Advances in Turf Technology
By Brad Shaver, Ph.D.
Brad Shaver received his Ph.D. from Clemson University in Plant and Environmental Sciences. Dr. Shaver is the specialty division agronomist for Helena Chemical Company. He can be reached at ShaverB@HelenaChemical.com.
Over the past several months I've had the opportunity to travel around the country speaking to turfgrass managers about Helena's Rx360 precision management services. I usually detest buzz words such as "precision management". Too often they are incorrectly used for anything that someone wants to associate with a trendy topic. That said and after much thought and consideration I have failed to come up with a better description for the Rx360 services. But this article isn't just about Rx360. It's about the broader discussions I have had regarding all the new technology, products and services coming to the turf industry.
Technology advances on a logarithmic scale. The emergence of new technology speeds up the emergence of new technology. Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in 1876. In 1973, almost 100 years later, an executive at Motorola made the first phone call from a handheld mobile phone. Only 37 years later the iPhone was released. Imagine what “mobile devices” will look like in the next 30 years. So it goes with our industry. Design and construction techniques, turfgrass breeding and pest management options continuously improve and the evolution of equipment and irrigation technology has followed suit. Gang reels are almost nostalgic and seeing a hydraulic irrigation system is like finding an old rotary phone.
Please understand, I’m not saying there is anything wrong with gang reels and old irrigation systems. They have their place. There are plenty of people who prefer flip phones. Hat’s off to those folks. My nostalgic side longs for the days when we didn’t have computers on our belt clips. However, there are obvious benefits to having such vast amounts of information at our fingertips.
Back to the Future
I believe that the turfgrass industry is on the cusp of seeing the widespread adaptation of several technological advances. You don’t have to look very hard to find examples like drones with NDVI sensors, robotic greens mowers, and gps guided soil-nutrient mapping. In case you aren’t familiar with NDVI, it stands for Normalized Difference Vegetation Index and is used to indicate the amount of visible and near-infrared light reflected from a plant. NDVI technology was developed in the 1970’s and is just now finding its way into the hands of superintendents.
A recent article on TurfNet.com highlighted the use of robotic mowers at Valley Brook Country Club in Pennsylvania. Their battery-powered mowers have programmed boundaries for each green in the onboard computer system. Tracking wires around the perimeter of each green, along with sound and light waves from beacons placed around the green, precisely guide the mowing units. Valley Brook’s Superintendent, John Shaw, CGCS credits the mowers for increasing greens speed while allowing him to raise the height of cut and drastically improving his staff’s efficiency.
Helena Chemical Company offers a soil mapping service called Rx360. Helena’s field specialists take soil samples and provide detailed nutrient maps and customized recommendations for the entire course. Using data generated by Rx360, customers now have the ability to make variable-rate applications of granular and liquid fertilizers. Even without variable-rate capabilities the information can still help determine if problem areas on the course are nutritionally related. Rx360 can also be used to monitor outbreaks of insects or disease and record gps referenced affected areas.
I was first introduced to the FieldScout TDR probe from Spectrum Technologies roughly 12 years ago as a graduate student at the University of Arkansas. At that time they were primarily used by university researchers. Last week I visited a course that had three FieldScout probes. Today there are soil moisture probes that wirelessly transmit moisture and location data to your iPhone (see the Stevens POGO).
Side note: speaking of the University of Arkansas; Dr. Mike Richardson and Dr. Doug Karcher present a nice seminar on “gadgets and gizmos” for use in turfgrass. Make sure to look for it and sign up at the next conference you go to.
To Infinity and Beyond
The potential uses of these technologies are limitless. Imagine arriving at the golf course early in the morning and going to ride the course with the technological director on your staff. You point out a robotic greens mower that may need to be recalibrated because the overlap is getting to big. She reminds you to order new blades for the front-nine automatic rough mower.
As you arrive back at the shop, the back-nine drone is landing having completed its morning scan. You walk back into your office and see some interesting NDVI readings that just uploaded to your computer. With a few clicks you send your pest management technician a spray file: “Time for a dollar spot application in these areas”, the accompanying note says, “and based on that last batch of tissue samples you better add some CoRoN on 16 green”.
The pest management technician loads the spray drone with a fungicide pod and heads out on the course. He watches as the drone, using application files produced from the NDVI maps, applies the fungicide on several greens and only on a few thousand square feet. On 16 green the drone applies a broadcast fertilizer application from the auxiliary tank, switching the fungicide nozzles on and off as needed.
I don’t expect the above scenario to play out anytime soon but the technology is already here. To be fair, some technology never pans out the way we thought. Anyone remember Google Glass? What the heck happened there? It seemed like a cool idea at the time but when it came time to actually wear the device no one wanted to be “that guy”. However, most technology proves to be just as beneficial as first imagined. The questions I have been asking the past several months are how likely are superintendents to utilize these emerging technologies and how long will it take for them to embrace it?
From the conversations I’ve had, most people fall into one of three groups. The first group is the flip-phone superintendents, the ones that aren’t at all impressed by new technology. They have their ways and it works for them. You know who these folks are in your area; they are the old school superintendents. They use a pocket knife instead of moisture meter, and their greens look just as good, if not better than anyone’s.
Next are the early adapters. These are the trendsetters, the folks that must have the latest and greatest “thing”. They will try anything once no matter how unproven the product or service is so they can say “I was the first superintendent in my state to…” One superintendent told me that he couldn’t wait to try new technology even if he wasn’t exactly sure how or if it would apply it to turf management. “I like to figure these things out for myself” he said. His attitude is prevalent among the early adapters.
Finally, there is the middle group. We can call them the fence sitters. They like to watch from the edge of the pool and occasionally dangle their feet in the water. Eventually they will get comfortable enough to jump in but not before they’ve analyzed the situation carefully. Some of these superintendents I’ve talked to are excited about the technology but are admittedly intimated by learning something new and complex. Others see the potential benefits but are not convinced of the value. These superintendents might try the new technology but they want all the kinks worked out first, and they need to be shown exactly how they can justify the cost. The fence sitters are the largest group. If companies cannot effectively sell new technology to the fence sitters then it’s probably not going to last and will wind up on the shelf next to Google Glass.
I’ve enjoyed my conversations with superintendents from each group and I’ve learned a lot from them. I respect their positions on the subject. Depending on who I am talking to I find my own thoughts about new technology migrating between groups. I can really see all sides. I’d like to consider myself an early adapter. Part of what I love about my job is working with Rx360 and the opportunities I’ve had to see and experience new things. Sometimes I’m envious of the technology that my kids will experience in their lifetime but I also wish they would put down the iPad and play a game of checkers with me. Maybe that makes me more of a fence sitter. I can live with that.
Regardless of what group you are in, new technology is going to affect the way superintendents manage turfgrass in the not-so-distant future. There is nothing wrong with sticking to what you are familiar with but I encourage you to keep an open mind. In other words, don’t give up the pocket knife if it’s working well for you but those drones look really cool! By the way, I’m looking for a 1970’s model rotary phone if you happen to come across one.