The Need to Support Turfgrass Research

12.01.11-WCTA-in-PullmanWA200Presentation to BC Golf Industry Alliance By Jerry Rousseau, Executive Director, Western Canada Turfgrass Association.

One of the primary mandates of the Western Canada Turfgrass Association is to foster turfgrass research for the betterment of the entire sports turf and golf course industry. 10% of WCTA member dues go directly into turf research along with 30% of any net operational profit at year end. Donations are received from individual members and facilities along with allied associations like the BC Golf Association.

Many fundraising activities have taken place over the years including our annual silent auction, field days, 50/50 draws, golf tournaments, etc in an effort to provide a range of research activities that golf course and sports field turf managers require in order to maintain quality playing conditions.

There is a long history of research efforts put toward improving golf course greens, tees, fairways, rough, bunkers, water hazards, trees and everything else inside golf course fences. This began formally in the 1920’s with the establishment of the USGA Green Section whose motivation was primarily to provide a better experience for golf course members.

Fast forward almost a hundred years (and into the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on research) and you have the high tech world of turf management that has evolved to keep up with the demands of modern players and big business. Courses need to be dry when it rains, moist when it’s hot and able to handle thousands of golf cart loops, divots and ball marks in all weather conditions. Grass needs to be able to grow in the shade or direct sun, on slippery mountain slopes, in rocky river bottoms or on hard blue clay soil, often being irrigated by poor quality water. The list of challenges goes on and while greenkeeping for many is a mix of art and science, science is the primary tool to address these challenges, provide solutions to problems and address player’s demands for quality turf surfaces.


While expectations of today’s golfer are high, most do not understand what it takes to manage a golf property (nor do they need to). But as an industry, we most definitely need to drive research, development and education, especially as our working environment becomes more restrictive. Research is one of the tools that enable small businesses to do more with less, move closer to sustainability and ensure we continue to be responsive to increasing public environmental standards while minimizing our environmental footprint.

There are two major facilities in Canada performing turfgrass research, the Guelph Turfgrass Institute located at the University of Guelph in Ontario and the Prairie Turfgrass Research Centre located at Olds College in Alberta. There is also an assembly of contract researchers who tend to take on shorter term projects often involving field trials which require significant monitoring and data gathering but I know of only 1 of these in Western Canada that is specific to turf. In the past, individual superintendents would often do their own field trials sponsored by their local superintendent association however most simply don’t have the opportunity or flexibility to conduct such trials given the myriad demands of their positions. Also, ROI for an in-house research project is extremely difficult to quantify.

Current institutional turf research includes industry supported proprietary testing to help fund the facilities. In the case of a pesticide, Health Canada requires both efficacy data to prove that a particular product does what the company claims it will do along with a wide range of toxicity/safety data. Unbiased studies are key to the process. This type of targeted research leads to improved grass species, fertilizers and pesticides that are marketed and sold by their manufacturers, however such research does not address general questions such as ‘How does an increase in soil potassium levels affect the severity of pink snow mold on annual bluegrass greens?’ or ‘At what point do low soil oxygen levels become detrimental to turf plant health?”, or ‘How frequently can soil based bentgrass putting greens be rolled without increasing compaction levels?”

The product testing approach is certainly more symptomatic than it is causal and is analogous to human disease research where we typically see more results in terms of treatment of symptoms than we do for preventative medicine. There are two primary explanations for this kind of approach. Financially, it is generally more productive for a company to develop a marketable product that delivers control of symptoms, and, on a more theoretical platform – it is extremely challenging from a research perspective to find a single solution for complex problems involving infinite variables.

These complexities are reflected in the difficulty in assigning an exact dollar value to fund turf research. Here are a few examples of the long list of research projects the WCTA has been involved with over the last several years:

Annual bluegrass putting turf fertility, Dr. Rob Golembiewski and Brian McDonald, Oregon State University:
- WCTA funded $23,000 over 4 years toward total project value of $23,000.
- the goal of this project was to examine several different fertility programs on a relatively new sand based green.

