new. Others may be a new feature for an existing tool or piece of equipment, such as GPS and auto steer on sprayers and mowers, or GPS equipped soil moisture sensors. In some cases, inventions may be a simple feature to make maintenance easier or more ergonomic.”2
Dr. Straw sees cutting edge technology and equipment advances being used in Precision Agriculture (PA) and wonders why it’s not being used in Precision Turfgrass Management (PTM). He mentioned as an example, “Concepts of using sensors as part of irrigation systems, started in PA to better utilize this precious resource in making management decisions and now it’s becoming more common place in PTM.”2 When advancements in PTM do occur, many if not most, are often first found on golf courses. Why? Well, the answer is clear for two reasons:
1.) The United States Golf Association reviews worthy research proposals each year, spending about $1.8 million across a variety of projects.
2.) Golf courses, especially the private courses, can and will afford new equipment and technology which directly benefits their courses and ultimately, their membership.
For that reason, Dr. Straw said, “I spend a lot of time talking with golf course superintendents discussing their issues as an opportunity to identify further areas of research.”2
Interestingly, the U.S. Sod Industry’s formation of a Checkoff Program has the potential to raise approximately $12-$14 million each year for research, promotion and education of natural grass. If the checkoff program is approved through a nationwide referendum of sod producers, the U.S. Sod Checkoff Board will be created with 5 of the 13 sod producer board members being from the South, according to Dr. Casey Reynolds, TPI Executive Director. He stated, “A U.S. Sod Checkoff Program has the potential to change the face of natural grass research by creating the largest single funding source of natural grass research and promotion in the world. Sod producers would be in charge of it. It could fund large-scale research and promotion locally and nationally on a scale that is not currently feasible.”13
The USDA also funds a good deal of basic research, but not so much applied research. It’s also worth noting that USDA’s annual contribution to turf research varies year-to-year.
The biggest contributor to turfgrass research dollars is private business investment. Driven by increase sales, market share and, ultimately profit, they are always looking for the next big innovation. Many of these large companies put millions of dollars into their own research division budgets to development new innovations for equipment and technology. Private business also funds universities to develop, research and test new products. Dr. Straw stated “The fact is the turfgrass industry is a small niche market compared to all of agriculture. So, the other larger sectors of agriculture usually see the benefit of new ideas first; such as the latest in sprayer technology, automized anything, and even drone technology.” He further stated “The bottom line is that money drives research studies and the bulk goes to agriculture. However, the research usually trickles down to golf first and then to the rest of the turfgrass industry.”2
But let’s not forget the average person’s ability to see the need for a better way. Some individuals have been responsible for the next industry-changing idea. Take, for instance, the string trimmer. In 1971, George Ballas fashioned the first weed eater by attaching pieces of heavy-duty fishing line to a tin can bolted to the rotary head of an edger. Since that moment, this one simple invention touched everyone involved with turfgrass maintenance. In 1977, Ballas sold his invention for an undisclosed amount, after having an astounding $41 million dollars in sales during 1976. 14
What Turfgrass Issues Are Being Addressed Through Innovation Today?
The development of equipment and technology for turfgrass has been an ongoing process since man started the quest of taming the lawn. Many of the issues addressed over time remain roughly the same: efficiency, cost/benefit, maneuverability, safety and environmentally friendly to name a few. But today more than ever, innovative ideas related to turfgrass are juxtaposed with the increasing goals of Precision Agriculture (PA) which has evolved to improve site-specific management, based on obtaining site-specific information. This mindset led to the development of Precision Turfgrass Management (PTM). This subject was explained clearly in the article titled, “Precision turfgrass management: challenges and field applications for mapping turfgrass soil and stress” by Robert N. Carrow, Ph.D., et al., 2010. “Primary turfgrass cultural practices are irrigation, fertilizer application, cultivation, mowing and pest control. ATA members understand these concepts. As in agriculture, turfgrass managers world-wide are interested in ways to improve input efficiency, especially related to the primary cultural practices, and to minimize any potential negative environmental aspects.”15 And by input efficiency, they are referring to fertilizer, pesticides, water, energy and labor.
