Mississippi Turfgrass – Michael Goatley, Jr., Ph.D., Professor and Extension Turfgrass Specialist, School of Plant and Environmental Sciences, Virginia Tech
Nothing reminds us of how fragile our lives, jobs, and relationships are until they are seriously disrupted by an unforeseen event. If you’re anywhere near my age (58) then 9/11 and 4/16 have particular significance in our lives, and Covid-19 will be another event that will be remembered for how it changed the way we do things, even in managing turfgrasses. The 2020 Pandemic has certainly impacted the turfgrass industry and its effects will continue even as/after social distancing restrictions are relaxed and public activities on our sports fields and golf courses expand and/or return. For situations where budgets and labor forces were not severely impacted by the pandemic, turfgrass managers have taken advantage of the downtime in what are typical high turfgrass use periods to complete a variety of activities/projects that otherwise would not have been possible. I have noted irrigation and drainage installations, bunker renovations, a wide variety of tree management activities, earlier than ever spring transition of ryegrass overseeding back to bermudagrass, rebuilding/renovating infield skins, pitching mounds, and batter’s boxes, etc. The only ‘slaps on the hand’ for the turfgrass managers that I have heard in these situations has been admonishments in some cases for not paying enough attention to ‘social distancing.’ However, the real world scenario for many turfgrass managers has been that they have had to be ultra-creative in managing their labor forces, not just to address social distancing guidelines, but to handle a budget that has been cut and might continue to shrink. Predicting what is going to happen for the rest of 2020 in our industry will likely be as accurate as most of our pandemic models have been to this point in time because this is such a fluid situation; it’s unchartered territory from a variety of perspectives and perceptions. However, necessity brings out the best (and sometimes worst) of human ingenuity, and quite often our management and business models will never be the same again. In listening to and observing industry peers from around the mid-Atlantic, here’s some forecasting that even if it doesn’t pan out as I think it will, should still be applicable strategies to fit most turfgrass management situations:
Site-specific management continues. This is one of the oldest and best budget saving strategies in all phases of turfgrass management. Focus management on the areas that warrant the attention because of their specialized purpose or their intensity of use. Logically it’s greens, tees, and fairways in that order on golf courses and it’s been interesting watching how superintendents are adjusting pest, fertility, and mowing strategies to deal with current and anticipated challenges in budgets and labor. Similar concepts are being applied in sports fields with an emphasis on repairing and restoring the heaviest trafficked areas, and only providing minimal maintenance on most other areas. The classic example long preached in sports field management is to emphasize turf recovery between the hashes and the 30s in the spring on football fields, even when they are being used for spring soccer. Focus on infields and hips on grassed baseball and softball facilities and minimize efforts in the outfield (except for perhaps three general locations in left, center, and right?).
Many turfgrass managers have told me that budgets simply aren’t going to allow for broad-scale scheduled aeration events, even if performed ‘in house’, and a primary reason is the cost of the tines themselves. The same limitations might apply to scheduled pesticide or fertilizer applications. Adjust the areas that you are managing to those that absolutely need the attention, and return to the other areas as budgets allow. It’s been great to hear how our turfgrass industry professionals have been thinking in the big picture about how the contracted economy is going to affect everyone, including the industry sales force. But I particularly admired what one of our area’s best sales staff told me, “It’s now up to me to offer my clients alternative strategies and products that fit reduced budget and management programs. When these types of events happen, it serves as a reminder to me in my job to not take my customers for granted because at the end of the day, about the only thing that will eventually shut down turfgrass management is if you quit mowing.” Which leads me to…
Remember that you get to manage turfgrass growth. One of the best arguments that classified most turfgrass managers as ‘essential employees’ to governmental agencies is the fact that when environmental conditions are appropriate, grass is growing. Keep it growing, but only at a level that you can properly maintain. It’s a no-brainer to reduce nitrogen inputs when trying to restrict turfgrass growth, but maintain them in areas that you are trying to improve. Raise cutting heights and reduce mowing frequency (both a sports field manager AND a golf superintendent told me they are hoping to use the necessity of raising their cutting heights at their facilities because of a limited labor force as a way to hopefully reset their clientele expectations regarding cutting heights on their sports fields and golf greens… that strategy won’t work at every facility, but might it fit yours?). And where labor availability or social distancing requirements have greatly reduced the ability to simply keep up with the mowing, the use of plant growth regulators (PGRs) has great potential. This is a case where sometimes spending a little money can save you significant money based on the economics of the cost of product and the application of a PGR vs. the cost of labor, fuel, frequency, etc. in mowing. We didn’t quite reach that point this spring, but one of our plans if we couldn’t keep enough labor to cut the grass was to suppress the growth of much of our out of use cool-season turfgrass areas at the VT Turfgrass Research Center with a low level glyphosate application.
