Golf Without Grief

Golf Without Grief

NTS is a pioneer in biological golf course management and there are now many leading clubs around the globe working with these principles. I found it hard to become excited about recreational turf initially, as it seemed a frivolous digression from my work in improving animal and human health via the soil. Teaching new turf tools to green keepers seemed a paltry achievement in comparison to training food producers to lift their game. Then, I thought beyond a better playing surface and realised that there were changes we could encourage that would also reduce environmental impact while minimising chemical contamination of course workers, surrounding estates and the golfers themselves.

I have since consulted on some of the best courses on the planet and have witnessed the hive of activity that precedes the day’s play in a conventional context. The greens are bathed in a soup of fungicides, pesticides, herbicides, nematicides and nitrate-packed, salt fertilisers immediately before the golfers arrive to prove their prowess. There is no way in the world that these pristine white balls are not coated in residues and these contaminants are then absorbed through the hands. The ball is handled at least 18 times on the greens during 18 holes so the unsuspecting golfer is boosting his toxic load with every game. The nitrates leach into local water tables and the chemicals threaten the health of wildlife and the longevity of those living within a stones throw of this misguided management.

The skin is the body’s largest organ and it can soak things up faster than a Sham Wow. Try taping a clove of garlic to the underside of your foot. Within ten minutes your mouth will be flooded with the unmistakable taste of garlic. In this context, it is ludicrous that contamination of cosmetics is not more closely monitored. Less than 20% of the components in skin care products have been checked for their safety, as there are no regulations controlling these additives. I always suggest that you should be prepared to eat your makeup as it is actually entering your body at least as efficiently via the skin. NTS is currently developing a completely natural skin care range that should be suitable for organic certification, but that is another story.

So, how do we pull the pollutants from the greens to minimise potential toxicity to players and the surrounding environment? It’s simple; the same strategies that have created a biological revolution in agriculture work just as well in the sport of kings. Minerals, microbes and precision nutrition combine to deliver a healthier, disease-resilient plant that does not require chemical intervention.

NTS has not actively marketed their successful Golf Course Program, but rather the knowledge has slowly disseminated over the past few years by word of mouth. One of the early converts was Phillip Knight, the accomplished Australian superintendant who presided over the course that hosted the first major tournament in China. The Sheshan course near Shanghai was the first course prepared for a major, without the use of chemicals. I was invited over for the occasion and was looking forward to having a chat with Tiger and the boys to inform them of their good fortune. Unfortunately, it was not possible to get within yelling distance of the players due to the permanent cordon of security guards (mostly female in Tigers case – no just joking!).

I was determined to get the word out, as no one seemed vaguely interested in the chemical-free nature of the occasion. Eventually I was forced to masquerade as an Australian journalist supposedly sent to cover the biological breakthrough and managed to slip a scoop to the international commentators. A brief mention was made on air about the condition of the course and the biological program. It really was testimony to the potential of natural management as it had rained solidly for several days prior to the tournament and this is usually a recipe for disaster. Philip Knight eventually moved from China to Mauritius where he is now superintendant of the prestigious ‘The One and Only Le Touessrok’ course, which has become another biological showpiece.

Perhaps the best way to demonstrate the potential of this nutrition approach is to consider a case study, so we will look at an example that involves the only golf course on Norfolk Island. During my recent visit to my favourite place on the planet I interviewed Simon Biggs, the superintendant of The Norfolk Island Golf Course.

Simon’s Story

Simon was introduced to biological concepts while attending a turf conference in North Queensland. Ben Tilley, the Superintendant of Headlands Golf Course on the Sunshine Coast, had attended the NTS four-day Certificate in Sustainable Agriculture and had successfully introduced the approach at his club. Ben shared his experience and these seeds fell on fertile ground. Simon had originally followed his chemically intensive, “old school” training back on the island, but he was convinced that “there had to be a better way”. He had already started looking for alternatives as his “conscience was calling” and he was not comfortable with chemical contamination of a beachside course that also served as a walking track for campers, joggers, tourists and children.

In response to Ben’s mentoring efforts, Simon decided to attend an NTS course and his employers agreed to support this training initiative. He returned to the island the following week fired for change and he immediately began to introduce the biological concepts. His first step was to soil test selected greens and fairways to enable increased precision in this nutrition-based approach. The test results revealed a host of deficiencies and a high pH driven by calcium-bearing sands that are the basis of this light soil. He recognised that the patchy inconsistency associated with the chemical fertilisers could have been linked to the high soil pH, which tends to negatively affect the uptake of some minerals. Simon decided to address the soil balance on the greens through the application of a Prescription Blend but to address future requirements with foliar applications to bypass the pH related lockups.

Simon noted that his previous turf management education had included no information about soil microbiology and the NTS course was a revelation in this regard. He was taught the mechanics of microbe brewing at the four-day Certificate course and this was one of the first things he initiated upon his return to Norfolk. The tools for brewing bugs are inexpensive and easily accessed. A 200 litre drum and a large fish tank aerator equipped with air stones are all that is required to brew sufficient microbes to cover 18 greens. It is absurdly simple. You just add the freeze dried microbes and food to the water and aerate for 24 hours while they party and multiply.

Simon used the popular NTS product, Nutri-Life 4/20™ for his first brew and applied them to a new putting green that he had designed. This green had never fired and the soil was lifeless. Within two days of applying the Nutri-Life 4/20™ brew, worm castings appeared and have continued to appear ever since.