The fertility variables included increasing rates of sulfur with and without additions of lime. We will also look at other additives such as humates that are often touted as having positive impacts on grass vigor and rooting. The trial will evaluate turf performance at medium and low levels of nitrogen. Plots will be rated regularly for turf quality, Fusarium patch activity, Anthracnose activity, soil pH, and other qualities that may develop over time. Fungicides will not be used unless damage threatens survival of individual plots.

PTRC 2009 Special Project, Drew Smith Slide Collection, Jim Ross:
-WCTA funded $6000 in 2010 toward total project value of $6000

This project was more of a resource for turf managers rather than a research project. It is a massive compendium of turfgrass disease photos converted to digital images and made available to assist turf managers with identifying problems and diseases on their properties.

Architectural Approaches for Biological Filtration of Nutrients in Golf Course Runoff Water, Eric Miltner, Gwen Stahnke, William Johnston and Geoffrey Rinehart, Washington State University
-WCTA funded $21,400 over 3 years toward total project value of $103,500.

The objective of this project was to monitor the effectiveness of biological filtration techniques that were intentionally incorporated into the design and construction of a golf course. Nitrogen and phosphorus concentrations in soil solution and surface water were monitored in different topographical locations.

Evaluation of Various Natural Control Products for Broadleaf and Grass Weeds in Turfgrass, Jim Ross, Prairie Turfgrass Research Centre.
-WCTA funded $24,000 over 4 years toward total project value of $128,000.

The objective of this project was to evaluate various natural control products under Western Canada conditions for the control of broadleaf and grass weeds for home lawns, school grounds, golf courses, and municipal parks. Materials to be tested: corn gluten meal, soybean meal, sugar beet extract, and mustard meal.

Non-chemical methods for control of European Chafer (Rhizotrogus majalis), ES Cropconsult
-WCTA funded $6,000 in 2004 toward total project value of $36,800.

The objective of this project was to test a number of non-chemical products for control of first and second instar European Chafer larvae in a controlled, replicated study; to “field” test the two most successful treatments from the 2003 preliminary trial, on a group of residential lawns with Chafer damage; and to prepare recommendations for lawn owners and turf managers on controlling Chafer with non-chemical means.

Note: research on European Chafer continues today as the problem continues to spread throughout the Vancouver area.

Characterization of Leaching at the Coeur d’Alene Golf Club Floating Green, Dr. Bill Johnston, Washington State University, Pullman.

WCTA funded $44,500 over 6 years toward total project value of $216,000.  The objectives of this project were to quantify water flow and movement of NO3 and NH4 through a large-scale sand-based putting green under actual golf course field conditions; and demonstrate the effect of fungicide application methods on sand-based putting greens to promote environmental safety and support the highest level of turfgrass quality.

Turfgrass Research Funding
Total funding toward turfgrass research by the WCTA from 1997 through 2011 was $433,858. The highest dollar figure in any one year was $53,230 (2002) with an average of just under $31,000 annually.

There are other bodies in other regions of Canada and abroad that support research similarly to the WCTA, however determining the total dollars spent on turf research is far beyond the scope of this presentation. The following additional examples do, nevertheless, reflect the significant amounts of funding that are being directed to turf research.

- Canadian Turf Research Foundation: $85-100k annual total grants distributed to national projects
- Ontario Turf Research Foundation: $384,000 total grants distributed over the last three years.
- Prairie Turfgrass Research Centre, Olds, Alberta - $200 - 225k annual operating budget
     $18k from Alberta Golf Course Superintendents Association 
     $15k from Alberta Golf Association 
     $5k from sod growers
     $6500 from Alberta Property Managers Conference
     $40k from individual golf courses
     $125k from consulting services and manufacturer research

- Guelph Turfgrass Research Centre - $1, 145,000 annual operating budget
     $800,000 from the Province of Ontario
     $100,000 from the Federal Government
     $100,000 from individual companies
     $145,000 from the OTRF

Oregon State University - $250,000 annual operating budget
     $160,000 from individual companies
     $50,000 from Oregon Turfgrass Foundation 
     $40,000 from Trysting Tree Foundation

Research Challenges
Research results developed in different geographic areas are not always applicable to the local environments found in British Columbia, especially on the coast. Where there is potential for local relevance, the WCTA has committed financial support (approximately $6600 to national projects annually) but such research may not provide specific enough data to facilitate application of the results in our regions.

