Turf & Rec

Features Profiles
The justification of knowledge


December 21, 2010
By Mike Jiggens


Topics

By Sean R. Jordan
Agronomist

IT is easy to calculate the return on investment for many of the
expenditures turfgrass managers make. Buy a wider or faster mower and
save on labour hours or cover more ground in a day. Bring a newer,
automated reel grinder into the shop and winter hours become more
productive. But have you ever thought about assigning value to the
money spent on obtaining knowledge?

Education and diagnostic tools tend to be undervalued as their return on investment, in most cases, is intangible. Below are some basic examples of how to relate value to learning opportunities and diagnostic tools.

Conferences

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We are fortunate in the turf industry to have professional organizations specific to each area of turfgrass management. Whether your field is landscaping, golf course and sports field management or sod production, there is a non-profit, professional organization devoted to creating networking and educational opportunities.

For those in the golf course management sector of our industry, attending conferences to acquire continuing education credits (CECs) has become a necessary reality. While conference and seminar attendance is mandatory for some, they are an opportunity that should be taken by all.

Most provincial and regional conferences have three components that make them very beneficial: seminars and/or presentations, trade shows and social events.

Seminars and presentations at conferences tend be given by people related to the industry with the purpose of disseminating information directly related to managing personnel, turf and equipment in more efficient ways. Some talks are simply designed to explain to the attendees how and why things work the way they do. Granted, not every talk will make a turf manager smarter or change how they do things, but over time these presentations will make attendees better equipped to make more sound decisions.

As a result of pesticide bans, it has become necessary for many to “go back to school” to learn to manage pests without conventional pesticides. The cost of attending conferences and seminars can indirectly be returned through more efficient use of alternative pesticides and result in healthier lawns and athletic fields, in spite of the ban.

Trade shows are also an important part of conferences as they are an opportunity to meet vendors and gather information on equipment and materials. Incorporating trade shows into conferences helps pay for the rental of the meeting hall, reducing the cost to the attendees, and it brings the latest and greatest into one place, making for efficient information gathering for managers.

Look at the agenda for any conference, and you will find time set aside for socializing. While many view this as a time to catch up with old work and school mates, it inevitably becomes a forum on management practices with discussions on battling disease, stress and labour problems. It is at these networking events where managers learn from others who have solved similar problems.

Webinars

The concept of a webinar is a relatively new one, but in theory it is similar to the presentations and seminars available at conferences. For those of you who have never taken the time to participate in one of these events, it is quite simple. Attendees log into a slide show on the Internet that is controlled by the presenter and phone into a conference call for the audio portion. As you would imagine, a conference call with its participants phoning in from maintenance shops would have a good bit of background noise, so the audience is generally muted until the question and answer section at the end. 

During the presentation, however, viewers can type questions to the presenter so that they can be answered while they are still on the subject. Because this is a slide show-dependent presentation, there tends to be a great deal of information in the form of pictures and graphs on the slides, and much of the emphasis comes from the speakers’ tone. This can sometimes be a more efficient way to present information as a closed office has fewer distractions than a conference room full of hundreds of people.

Webinars are offered for a fee through regional and national associations, with the cost generally going to cover the cost of the web service and presenter’s time.  In some cases, the webinars are offered free of charge by companies to highlight new products or services. These electronic venues are a great place for groups to converge for education without ever having to leave their respective offices and offer education throughout the year.

Unfortunately, the value of these webinars is too often unrecognized. I was disturbed when I recently learned that a webinar presented earlier this year by a professor of turfgrass pathology—known for his work testing fungicide efficacy—was attended by less than 1 per cent of the turf managers in the sponsoring association. If the total cost of attending the webinar was $50 plus 11/2 hours of time, and the participant was able to save just one application of fungicide using what he learned in the presentation, then the cost could have been recovered many times over.

Think of participating in a webinar as an interactive video presentation where your questions can be answered in real time at a fraction of the cost of attending a conference. Although you will not have the multiple other benefits of attending a conference in person, this is a great alternative if travel is impractical.

