Pesticide reduction study at Bethpage Park generates interest among Canadian courses
By Mike Jiggens
With golf courses having to abide by stricter government regulations
regarding their maintenance practices, a certain amount of attention is
being paid to an ongoing study that began 12 years ago in New York
State in which pesticide use has been reduced substantially.
Cornell University’s Dr. Frank Rossi helped spearhead the study launched at Long Island’s Bethpage State Park, and shared his findings with those who attended January’s Ontario Golf Superintendents Association conference in Niagara Falls.
The project was initiated in response to pending state-wide legislation which would ban pesticide use on all municipal golf courses, including the renowned Bethpage State Park whose Black course was the site of the 2002 and 2009 U.S. Open golf tournaments. Rossi said the legislation affected only publicly-managed land, including all state golf courses. Chemicals bearing an EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) registration were subject to the ban. This included plant growth regulators as well as any biological products bearing an EPA number.
About a dozen county and municipal courses on Long Island were affected as well as 27 state parks throughout New York.
With the assistance of a colleague, Rossi felt it was imperative to develop a means for superintendents to manage their turf without the help of pesticides. The United States Golf Association was approached with the idea of conducting standard plot trials, but the organization instead suggested work be done on an actual golf course.
Rossi said his response to the challenge was, “What kind of golf course is going to let us basically allow their greens to die?”
The Cornell team already had a good working relationship with the staff at Bethpage Park, and its Green course was offered up for the study. In all, five separate golf courses make up the 1,500-acre park, as well as a polo field, picnic areas, riding stables and riding trails. The park’s Black and Red courses are regarded as its championship layouts while the Blue, Yellow and Green courses are more “run-of-the-mill” courses, Rossi said.
The park had fallen into disarray in the early to mid-1990s, but, when it was announced the Black course would be the site of the 2002 U.S. Open, an enormous influx of funds was earmarked to improve the quality of the entire park.
The Green course, site of the pesticide-reduction study, was constructed in 1936.
“Becoming more sustainable is more than just using less fertilizer, less pesticides and less water,” said Rossi, who was at the park every two weeks from April to November throughout the study period.
During the course of the project, Rossi said he has evolved in his thinking of integrated pest management, “and I believe we have redefined it for our needs in New York State.”
Rossi said he believed the original definition of IPM as initially conceived by state legislators was too time consuming, too expensive and would involve far too much paperwork.
Two objectives were established at the outset of the study in 2000:â€ˆhow do we get information to golf superintendents to figure out how to do this (reduce their pesticide reliance), and how do we demonstrate to the people who write these laws the challenges we face in an immediate ban of pesticides.
He said it was important to let the policy-makers know how much more of a challenge this was going to be than they originally thought.
The project began by targeting strictly putting greens. The question became how to culturally manage the greens, including mowing, rolling, watering and fertilizing.
“How do we do that to create this sort of mythical idea of what a healthy plant is?”
The idea, he said, was to culture the plants in a way so they were healthy and wouldn’t need as many pesticides. If products were to be used, it was important to have the necessary data on hand.
“The goal here was to move from a product-based approach, from solving your problems with your products to thinking about how you might solve your problems with your practices.”
Rossi said that as a product-based industry, superintendents aren’t particularly flexible with their cultural management. Everything tends to be regimented with regard to how work is done on the golf course, including mowing at certain times of the day.
Spraying and mowing at night was one of the strategies tried during the Bethpage project. Some of the products used were sensitive to ultra-violet light and some of the available data suggested that mowing at night led to disease due to the disruption of growing patterns in the evening.
The evening strategies, however, led to other problems, including labour, safety and personnel issues. Rossi said there wasn’t much flexibility in being able to change traditional practices, so the easiest way to do things was to try different products.
Greens at Bethpage are smaller than average, but are subject to tremendous amounts of play. When the project began, a sharp decline in the number of rounds played was realized which led to the accomplishment of the study’s second objective. Legislators poised to pass the pesticide legislation visited the Green course, saw the condition of the putting surfaces, and realized their original blanket ban idea was perhaps not the way to go.
