Every year I get many requests as to my advice for creating and operating pest turf management services that are customized and site-specific. It seems a lot of turfgrass managers are seeking opportunities in the marketplace that set them apart from their competition. While there are certainly opportunities to expand and customize your operation, there are a lot of questions to ask before you take on this approach.
The most common questions focus on the concept of offering a very "hands-on" approach to treating only specific problems on a more prescriptive basis. Over the years I've had the pleasure of interacting with individuals who have chosen this path. They've discussed their challenges, successes and on occasion, their failures.
Understanding local pest biology and being up to date on the latest research is critical for researching pests such as the hunting billbug.
IMAGES COURTESY RICK BRANDENBURG, PH.D., NORTH CAROLINA STATE UNIVERSITY.
One consistent theme to those programs with successful track records (and in reality for all successful operations) has been a commitment to personal education, site-specific research and to customer satisfaction.
Analyze the issues first
The first step of successful operators always seems to be a thorough inventory of the issues they deal with in turf management. What are the main concerns in managing and maintaining high-quality turfgrass? Is it diseases, weeds, insects, fertility, weather, including heat and drought, or local regulations that challenge you the most each year?
Once these issues are defined and inventoried, the next step is to develop a spreadsheet of what you can and cannot do to address these issues in both a preventive and a curative or rescue manner. Once this is complete then you can use the spreadsheet to reveal what practices or products are available that can address multiple issues.
White grubs are one of the most challenging pests to address as they are difficult to monitor and there are no 100 percent effective rescue-type programs once they become large grubs.
In the insect world, this might include how to manage several potential insects pests that commonly occur with the use of one product applied at the optimal time. Since my expertise is with insect management, those are the examples I will use. But insect management can also serve as a good model for how develop and offer the overall "custom" turf management programming.
Some insects can occur throughout much of the year, some occur only once, but do so most every year, and some are sporadic. Some can be controlled preventively and others can only be controlled once they begin to damage the turf.
So, how do you offer a "custom" service at an attractive price, yet assure high turf quality in a program and that you can actually make money? It's challenging even if you only considers insects, much less all the other challenges that get thrown into the equation each year.
However, once again looking at insect control, today's new products offer options that provide a high level of confidence at reasonable cost and in a favorable environmental context. Putting all this together for insects is certainly doable; the greatest challenge resides in trying to integrate all the problems you can encounter into a manageable and cost-effective plan. It's not impossible, but you better do your homework.
Environmental and cost-effective
First, let me back up and make sure everyone understands I'm not being critical of the many cost-effective and environmentally friendly approaches that are being offered by turf managers around the globe. My thoughts here are simply a reflection of the many questions I get asked about offering more customized, and yes, more expensive services. I certainly agree that there is a significant market for such programs. My experience tells me that effective custom programs can be developed, implemented and be successful. In addition, the knowledge and tools to be successful are available, and there's a niche market for such services.
How do you take the initial step towards a goal of providing custom services? As previously mentioned, you have to inventory the problems you anticipate in a location. Then you look at them from what we call a temporal perspective. In other words, when do they occur? What time of year do you typically encounter this problem or what are the conditions that encourage such a problem?
Then you can begin to get your arms around the task at hand. You've got to ask the question of how you can provide season-long insect control that assures the highest quality turf, is cost-effective and environmentally acceptable. This is where you need a similar spreadsheet of the control options that are available. Many questions need to be answered and they include: are the products broad spectrum, how long do they last, are they applied in a preventive manner, do they fit the environmental profile I am seeking?
From these two spreadsheets you can begin to match up problems with solutions, prevention versus cure, efficiency and quality of the turf. Some products will allow for the prevention of consistent pests that show up every year, while offering protection against other pests that are more sporadic.
Some pests can easily be monitored and controlled with a wait and see approach. Matching these all up is challenging, but the final product of integrating all your control options with all of your potential problems is your reward. More than likely, you will want to offer a monitoring or scouting program that gives clients a sense of security and personal service. This gives you a chance to customize and apply many products as-needed.
Risks of wait and see
Taking the wait-and-see approach will be preferred by some customers, but keep in mind the risks and rewards. Concerns include the time and cost of a scouting program required for this approach. Letting mole crickets or white grubs get established and grow to a relatively large size means potential turf damage and a lot of trouble and expense trying to manage them. Due to the human health concern, the same can be said for fire ants.
Weigh the risks and returns on how you develop your program and which products you chose. For some the use of combination products may appear to be the best option for custom management as they're broad spectrum and effective. But, in other situations, there may only be one pest and other products may offer better control at a lower price, and be more acceptable than the use of a combination product.
If you take the insect programming you develop and overlay that with weeds and disease and all the other issues that can emerge during the season, it's easy to see why such programming is a challenge and without really good planning and a solid knowledge base, the results for both you and your customer can be less than desirable.
That being said, I think today is a great time to consider the option of offering custom turf management programs. My reasoning is that we have really, really good products today in turf. The insecticides we have today offer excellent control of the wide array of insect pests that we encounter. The level of control that is observed with today's new products is as good or better than any products we have ever had on the market.
Customized turf management programs may include more scouting services such as soapy water flushes to monitor insect populations.
Products allow customization
Today's products have all been developed under strict regulatory mandates and must meet or exceed the highest level of human health, safety and environmental criteria. As a boy in the 1960s, I applied a lot of products on the farm that were highly toxic to people, pets, wildlife and fish. I can tell you that the low toxicities of our new products are valuable. It helps us be more confident and certainly helps put the public at ease. Today's products go out at low-use rates, are available in a wide range of formulations including on fertilizers, and with reduced odors, while still offering good residual control.
Combination products such as Allectus, Aloft and Tandem have created a lot of interest in combining a neonicitinoid insecticide like Merit, Meridian or Arena with a pyrethroid such a Talstar or Scimitar. These combinations offer some benefits and appear to give end users a lot of confidence. The use of generic products to tank mix and create a similar combination has also gained a lot of popularity.
The availability of new technology such as tablets and smartphones also makes scouting and monitoring a lot easier through constant contact with your staff as you can exchange photos and text questions. It's a new age when it comes to keeping in touch with employee/employer interactions and these new tools really make it a lot easier to stay on top of problems and make informed decisions.
Access to diagnostic tools and control recommendations are at your fingertips. These tools even make it easy to keep your clients informed including video messaging to tell them what you found, how you responded and what they should expect. Technology has made implementing a high level IPM program in turf a process that's practical and can be profitable.
Custom turf management requires stepping up your game a notch or two. It's not for everyone and probably not something that works everywhere, but as I travel around the country, I do hear folks tell me their recent success stories. All of them include taking advantage of their local university experts, understanding how to use today's new products effectively, and using new technology to increase efficiency and customer service. Good luck!
Rick L. Brandenburg, Ph.D., is Wm. Neal Reynolds professor and co-director of the Center for Turfgrass Environmental Research and Education at North Carolina State University, Raleigh, N.C.