By Mike Jiggens
PERHAPS the most dangerous expression in the turfgrass industry is, “We’ve always done it this way.” Agronomist John Bladon, a principal with The Chimera Group, speaking at the Ontario Turfgrass Symposium in February at the University of Guelph, said turfgrass professionals need to think hard about the adage and its implications.
When things become routine, biases are formed and the same things are done year after year after year, he said. But outside influences are constantly changing, and these challenges will impact on the ways things are done.
Bladon especially warned the golf superintendents in the audience that if they weren’t particularly concerned about where the industry is going to be in the next five years, that they should be.
Among the challenges turfgrass professionals face today are the weakened Canadian dollar and diminishing budgets. He said the responsibilities of growers will go hand in hand with their attention to detail.
“Find a way to do it with less.”
The quest to become sustainable is all about diversity, Bladon said. There are ecological, economic and political dimensions which make up the three pillars of sustainability.
At the end of the day, he said, turfgrass professionals want to ensure all three components are accounted for in some way, shape or form in order to target a sustainable approach.
The idea surrounding the definition of sustainability is often misunderstood, Bladon said, adding it was apparent during the 2015 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay in Washington State. At the time, there was much discussion about the number of fairway mowers in use as well as the number of volunteers helping out. The event generated millions of dollars which supported the amount of equipment that was used and the number of people assisting, providing an economic model.
He said one must look cautiously at the details of an event before judging it and claiming there is no part of it which is sustainable.
The economic sensitivity of something is apt to be a turfgrass professional’s biggest challenge because the industry is visual in nature. The efforts made to prepare sports fields, lawns and golf courses for play are highly visual.
“Doing less than what you’re accustomed to doing can be a little bit tough on the ego. We don’t want any advice because we take a lot of pride in what we do.”
The availability of money is a key factor in sustainability, and the lack of it may force turfgrass professionals to start doing more with less. When they are making plans with their assistants or lead hands, they may discuss whether a long-practised routine can continue in the long term, wondering if it is sustainable.
“You’ve got to have a mechanism to adapt and face change. If you’re going to make a management decision, make a purchasing decision, make a staffing decision, you’d better take in some data and measure it in some way, shape or form before you pull that trigger, or you’re probably making a bad decision.”
Turfgrass professionals can look at their sites, facilities and people, and begin a process of benchmarking and pooling data in which the efficacy or efficiency of practices or processes can be evaluated. Bladon said turf professionals have information they can rely on year after year to compare everything from fuel consumption to staff labour rates to potassium levels. It doesn’t matter what is chosen to be measured as long as something is measured to gather insight that will lead to better decision-making, he added.
“We can afford” is something important to realize, he said, adding it is the impetus to learn how to do more with less.
The turfgrass professional must be aware of his potential revenue. Larger-market golf clubs, for example, are apt to have bigger budgets because of greater revenues.
Less can be more if turf professionals understand the biases and put aside some of their pride, Bladon said.
Getting a return on investment is the goal, yet it’s critical to address site-specific variables, he said. Maintenance and management plans often deviate from year to year because a piece of machinery might disappear, or a fertilizer disappears, or a staff member disappears, and management shifts “by a few centimetres.” If that happens every year and it is compounded over 15 or 20 years, there becomes a gap that is “25 or 30 centimetres” wide—wide enough to cause a problem.
Checkups must be made on an annual basis to avoid such problems, he said.
Getting the maintenance staff engaged is critical because they are a key component of the operation, whether they are out fertilizing a lawn or on a sports field dealing with a soccer team or working on a golf course.
“They are a big part of who we are and what we’re trying to accomplish.”
Communications with others is imperative, Bladon said, whether it is by a newsletter or placed on social media. It helps with maintaining perspective no matter how difficult the challenge may be and assists with getting away from a pattern of treating symptoms.
He added a pool of data will be helpful in resolving sudden problems, and the turfgrass professional will go past going back to the pattern of treating symptoms and visibly resolving problems. He said they will get tremendous budget relief from that concept, saving themselves time and money.