The visiting legislators looked at pesticides somewhat differently, understanding that lumping together everything with an EPA number wasn’t necessarily the ideal approach.
When Rossi and his team saw the laws altered, they were able to change their processes accordingly. By the third year of the study, not having to watch the six greens that had died in the first two years die again, they opted to change one of their pesticide programs to allow for reduced risk products.
Rossi said golfers were reluctant to play the Green course because of the Cornell study, referring to the Long Island golfer as a “crude species” whose belief was that if one temporary green was put in play, their green fee should be reduced by one-18th of the original cost.
In response to the reduction in play, management at the Green course duped golfers into believing the study was over by erecting signage to that effect. Rossi said the study, in fact, continued as planned, and the intentionally misguided public helped to boost the amount of play. The strategy coincided with the fact the greens weren’t losing grass as they had before.
The Green course at Bethpage State Park is managed by five full-time grounds staff. Rossi said that might not be a particularly large labour force, but, if everyone is on the same page as to how to go about their duties, it doesn’t take more labour to practise IPM.
“The way to reduce pesticide use is to be mindful of where your problems are and recognize the conditions you are facing in the next few days.”
In dealing with cutworms, for example, staff found if they went out with a solid tine unit and some sand, poked holes in the putting surface, smoothed it over with sand, and rolled it, much of their cutworm applications were eliminated.
Throughout the course of the study, the research team scouted regularly and kept precise records.
Rossi said healthy plants can’t be grown on a site which doesn’t support healthy plant growth. Healthy plant growth requires light, good air movement and the ability to drain. Superintendents who wish to reduce their pesticide use will have to fix sites to ensure good light, air movement and drainage.
“You simply can’t reduce your reliance on pesticides if you’ve got marginal growing environments that challenge the plants that are there.”
If a superintendent wishes to reduce his pesticide use, yet has pushup greens which drain poorly, he’s got to get more sand in, Rossi said.
“You don’t transform these problematic greens from a soil perspective with one or two hollow tine cultivations per year and bury in the sand.”
Instead, what must be done is to “suck it up and make holes like crazy,” get the plugs off, bury the sand and get on the right track.
Rossi said he has found over the years that if they get a four to six-inch sand base above their old pushup greens, they can stop pulling cores. Now, holes are simply poked and sand is being put in.
The performance of the greens was constantly monitored, with adjusted practices made to meet the needs of the researchers. The quality of the greens was deemed below acceptable at the outset, but then improved over the the course of the season.
Rossi said they were able to drop their environmental risks by about 90 per cent with reduced pesticides, yet could still provide good ball roll speeds.
Back in 2000, one of the cornerstones of their alternative cultural treatments was to make holes in the putting green every month of the growing season.
“What I’ve learned in 10 years is that you’re never going to change what you’re doing if you don’t try new and different things.”
This can be accomplished by choosing one green and taking “baby steps,” he said.
With all the sanding and rolling being done now, the greens are sealing up and less algae is visible than was seen prior to the number of holes regularly made on the greens. The alternative culture greens are needle-tined every three weeks during the growing season.
When the study at Bethpage first got underway, no one topdressed during the summer because of the fear of anthracnose. Rossi said studies have since shown that, although the risk of anthracnose remains, persistent topdressing allows the crown of the plant to be buried, creating a better chance for recovery, and there is apt to be less anthracnose over time.
Rossi’s mowing research suggests that the interaction between the base of the plant (the crown, where anthracnose occurs) and the mower is where much of all anthracnose problems occur. The further that growing point can be moved down in the profile away from mowers, the better the plant’s chances are of staving off anthracnose, he said.
Herbicides haven’t been used on the research greens for about eight years and most insecticides have been eliminated.
Dollar spot is the single biggest issue greens face, but, as an industry, little about how it operates is understood, Rossi said.