The trillions of new bacterial workers introduced in the applied brew can serve as a much needed food source for Protozoa which, in turn, are champagne food for earthworms. Earthworm castings are amazing fertiliser as they can contain up to 7 times more phosphorus, 10 times more potassium, 5 times more nitrogen, 3 times more magnesium and 1.5 times more calcium than the surrounding soil. The earthworm incubates a unique range of beneficial microorganisms that are also found in the castings. The castings can be a minor nuisance on the green but the positives completely outweigh the negatives.

Simon believes that every “turfie” should do the four-day course particularly in light of the increasing environmental pressures that the industry is facing.

Positive Changes

  1. The benefits from the new approach were many and varied, but one attractive feature was the cost effectiveness of the new approach. Simon estimates that his costs were literally cut in half with the new program. This reduction applies to both fertilisers and chemicals. He states, “There are practically zero chemicals used now, apart from herbicides that are spot sprayed with Herbi-Safe™”. Herbi-Safe™ is an additive that rapidly removes herbicide residues from the soil by encouraging bio degradation.

  2. Simon found that after renovation and before top dressing he could introduce microbes very effectively down the core holes. He has found that the introduction of a species called Metarhizium at this point leads to a dramatic reduction in pressure from black beetle lava and he has no longer needed chemicals to control this pest.

  3. The Norfolk Club spent a small fortune on fungicides prior to the introduction of the biological approach. Simon discovered an important management strategy at the NTS course. He now understood that fungal pressure could be linked to plant sap pH. An absence of key alkalising minerals within the turf plant can drop sap pH and this predisposes the plant to fungal disease. Tissue testing revealed that the alkalising mineral most missing in these greens was potassium, as it leaches so readily in light soils and uptake of this mineral is also compromised with excess nitrogen. The application of K-Rich™ generated a “beautiful finish on the greens” and lifted the sap pH to the magical 6.4 level. Silica was also included in the program to build cell strength and the combined strategy worked so well that Simon has not had to apply fungicides since.

  4. With a new understanding of plant physiology under his belt, Simon decided to change the length of the winter turf cut to increase plant health during dormancy. After renovations at the end of summer he top dressed with a carbon based fertiliser, aerated the greens and then grew them out from 4 mL to 6 mL. This simple strategy provided a lot more leaf surface, which, in turn sponsored a more profuse root system. The plants now handled moisture stress better and they had a higher salt tolerance and disease resistance. Salt tolerance is no small issue when the seaside course is literally drenched in salt during winter storms. Humates are also widely used to buffer salt and promote root growth and silica is another salt management tool. The grass plants now have much larger roots that extend deeper into the soil. The associated increase in drought resistance was well tested during last summer, which was the driest period in recorded history on the Island.

  5. Simon believes that the biggest gain may be the consistency of growth patterns. “There are no growth spurts and no poor growth and this has reduced maintenance and thatch problems.” He uses the fungal dominated form of brewed Nutri-Life 4/20™ to introduce cellulose-digesting fungi to break down the thatch. This has worked particularly well and there is no longer a requirement for mechanical management of thatch. In fact, the humus created by the cellulose digesters has effectively turned a liability into an asset.

  6. There are several other benefits including the stimulation of turf in shaded conditions. Simon has found that fulvic acid deserves its reputation as “the second sun” as he has witnessed a great response to the application of this natural acid in shaded areas. For reasons not fully understood fulvic acid can serve to promote photosynthesis in the absence of sunlight, so it is perfect for shady areas on the fairways. He also believes that the inclusion of Nutri-Key Calcium Shuttle™ in his program has further increased consistency and he has no further need for the growth regulator he had previously used.

  7. The golfers are happy with the new approach. The course is looking much better than it ever has and as Simon cheekily suggests “they can now lick their balls without negative consequences!”.

Seven Secrets to a Proven Program

Several high performance inputs are used to feed the plant in these high pH soils including:

  1. Triple Ten™ – A complete liquid fertiliser that has become the most successful NTS product in over 40 countries.

  2. K-Rich™ – a high analysis, buffered form of liquid potassium.

  3. Nutri-Key Shuttle Seven™ – all seven key trace elements utilising the unique Shuttle delivery system.

  4. Dia-Life™ – micronised liquid silica for cell strength and better wearing surfaces.

  5. Tri-Kelp™ – a bioactive soluble seaweed powder for enhanced photosynthesis.

  6. Fulvic Acid – to boost nutrient uptake and promote beneficial biology.

  7. Nutri-Life 4/20™ – a powerhouse microbial inoculum which can be delivered as either a fungal or bacterial brew with the use of the revolutionary Dominate™ additive.

Spreading the Word

Simon was so impressed with the potential of this new approach that he decided to introduce the idea to the Island’s food producers. In conjunction with another local icon, Robin Adams, he formed an organisation called Sustainable Norfolk, which organised my visits to the island to train local growers. In the process I fell in love with the place and am now a proud owner of a farm, which will produce medicinal herbs in the near future.

There have been several changes since my visits. A farmer’s market has proven popular for growers and consumers and it is only supplied by those growing biologically. Growers have produced much higher yields of much better produce over an extended period. There is more enthusiasm and an obvious sense of pride in food production.  Simon suggests that “there is now a better awareness of the important role of the grower in the community and there is also a greater appreciation for their efforts amongst the community”.

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