Risk is another component which may enter the equation. This could include losing fields in the spring to winter kill or losing putting greens. There is always an action and reaction, Bladon said, and turf professionals must be mindful of their user groups.
Benchmarking is exploring any area where investment is taking place and taking a deeper look into it. Bladon suggested starting with one thing.
“Eat the elephant one bite at a time as opposed to trying to swallow it whole.”
He said the process involves selecting a component, defining current processes and any deficiencies of concern, identifying potential data sources needed to attack, collecting the data, communicating, establishing and processing variables, targeting future performance goals, adjusting goals, implementing, reviewing and recalibrating, and then repeating.
The winter season is an ideal time of year to initiate such a strategy, he suggested. An item from a turfgrass professional’s operation can be selected then dissected.
“Take a half-day with your senior team and sit down and choose to strip it apart.”
Bladon added it is a good opportunity to discuss how the data will be gathered and collated and it a good time to train and plan with others how to go about it.
He said there are depths to what is collected. One thing may be chosen for which a deep pool of data is gathered, or perhaps the choice is to look at five things which may generate a shallow pool of data.
“You can customize this based on how you want to get started.”
It is vital to work with a good team and to consider the cost structure for each area to be maintained, Bladon said. If the standard is fairways with three mowing events a week, there will be machinery, labour and fuel costs associated with the event.
Have an accurate measurement for each component, he warned, so that one can be in a position to speak to dollars per hectare or per acre.
Bladon said some of the comments he and his colleagues have fielded from golf course boards of directors, homeowners and sports field user groups is that they wish to take things to the next level, or that they want to be the best there is, or perhaps golf superintendents are doing an excellent job yet are spending too much.
From a business perspective, the turfgrass professional is the head of production who is producing a leisure commodity in which there is a cost-in and cost-out component.
Bladon suggested turfgrass professionals get expectations in writing with revenue and expense goals together. This becomes the standard for a template in constructing production values which is an effective and intelligent means to shape a single budget. It can be accomplished by assembling a small committee for bouncing ideas back and forth. A policy will be produced which will detail how an organization wishes to have its soccer field maintained or perhaps the flowers at a club maintained.
“Those standards will be the key to everything else that follows.”
Details of goals and what is required to meet those goals should be documented, Bladon said, adding such details should include mowing heights and frequencies, nutrient management, cultural practices and topdressing. It should also be noted the standard height of cut on a fairway or football field as well as the tolerance levels for weeds, diseases and other components.
Those standards now provide a template to construct production values or inputs necessary to meet the standard. This may include the labour, supplies, depreciation and fuel needed to carry out those actions. Once they are meshed together, a business plan is produced.
If it is suggested to the turfgrass professional that he needs to reduce his labour, fuel or fertilizer costs, Bladon said he might be able to counter with, “Can we reduce a mowing event and realize the savings from across that mowing event, such as labour, fuel, etc.?”
This will put the turfgrass professional into a position of power because he can then say, “Which event do you want to eliminate, and they have to make the decision and then sign off on that new set of standards.”
Bladon said it is important that everyone involved understands that if money is cut from the budget, it is money cut from the program which influences the value of the commodity being sold.
The turfgrass professional can transition the conversation from someone suggesting a labour budget be cut by 20 per cent to asking “what program do you want to eliminate or cut from our plan of last year?” The question posed to the turfgrass professional is how is he to adjust the standards that are affected by the strategy.
How much or how little depends on the individual turfgrass professional.
“Just choose to get started on something.”
Once a set of processes has been completed, the turfgrass professional is now in a position of power, Bladon said, and will be in a better place when armed with valid information.
People tend to make bad decisions when they are under pressure. Bladon said turfgrass professionals seem to endeavour to accomplish more than they should be doing during the growing season.
“That’s when bad decisions happen.”
The professional must understand the financial implications of what he is doing, Bladon said.