“We don’t worry about it because we’ve got 10,000 things that control it.”
If the industry should lose those control methods, however, there is apt to be trouble, he added.
Rossi said there should be three aspects for assessing chemicals: does it work, is it effective, and what’s its environmental impact?
As much as there is a possibility for golf courses to change their management practices, new products or practices have to be plugged into existing cultural management programs, he said, adding golf still adopts a product-based approach, even after 10 years.
Studies included reduced risk products and their impact on human health and groundwater, their toxicity levels, their low resistance potential, and their compatability with IPM. Organic products were also tried.
“We found, on their own, they don’t necessarily work very well, but, when integrated with other materials, we can find ways to reduce their overall use.”
One of the key cultural management practices done during the growing season on the golf course’s alternative cultural greens was that they were mowed no more than four days a week.
“We really cut back on our mowing. We really had to cut back on our fertility because if you’re driving that fertility or if you’re irrigating in such a way that you’re releasing nitrogen out of that soil, and, if you skip mowing as much as we’re doing, you’re going to get really slow rates. So you’ve got to adjust that.”
The mindset adopted by the industry is that it’s assumed chemicals and fertilizers are needed, but Rossi said it’s important to think differently.
“If you’re not interested in learning new stuff, you better go find a new line of work because this is a science-based industry.
When the study began, soil testing was done which revealed all greens were pretty much the same. After eight years, however, nitrogen was used only on the lower greens, and a dramatic reduction in pH was realized.
One of the biggest things seen was that although potassium was “dumped on like crazy,” the greens weren’t significantly different than those which hadn’t been supplied potassium in eight years.
Rossi said one might ask what’s the “big deal” about potassium since it has no environmental concerns, but he likened it to not needing a light turned on in an unoccupied room.
“If you don’t need it, don’t use it.”
According to his research, the more potassium applied, the more grey snow mould would appear.
The less annual bluegrass present in a cool climate setting, the less pesticides will be needed. Annual bluegrass is still present on the greens being studied at Bethpage State Park, having adapted to the type of management being supplied. Rossi said his research suggested that would never happen.
Even though the state of New York has been in bad financial shape in recent years, it has continued to fund the research project with an annual injection of $75,000. The state estimates it is saving $100,000 a year by not using as much costly product.
Regarding sustainability, Rossi said a golf course cannot be sustained if the greens die and golfers don’t come out to play. Sustainability is also about meeting both the social and economic needs of the golf course.
“I believe that actually intervening is a more sustainable approach because it helps you reach your goal of keeping that golf course open for the golfers.”
Rossi said he has figured out over time how to select the least toxic option and use it on a regular basis to reduce overall reliance and reduce pesticide use. If something can be cut in half over a 40-acre area, it represents a significant savings when dealing with fairways. He warned, however, that one can’t skimp on greens.
“Golfers can be more forgiving about the quality of their fairways, but not their greens.”
He said he can’t understand why tees must be cut so low when golfers are routinely using big-headed drivers with the ball teed up well above the ground. Tees cut at three-eighths of an inch will require more maintenance than those cut at one-half or three-quarters of an inch, he said.
According to a survey among golfers, the number of those who want pesticides used on golf courses “no matter what” has increased while the number of those who think they should be used more judiciously has decreased.
“As economics has hit the golf business, this is the one part of their life they’re not willing to sacrifice. They want high-quality conditions.”
Rossi said there are groups of non-golfers who believe the game is a scourge of society, and they will never be satisfied, no matter what the industry does. Policy makers tend to listen to the people who scream the loudest, he said.
“We have to continue to educate them. Don’t wait until there are laws we don’t like.”
The cost of controlling a pest per day can vary, depending on the situation. A high-rate material which is inexpensive may offer seven to 10 days of control while another material at a low rate may give 21 days of control. Understanding the difference in cost-per-day control allows golf courses to become economically sustainable.
There is still a lot more to be learned about pesticide reduction, Rossi said.