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Should I be using organic fertilizers?

| June 13, 2010 9:00 PM

A question I am asked quite frequently as a golf course superintendent is, "should I use organic fertilizers?" I think it's a great question to which I would answer maybe. First, I can tell you that I try to use organic forms of fertilizers for a number of reasons on the golf course. All of the turf I am responsible for gets treated with some organic fertilizer throughout the year, and areas like fairways and greens are primarily organics. I am not about to tell you to ditch the bag of whiz-bang name brand fertilizer for a sack of steer manure, but we should look at the pros and cons of organic fertilizers, and you, the reader make your own decision.

Cons: Organics vary in quality, size, source and analysis. When selecting an organic fertilizer, look for a well granulated material that is free of lumps and odor. If it's organic, it will have some odor, but not the kind your dog exhibits an uncontrollable urge to roll in. If it has an earthy smell, it's likely safe and won't burn your lawn. There are many ways to granulate organics, but it should look consistent and flow well through a fertilizer spreader. Second, the analysis (nutrient value) of most true organics is relatively low. Typically, we see analyses in the range of one to five percent of each nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. If you are doing a cost analysis with your favorite synthetic fertilizer that's a 20-20-20, it will never pencil out. Don't get hung up on this one as we'll discuss this shortly. Third, there are as many organic sources as there are brands. I prefer to stick with meal based products (feather, bone, blood) as well as composted poultry manures (CPM). My first choice is CPM since it typically carries a higher analysis of minor nutrients, which provide a more complete feed for our turf.

Pros: Organics provide a great slow release feed that boosts the health and structure of the soil at the same time. Over time, we have been able to reduce our inputs on the golf course through the use of organics. This is due to the fact that despite their low analysis, organics enhance the activity and population of soil microbiology. By enhancing microbiology, soils become "alive," breaking down thatch and releasing nutrients held within the soil matrix. As with anything we do to enhance the soil, positive change doesn't happen overnight, so don't expect to make one application of an organic and have everything miraculously change. We didn't see appreciable change in our systems until the third year of using organics. Now the soils respond very quickly to both organic and synthetic inputs. In other words, we get more "mileage" out of a lower analysis material because the soil biology is doing more work for us than it used to.

I'm not a fertilizer salesman, so I won't make specific recommendations here, but do some homework and I think you'll be happy you try the organic approach.

If you have any questions or feedback contact Kevin Hicks at khicks@cdaresort.com.

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