Finding ways to grow more with less

Every golf course superintendent in America would love to be able to do what they’re learning to do at The Cliffs Center for Environmental Golf Research: use as little chemicals, water and fertilizer as possible and still maintain top-quality turfgrass.

“There’s a level of resource reduction that [a superintendent] only feels confident in doing because his job’s on the line based upon the quality of his golf course,” said Dan Brazinski, vice president of agronomy for the Travelers Rest, S.C.-based golf and residential complex that is home to the center.

“This is a facility that will allow us to pull that resource input back to the point where quality does hurt, and we can define where that line is,” he explained. “Sharing that information with the rest of the country will be huge for everybody.”

That’s the mission here at this joint research project with Clemson University, Cliffs Communities and industry partners such as the Toro Co.: to minimize the inputs on golf courses in order to minimize environmental impact and, at the same time, maximize the bottom line.

Photos by Ron Barnett.
Dan Brazinski walks along one of the future test plots. Mike Harbin, DanBrazinski and Dr. Haibo Liu talk about the future of the research project in front ofthe house that was renovated for use as office space and labs at the Cliffs Centerfor Environmental Golf Research.

The project, announced last fall and just beginning grow-in this spring, will use soil probes, water collection monitoring stations and lab equipment such as soil gas meters and color meters to measure the input and output that goes into creating and maintaining golf course-quality turfgrass.

Dr. Haibo Liu, associate professor of turfgrass research at Clemson, says he believes fertilizer application can be reduced by as much as 40 percent, and pesticides may be able to be eliminated altogether by use of disease-resistant turfgrass varieties and improved management.

“We can reduce nitrogen input by selecting better grasses, by selecting better sources of nitrogen and by better management practices,” he said.

Back to basics

Liu has been studying minimal use of water, fertilizer and chemicals on turfgrass for more than 20 years. His work has shown that nitrogen application can be reduced by 60 percent on Kentucky bluegrass by leaving clippings when the course is mowed.

The Cliffs research center is adjacent to one of the company’s newest golf courses, Mountain Park, also known as the “river course,” which was designed by Gary Player and is still under construction.

This penetrometer will be used to measure the degree of compaction in soil at The Cliffs Center for Environmental Golf Research. A color meter, which will be used at The Cliffs Center for Environmental Golf Research to measure the color of turfgrass.

The research center includes two organic, par-3 holes and about 30,000 square feet of turf plots, where tests will be done on various types of grasses under a variety of management practices.

A house along the North Saluda River in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains has been converted for use as labs and offices for the center, which was used as a llama farm before becoming part of the Cliffs project.

Liu and Mike Harbin, director of golf course maintenance at The Cliffs, will head up the operation, which will employ several graduate students from Clemson and a plot manager.

“These are two of the most respected guys in our industry,” Brazinski said of Liu and Harbin. “To have the two of them teaming together working on this is incredible.”

The par 3’s will be used to experiment with zoysia and bermudagrass, and a sports turf study will be done on an 8-acre plot nearby, Harbin said.

Because up to 70 percent of the total input of water and chemicals on a typical golf course is on the greens, which account for just 2 to 3 percent of the turf, the center’s efforts will focus on management of greens.

A collection area, where drainage from turf plots will be collected and then analyzed.

Scientific method

Each of the turf plots at the center is about 6,000 square feet. Each will be planted with one variety of turfgrass, but subjected to a variety of different treatments.

Information about soil temperature, moisture, salinity and other data will be transmitted from inground sensors to a computer in the research center, along with data from a weather station, which will keep precise readings of weather conditions.

The Toro irrigation system has been laid out to allow researchers to pinpoint application of water, and use it in the most efficient manner.

One plot will be of Mini-Verde bentgrass, which uses less fungicides than the more common varieties, Harbin said. Another will be of seashore paspalum, a native beachfront grass that is tolerant of the higher salinity that is found in effluent water, which may be used as an environmentally efficient method of watering and fertilizing turfgrass.

The center will also test L-93 bentgrass and do experiments for sports field and home lawn applications as well.

All the test plots were built to U.S. Golf Association specifications, although one hole on one of the par-3 greens, a combination of bermuda and bentgrass, will use regular soil instead of the standard sand-peat mixture.

Water reduction tests will examine evapotranspiration rates to help the researchers understand the most efficient use of irrigation. Liu expects to be able to cut the amount of water used by 20 to 30 percent.

“The key is monitoring soil moisture to make sure you’re just getting what’s needed,” he said.

Researchers will measure nutrient efficiency by taking soil samples and analyzing grass clippings. If nitrogen levels drop below 2 percent, the grass will be deficient. It should remain at 3 to 5 percent, he said.

Various mowing approaches will also be tested, using a 1/8-inch cut as the standard and trying lower and higher cuts.

The project will use Toro equipment exclusively, and work with that company’s research and development department. Toro may use the facility to test the use of alternative fuel sources, Brazinski said.

The center will use a hydronics system that will allow precise controlling of the soil temperature, “just like a thermostat in your house,” Harbin said. The system will cycle water through underground tubes, with a computer determining how much water needs to go through and at what temperature to keep the soil temperature where researchers want it.

The system will be electric powered, but the center may experiment with solar power as well, he said.

“If you’re able to control the temperature of your soil, I think you’ll be able to do away with a lot of the problems that you have with summer stress,” Harbin said.

The right thing

Jim Anthony, developer of The Cliffs, “knew it was a great idea before we did” to create the environmental research center, Brazinski said.

“He will often tell you one of his philosophies is that the right thing to is the profitable thing to do, and he feels like this is the right thing to do,” he said.

The Cliffs at Mountain Park is one of eight private, master-planned residential communities managed by Anthony’s company in upstate South Carolina and western North Carolina.

“Going green is beneficial for all of us—as individuals and families, for our businesses and, ultimately, for our economy as a whole,” Anthony said in announcing the project. “It’s a better way of living, and that’s what we seek to provide here at The Cliffs: the best place to work, live and play in America.”

Clemson President James F. Barker called the collaborative effort “a model for the way a public university can partner with a private company to achieve far-reaching, multidimensional benefits for students, faculty and the business community by focusing together on the wise use and stewardship of our precious environmental resources.”

Dana Lonn, director of Toro’s Center for Advanced Turf Technology said, “The Center represents a unique partnership between university scientists, manufacturers and the golf course owner and operator. It affords all involved the opportunity to apply leading-edge science and technologies to improve the way we care for the outdoors while minimizing the use of resources such as water, energy and plant protectants.”

Ron Barnett is a freelance writer and has been a frequent contributor to Turf over the years. He resides in Easley, S.C.