This situation is in contrast to the broad applicability of medical treatments – if a product is effective against a human disease in Helsinki, it is equally likely to be effective on the same condition in residents of Victoria.  In the case of pesticides, manufacturers are required to carry out extensive, expensive regional testing of products before applying to Health Canada for registration.

The challenge of transferring research and technology across different ecosystems is a fundamental reason that more regional research dollars are required in Western Canada. In the case of low risk or ‘green’ pesticides, regional research assessments may be even more critical to ensure that introduced biological controls do not unto themselves become a subsequent problem in the ecosystem. It is worth noting that every single noxious weed in the province was introduced from abroad causing millions of dollars in annual economic loss (mostly in agriculture and infrastructure) and we have had to use synthetic pesticides to keep them under control ever since.

How much should we be spending on research? An annual expenditure of $125,000 is an excellent initial goal for turfgrass research funding in BC – about the same it would cost to rebuild one fairway. I estimate that this amount represents 0.02% of the total revenues generated directly by golf courses and their associated facilities in our province. While that may seem a substantial sum, it is not uncommon for a single project to cost $200K+ as you may have noted from the projects listed previously. It would require a contribution of $250-300k annually to put us on par with provinces like Alberta and Ontario.

Where will this money be raised? Historically, our membership has provided base funding through membership fees, silent auction and direct donation. It is unrealistic to expect this group to contribute more. To raise the levels of research funding that we suggest will require something entirely different from what we’re currently doing. Possibilities may include:

-fixed annual (voluntary) invoicing of individual golf courses, ie $500 for an 18 hole course, $200 for 9 holes
-mandatory government licencing of individual golf courses
-green fee tax on every daily fee round/member dues
-golf cart luxury tax
-split cost between all 5 allied golf associations based on membership numbers
-10% of member dues from each allied organization are directed toward turf research
-increased fundraising activities, ie. golf tournaments
-become a charitable organization and solicit donations from a broader corporate base.

Current Priorities
The following is an excerpt from the WCTA ‘Call for Research Proposals’ listing our 7 highest priority project types that we are willing to fund followed by questions asked of the researchers which help guide our committee in selecting funding recipients.

  • Nutrient and fertility management, best management practices
  • Soil and root-zone management, best management practices
  • Evaluation of alternatives to pesticides
  • Irrigation and water use issues (water quality and reducing water usage) Investigations into the biology, ecology and management of current and emerging pests
  • Alternative cultivar and species for new turf construction, integration and conversion into existing turf areas
  • Species/cultivar evaluation and improved management practices for areas of heavy traffic and wear tolerance
  1. Describe the rationale ( background) of the project (half page maximum): 
  2. What are the potential benefits to turfgrass management? 
  3. What geographical area will the research take place in? 
  4. Who will benefit from the results of this completed project?
  5. List the overall objectives for your project
  6. Describe the methodology to be used to achieve the objectives:
  7. Describe the expected deliverables upon completion of this project
  8. Summarize how the results will be shared with the turfgrass industry
  9. Outline any potential delays that will prevent the project from reaching the objectives or completion date:

Some points to remember:
Effective cross-over research projects are rare. It is, however, possible to build on a previous study to advance the science in the local ecosystem.

Turf research has to take place on turf. A product or technique that works for other plant species is most likely not appropriate on turf and would certainly require testing to determine applicability/efficacy.

In the case of pesticides, Health Canada registration requirements for both synthetic and organic products are financially onerous. Often, companies are more interested in the huge agriculture market and spend their money testing on food crops versus the relatively small ornamental market of which turf is only a small sector.

Direct government funding is nearly non-existent (except in Ontario). There is a program in BC through the Investment Agriculture Foundation that encourages partner funding of research projects that may provide some potential for specific types of studies. Municipalities may also direct funding to certain projects if they address specific problems that are being encountered. The funding levels are usually relatively small and often require the active financial participation of other partners.

Research solutions to the problems that confront us can be developed. Research in the context of the inclusion of turf as a component of the broader ecosystem will also help to ensure that our “solutions” do not become part of the next problem.