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Keeping things simple can be a formula for profit in the lawn care business

May 8, 2015  By  Mike Jiggens

NOT all lawn care businesses offer their customers the same program options, but most are structured on a tier system in which one will offer customers more services than another.

Keeping things fairly simple is important for customer relations and can lead to a more profitable business, an audience of lawn care professionals was told in March.

Technical agronomist Sean Jordan of Nutrite spoke at a Nutrite-sponsored forum in Guelph about sound lawn care programs, noting that the multi-tiered program setup is an effective means of saving time when it comes to sales, not having to requote for every customer, and not having to refigure for every property.

But incorporating too many program tier options can work against the lawn care professional.

One of his customers—a smaller business with 35 to 40 customers—offered about five different program options. The business owner consulted with Jordan about incorporating certain Nutrite products into her programs. Jordan learned that she wasn’t selling any of one program offered and only a few of two other program options. Several of another program were sold, however. Together, they pared the program offerings down to three options.

Jordan said having five different programs was simply too many for the customer to digest, and it was also time-consuming for the lawn care professional to have to explain five different programs to her customers.

It’s much easier to say, he said, “Here’s a basic program which covers all the fertility bases. Here’s the next level up which may include some aeration and overseeding. The next level up from that might include some salt damage control as well as weed control.

“Understand your customers in that they don’t want to spend a whole lot of time thinking about it. They just want to know what the end result’s going to be. If you throw too many options at them, it’s just going to be a bad day.”

The multi-tiered program setup, in which gold, silver and bronze packages are typically offered, can simplify things for a lawn care business. Jordan said the professional figures out a per square foot or per 1,000-square-foot price, making the math easier when trying to sell the program. The multi-tiered program setup also helps with inventory management because programs are built on one or two or three products.

Jordan told his audience it is important for them to know their soils so that they’re not needlessly throwing around a lot of money.

For inventory management, it is best to keep the number of products in a program to a minimum, he said.

“It’s so much easier to have one or two skids from which you can just draw bags than have half a dozen bags of this, three or four bags of that, and having to keep it straight in your head what needs to go into the truck for every particular set of business.”

Visits should be made to count, he emphasized. Professionals can focus on one problem at a time and not have to juggle two or three pieces of application equipment or cleanup equipment.

A good program from a fertility standpoint depends on how and how much nitrogen is put down.

“How much nitrogen you put down depends on how you put it down,” Jordan said.

For example, he said, if nitrogen which is 90 per cent slow release is put down, less can be applied because it’s being taken up more efficiently and is being released into the soil more efficiently. It’s a good starting point, he added.

Focus should be on the plant’s green colour and its health and not its growth, Jordan said, adding there are many who will go out in the spring and throw down straight urea or ammonium sulfate or potassium nitrate, thinking they need to get the grass green. There are many ways of doing it other than trying to push the top growth, he said.

Jordan said when he speaks with people about lawn care, it can become a difficult conversation. When talking about a good fertility program, the program should ideally start somewhere around Labour Day, he said. This is because during the summer when temperatures are generally on the rise and there is typically not a lot of direct rainfall, grass goes through a long period of stress.

By starting around Labour Day, temperatures are starting to fall, dead grass slips into a recovery mode and begins to grow well. The further into fall with its shorter days and cooler temperatures, grass enters its reserve building mode. A reserve is built up in the plant’s roots so that in the spring, once snow melts and temperatures begin to warm, the plant has nice roots from which to start growing.

A good fertility program which begins about Labour Day, with readily-available nitrogen the first couple of weeks in September, will produce good reserves to work with by April.

If one waits until April and the plant is going hungry, the grass is going to grow once temperatures rise, Jordan said. Whatever reserves were there, where suddenly there is a lot of top growth, it will lose its reserves, and by summer it will have fewer roots to work with to get through the stress.

“If you hit it hard in April or even early May with a whole lot of nitrogen, it’s going to take those reserves out of the ground and put it into top growth.”

Jordan said that approach won’t have the same effect as would a program which begins in the fall. He admitted the strategy may not be realistic in the way programs are sold, “but it would be nice to shift that way.”

Soil tests will tell a professional where adjustments or improvements are needed, and is a tool that can be used to help set up a program and from which it can be monitored every couple of seasons.

Jordan said trying to build around a calendar can be tough when looking at a three-application program. Some companies have hundreds if not thousands of customers, and it’s virtually impossible to deal with all of them at the same time. They must be dealt with around a calendar to an extent. Looking at yearly temperature averages, the professional can figure out approximately when the soil temperature will be 10 degrees Celsius. The first application can then be put down when the plant can actually use it. If the ground is too cold, however, the plant can’t take it up.

He said a higher percentage of slow-release nitrogen is desired for the first couple of applications, and then a more readily-available nitrogen application can be made in the fall.

“We base nitrogen requirements on use and species.”

Outside of that, adjustments are based on the age of the lawn. A new lawn, he said, might need an extra pound in its first year because it’s trying to push hard to grow in more densely.

With older lawns, nitrogen amounts can be reduced because there is a certain amount of organic matter in the soil that is being turned over by the microbial population which is releasing nitrogen from the organic matter.

If clippings are returned, about a pound of nitrogen can be dropped from a program, Jordan said, adding a pound is relative to the type of nitrogen source being used. By removing clippings, “you are taking away the 14 essential nutrients by the bucketful.”

Clippings should only be removed, he said, when the grass is so tall that when mowed they lie in deep clumps. Clippings do not contribute to thatch buildup, he emphasized.

In general, six pounds of nitrogen should never be exceeded nor should fewer than three applications be made annually, Jordan said.

He said he is personally opposed to early spring aerations, suggesting they are not as effective and can be damaging to the soil as compared with aerating in late summer or early fall.

Asked about the pros and cons of an organic or natural program, Jordan they usually require more visits because even the best organic or natural products will last no more than eight or nine weeks, and they are more expensive. The products also tend to have a higher phosphorus ratio to the nitrogen and potassium which makes it more difficult to build a good 4:1:3 NPK ratio program from those.

Season-long applications tend to be the most agronomically sound. Jordan acknowledged the industry wishes to “wave the green flag as much as is humanly possible,” adding that by using the highest possible efficiency fertilizers, more of what is applied makes it into the plants with less getting into the atmosphere or the groundwater.

Salt injury remediation is a much sought-after program additive among many lawn care customers whose lawns annually show the damage caused by winter roadside salt use. Jordan said a simple gypsum application can be made in the spring and fall. Gypsum reintroduces calcium into the soil. Calcium sulfate snags the sodium from the soil and leaches away with it. The entire lawn doesn’t require treatment, but merely the edges to driveways and sidewalks using a drop spreader.

It is a quick application and is much cheaper than fertilizer, he said.

If lawn care customers wish to have a particulary nice lawn, Jordan said he recommends they purchase a program that includes overseeding.

Working the seed in for good seed-to-soil contact can be done in conjunction with aeration or dethatching.

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