Your Gut Now Has a Number

14.04.15-Norley.CalderBy Norley Calder
Superintendent, Sagebrush Golf and Sporting Club

For years, golf course Superintendents have relied on their gut to tell them if their turf was responding properly to inputs that were applied.  We were simply equipped with a soil probe, a thermometer and what we thought would work from past experiences as well as trials that we performed.  All this may seem weird from a guy in his late 30’s, but I started my career as a 13 year old kid at a small 9 hole golf course in Saskatchewan, pulled a drag mat by hand and of the equipment we did have, most was much older than I was!  Now I look at my maintenance yard and see some of the most modern tools to perform my job.  Many of them I never operate and I can feel that 13 year old boy kicking my butt.

The problem now is that all these great tools have allowed us to cut the grass lower and cleaner, get smoother playing surfaces and in reality, create an engineered playing surface.  Gofers of all levels and at all level of facilities are expecting almost unrealistic conditions yet we keep pushing the envelope to give it them.

Many of our daily practices are not good for the plant, a sacrifice we make for perfect surfaces.  We then add all sorts of inputs, cultivate with a variety of machines and try to provide optimal moisture in an attempt to contend with what we did in the first place.  The real question then is, “How can we stay ahead of ourselves and our damaging practices?”

Unlike in years past, technology is coming at an extremely rapid pace.  We find that industry demands are forcing us to keep up, often living on the edge.  If you are a superintendent who simply turns on your irrigation system in May and off in October, or fertilizes because your program says so, you better get ready to change.  And it doesn’t matter what level of course you are at.  

If we think about how quickly this is happening, note that the stimpmeter has basically been the same since 1935 with a change in manufacturing material in 1976.  Now, because of our own doings, we have a stimpmeter that only goes half as far so we can measure our lighting fast sloped greens, and yes, I am looking in the mirror as I can stimp just one of the greens at our facility with the old stimpmeter.

In this series of articles, we will present some of the added technologies that are now available to us.  Some are must haves and others could be considered simple luxury.


For anyone maintaining sportsfields, golf courses or any high end turf and doesn’t use a TDR, go out and get one, learn how to use it and turn off your sprinklers.  They are around $1100, down from $15K when they were just in research.  I am sorry if I offend anybody, but this tool allows you to accurately measure the amount of water in your root zone.  You will get more consistent playing surfaces, save water and get to know your soil profile a lot better.

14.04.15-moisture.meterSoil Moisture Meters:  There are a variety of these tools available.  The two companies that have been around the longest and exhibit at the GCSSAA show are Spectrum Technologies and Campbell Scientific. 

Many of our peers and researchers use the TDR 300 from Spectrum.  There are other companies but these two allow for changing of rods and multiple rod lengths.

No two golf courses or places within a golf course are the same so don’t bother asking what your number is.  For example, our 5th green has more compost added to the greens mix than other greens on the site because during construction, a large amount of it blew away before we got it tilled.   After supplementing, it turned out we had about 10% more than the other greens.  You will start to find out how your water moves and where your irrigation inefficiencies are.   

What rod lengths do you need?  It depends… What grass do you have?  What are you trying to do?   If you have Poa, it doesn’t matter if you have water 4.7 inches down in July if your roots are only three inches deep.  With Poa, a lot of guys are simply topping up the water with their system, measuring their levels and then hand watering to keep their surface at consistent moisture levels. 

On the other hand, I have Bentgrass greens and I turn my irrigation system on when my TDR with 8” rods tell me to, which usually works out to a week or so.  We deep water and then go out the next day to hand water areas that are lower in values compared to the rest of the area on the green.  My surfaces however, are not consistent from day to day, especially day 1 and 2 but by day 3-7, they are more consistent to each other as the top couple inches has dried out.

I have had my TDR for three seasons now and have learned a lot about my grass and root zone.  The device has allowed me to do things that work for Sagebrush and wouldn’t necessarily work at other facilities.  I know a lot of courses use their TDR differently and it works for them.  The key is learning to maximize your water resource and providing the best surfaces for your property. 

If you want to take your TDR to the next level, there is mapping software available that keeps records of readings and maps out different moisture levels.  To set up these options you need to connect an external GPS as well as buy the mapping software and a subscription.

In upcoming issues I will go over technology that is nice but maybe not necessary. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------