Rising cost and short supplies of all materials, including labor, have mandated that equipment and technology innovations for turfgrass application are being geared to reducing inputs to only areas where they are needed, thus reducing labor at the same time. Commenting on the plight that many managers in the turfgrass industry are facing today, Dr. David McCall stated, “Finding qualified (or even unqualified) labor is one of the biggest challenges our industry is facing. I don’t think that most turfgrass professionals want to replace employees with robots, but the reality is that is the direction we are headed.”12
To paraphrase Dr. McCall, increased production utilizing less labor is being done in some cases with an array of sensors, including GPS/GIS assisted autonomous and/or robotic features.12 It’s exciting to see technology merging with routine turfgrass equipment to reach the goals of PTM.
Carrow, et al., 2010, also gave us more clues about future innovations for equipment and technology for turfgrass in what some view as their seminal article on this topic. “The concept of precision turfgrass management (PTM) has only recently been noted as a parallel to Precision Agriculture (PA) for precise management of pests, fertilizer, salinity, cultivation and irrigation. PA (as does PTM) aims to obtain detailed site-specific information by mapping the variation in important soil and plant properties to enable better site-specific management. Site-specific management needs to improve the efficiency of use of inputs because of concerns about rising costs, improving production and the sustainability of natural resources. To achieve input efficiency, one approach adopted by PA is through the use of site-specific management units (SSMUs) delineated within fields, or management zones, which are areas with similar soil, topography, microclimate and plant response. Reliable maps of soil conditions, topography and plant yield based on adequate sampling are necessary to delineate SSMUs accurately. Full variable-rate management, however, requires even more accurate maps based on more intensive sampling… As for PA, the initial challenge limiting PTM has been the development of appropriate mobile sensor platforms for mapping both key soil and plant attributes.”15
It is obvious that sensor innovations will be used more and more in the future to monitor the many aspects of plant and soil attributes. As Carrow, et al. mentioned, “Mobile platforms to obtain both spatial and temporal soil and plant data rapidly over large areas of turfgrass for routine mapping were not available until 2005 when the first experimental unit was developed by Toro. This device could determine Soil Volumetric Water Content VWC (%); Time Domain Reflectometry (TDR); turfgrass performance by Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI); and compaction by penetrometer resistance (kg cm-2) and record position with GPS. The information collected is used for GIS database development and graphical displays. Maps are powerful tools to illustrate the nature, degree and implications of spatial differences to site managers so that budget priorities can be adjusted accordingly.”15
Clearly, researchers and manufacturers of turfgrass equipment agree that the goal for much of the equipment being developed for the future is to reduce labor. Data can be used from either stationary or mobile (aerial and ground) sensors. with access to sensor data through direct downloads, or wireless communication for operations, such as mowing, harvesting, spraying, spreading, aerifying and irrigating.
- The Lawn Institute, “All You Need to Know About Lawn History”, TheLawnInstitute.org
- Chase Straw, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Turfgrass Management and Physiology, Texas A&M University
- ATA Member, Brian Aaron, CGCS, Golf Course Superintendent – Azalea City Golf Course
- ATA Member, Mickey Pitts, Golf and Turf Territory Manager, Beard Equipment Company
- ATA Member: Jim Harris, TES Professional, Auburn University
- ATA Member: Jim Simmons, CGCS, Superintendent – Retired, Shoal Creek
- ATA Member, James E. Horton Jr., Alabama Turf Times’ Editor
- ATA Member, James Bartley, Territory Manager (Lawn Care), Harrell’s, Inc.
- ATA Member, Tom Wolf, Owner, Coosa Valley Turf Farms, LLC
- ATA Member, Tom Shannon, Regional Sales Manager, HydroPoint Data Systems
- ATA Member, Hunter McBrayer, Director-Young Farmers Division, Alabama Farmers Federation
- David McCall, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, School of Plant and Environmental Sciences, Virginia Tech
- Casey Reynolds, TPI, Executive Director, March 2022 contact with James Horton
- Information provided by Kazan Today Weekly Articles, Dick Kazan, July 26, 2011, “How George Ballas Made a Fortune by Inventing the Weed Eater.”
- Precision Ag, (2010) 11:115–134, “Precision Turfgrass Management: Challenges and Field Applications for Mapping Turfgrass Soil and Stress,” Robert N. Carrow, Joseph M. Krum, Ian Flitcroft, Van Cline
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