Anticipate a surge in managed turfgrass use as social distancing requirements are lifted. It is already happening and will only continue to grow as people are very weary of shelter-in-place and can’t wait to get outdoors in social settings. The use demands on sports fields and golf turfs will grow exponentially later this summer. When revenues are to be generated by the use of the turfs, the pressure to make up for lost time to generate revenue will be immense. Some of my college sports field and parks and recreation supervisors have told me they already have coaches and supervisors anxious to get fields open for camps; these are often the largest money-making events of the year, and for some, a primary means of supplementing their salaries or funding their leagues. And in most of these cases, the sports field manager (and their budget) has a history of not receiving any supplemental pay/operating funds for the turf management of these events. It will be no different for golf courses where a huge number of tournaments will be added to a much tighter window of play than ever before. All of this is understandable in order to restore funds to the coffers, but it also is potentially catastrophic to the long-term health of the various turfgrass systems. A park and recreation facility manager told me that “If one thought they had heavy demands for field use before, field use this summer is going to be on steroids!” Have you had discussions about this and possibly even developed a post-pandemic management plan at your facility? Do you have a plan or SOP that involves serious discussions between you as the turfgrass manager with your administration, owners, supervisors, and clientele about responsible turfgrass use patterns that generate income, but not at the expense of creating more problems? You’ve been anxiously waiting for your turfgrasses to be used, and yet this might be the biggest challenge you will face in 2020.
Take advantage of the challenges. Everyone that has been at this for any length of time always agrees that managing the turf is the easy part. One of our biggest daily challenges in our personal and professional lives is quite simply successful communication. While it’s never easy, there is great opportunity for us to use these challenging periods as a time to educate our clientele and bosses about just how amazing a natural turfgrass system is, the expertise required to manage such a system, and how it is so easy to take turfgrasses for granted. You might as well get some credit for what you do now because very soon the skill and art of turfgrass management will once again be an afterthought. Many facilities required signs to communicate regarding social distancing protocols. I suggest you continue to utilize and expand your use of on-site signs at your facility, and take advantage of ‘virtual communication’ as well by utilizing social media platforms to instruct the public about appropriate use of the facilities. You get few opportunities where the public is paying attention to your communication efforts, but you do have that chance for a short window now.
A golf business model for the 2020 Pandemic that has huge upside for revenue BUT presents more challenges for the superintendent and their staff is the promotion of single cart-only golf (VT alum Mike Johnson gets credit for making me aware of this). If you track the dollars at the golf course, one of the most logical ways to generate more revenue is to increase the number of rounds. If everyone plays from a single cart, they are 1) practicing appropriate social distancing (a very key part of a successful argument for why to do this) and 2) reducing the time of a round for golfers by 25-33%. The positives: a course schedules more tee times, sells the use of more carts, and revenues increase. The negatives: walking golfers don’t fit this business model and the golf turf maintenance team has to deal with the additional traffic from the extra carts. When Mike shared this situation with me, it made me chuckle as I remembered from my first job on the golf course in central Kentucky the group we called (fondly… well usually fondly) the Old Goats (no relation to me, at that time I was a Young Goat). They were the first group off the tee in the morning and there would be anywhere from 4 to 7 of the Goats in individual carts heading down the first fairway. I remember one of them telling me that “the day I have to ride with someone in a cart is the last day I will play golf.” Who would have ever thought the Old Goats would actually be such trend setters in the 21st century?
Best wishes in your return to whatever normal becomes in turfgrass management for 2020!READ THE ISSUE