Diagnostic tools

If the turf industry is anything, it is equipment intensive. There are specialized tools designed to do everything from cutting grass at less than one-tenth of an inch to relieving compaction in the soil and sharpening mowers automatically while we work on something else. There are millions of dollars spent on research and development every year, trying to improve the efficiency of our industry so that maybe someday turf managers can work more normal schedules (like 60 hours per week!). But the tools that are often overlooked or not given much consideration due to their cost and apparent lack of return are ones that can have the greatest impact over time. Diagnostic tools such as soil probes and profilers, prisms for evaluating greens height of cut and magnifiers, such as hand lenses, provide lots of information on the status of turf.

A point made by a professor in turf school that has always stuck with me was that the grass just reflects what is happening in the soil. With that in mind, a soil probe could be considered one of the most useful items in the toolbox. With each soil core extracted, information on moisture, composition and plant rooting can be assessed in seconds. Seasoned turf managers know that on hot summer days, turf can go from looking great to purple and stressed in a very short time. Taking the time to regularly check areas that historically show signs of drought stress gives the manager great feedback on irrigation regimens. This tool, however, does not come with an instruction booklet and therefore takes some practice to use well and can provide heaps of information in the hands of an experienced user.

While a soil probe gives you a glimpse of what is happening below the canopy, a soil profiler provides a wide-screen shot of the rhizosphere. The slice of soil taken with this tool will convey similar information to the probe including moisture and composition information, but it also will give you a picture of the soil profile which can aid in determining why certain stresses may be occurring.

Site diagnosis of turf issues involves assessing the situation in a series of steps from a big picture view to close up. When it comes to seeing small differences, a hand lens, and to a greater degree a macroscope, make the job of detecting minute differences possible. Much like a soil probe, hand lenses are inexpensive and should be part of every turf manager’s kit.

While a macroscope is much more expensive (and powerful) than the hand lens, the same purchasing justification can be made as with the prism; if a manager can diagnose a problem as a result of having the device and saves just one incorrect or unnecessary application of pesticide, then the macroscope has easily paid for itself.

For the golf course superintendent, choosing and maintaining the height of cut for putting greens is one of the most crucial aspects of the job. Most know about the discrepancy that often exists between the bench set and effective height of cut of reel mowers, but still feel that purchasing a prism to measure this difference is unnecessary. In a world where consistency is crucial, this tool is particularly useful with greens that are mowed with a combination of triplexes and walking mowers to ensure a comparable height of cut amongst the different mowers.

A prime example of how a diagnostic tool such as a prism can pay for itself would be that of the disease anthracnose. If you are not familiar with this disease, anthracnose is stress-related, primarily occurs on greens height turf and typically requires at least one application of fungicide to control. Research performed at several universities has shown that anthracnose occurs more frequently on very low heights of cut. Even if a turf manager were to learn about this finding and increase the bench set height of cut in an effort to stave off this disease during summer stress periods, there is still the fact that the effective height of cut could still be 0.015 inches to 0.020 inches lower—well below the intended height—thus negating the change. It would take only one fewer fungicide application to one acre of greens with a product labeled for anthracnose to pay for a prism.

In the end, diagnostic tools, if cared for properly, are one-time expenses and will indirectly show returns in more than one way, year after year.

Conclusion

In the turfgrass industry, especially in the current economic times, it is hard to justify spending on something that we can’t touch. With tightening budgets it seems too often that professional development is being cut when in reality it is an item that should be easy to justify. Professional development and diagnostic tools will have a positive impact on the bottom line of almost any turf operation, and will also result in a better overall product that will create happier customers and owners.

Cost: Travel, conference and/or seminar fees (approximately $50-$300).
Returned value: Reductions to operating budget, better turf condition, less overall stress.
Cost: Webinar fee ($0-$50), time (~1 hour).
Returned value: Reductions to operating budget, better turf condition, less overall stress.
Cost: Diagnostic tools ($20-$300).
Returned value: Reduced turf stress, more consistent conditions, better feedback on changes in management practices.