Factoring in grubs

Features - Weed/Disease/Insect Control

Many factors come into play when deciding if, when and how to treat for grubs – and how to position your program for customers.

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May 5, 2010
Marisa Palmieri

Cruising for grubs
Jack Robertson Lawn Care has a unique approach to marketing its grub control service. The Springfield, Ill.-based lawn care company has has a NASCAR-ized Ford pick-up painted with a giant grub on the hood. The truck is 4 years old – it was added in 2006 as part of the marketing effort for the company’s 30th anniversary – but it’s still creating buzz.

“It created a lot of conversation when we first started using it, especially because the rest of our trucks are all white with red stripes and a logo on the door,” President Jack Robertson says. “They’re very simple. This one is anything but.”

Even today, clients still comment about the truck. Last year a client wanted to take pictures of his grandson in the truck.

Robertson, a casual NASCAR fan, came up with the concept to stripe the car in such a way and spent about $3,000 to do so. It was a joint project with suppliers, which helped offset some of the costs.

Though he says it’s difficult to quantify how much business it’s brought in, he says it’s paid for itself over four years. “We do a large number of grub applications for our accounts,” he says. “It’s created quite a bit of interest. It creates conversation; conversation is customer contact and from there comes sales.”

The last thing a lawn care operator wants is a ticked-off customer, and not many things irritate customers more than white grubs, says Jack Robertson, president of Jack Robertson Lawn Care, Springfield, Ill.

Why? In addition to being gross-looking insects, they’re a tasty treat for pests like raccoons, which roll up large swaths of lawn to find them; skunks, which probe for them with their snouts; and crows and other birds, which pull up tufts of turf.

In short, they attract critters that have no problem damaging a previously well-manicured lawn to fulfill their appetites.


Control Methods
When it comes to controlling white grubs, there are three types of treatments, says Stan Swier, extension professor at the University of New Hampshire. They include:

  • Preventive treatments, which occur before summer larva are present (April through early July);
  • Curative treatments, which take place when the larva are present (mid-July through August); and
  • Rescue treatments, which take place when damage is occurring (fall).


Lawn care applicators are in a difficult spot when it comes to controlling grubs and many turf insects, says Dan Potter, professor of turf and insect landscape entomology at the University of Kentucky in Lexington.

Why? Because they can be destructive and difficult to predict and the use of older insecticides is becoming increasingly restricted, especially where children may be exposed. Plus, there’s the resistance issue. There are many effective products on the market for preventive applications, and although there are no known documented cases of resistance to white grubs yet, it’s still concern some people have for the future.

So what’s an LCO to do? Potter suggests reducing any unnecessary treatments and not overusing any one class of chemistry.

When monitoring their clients’ lawns for grubs, LCOs should take samples of 4- by 4-inch squares (equal to 0.1 square feet) and take 10 samples in a given area (for a total of 1 square foot).

If there are five or more grubs per square foot, treating is justified, Swier says. Other factors to consider when deciding to treat for grubs include:

  • The grub species and size of grub; thresholds vary;
  • Turfgrass species;
  • Turf use;
  • Predator damage (skunks, raccoons, birds, etc.);
  • Turf vigor – healthy vs. weak turf;
  • Time of year – fall vs. spring;
  • Tolerance for damage; and
  • Budget.

Local extension agents and/or suppliers will have more information about how these factors come into play in your area.

Regional considerations. For example, in areas with high grub populations, preventive treatments may be the norm.

“We learned a long time ago that we don’t want our customers to have grubs,” Robertson says. The Midwest, where Robertson operates, is a highly grub-prone region, so it didn’t make sense for him to wait until customers inevitability got grubs and got upset about it before treating for them.

“After the fact the customer’s thinking is, ‘If this is what I needed, why weren’t you doing it?’” he says.

On top of that irritation, when it came to curative applications, customers were burdened with having to water in the product, so now they had to do some work themselves.

WHY GRUB INSECTICIDES FAIL
Are you having afficacy issues with your grub control programs? Take a look at four common reasons grub applications fail, according to Stan Sweir of the University of New Hampshire to see if you need to make some tweaks. (CLICK IMAGE TO ENLARGE)
“That said, one year we had a really bad grub problem and we told all our customers we’re going to make preventive grub control mandatory and if they wish not to have it, they can let us know.”

Robertson’s been operating that way since the 1990s with good results. He says less than 5 percent of clients opt out of the preventive grub control.


Add-on Service
Lawn Doctor, the Holmdel, N.J.-based franchise, prefers to handle grub control as an add-on service. It’s either a preventive or rescue application – not part of the company’s standard Maintainer Care program.

“Grub control is sold to existing customers in the renewal process,” says John Buechner, director of technical services, adding that the recommendations to clients to add it is based on history and grub pressure in the area. “It’s sold as a custom service to new customers at the time of evaluation or during beetle flight.” Lawn Doctor prices grub applications per 1,000 square feet.

The company’s bluegrass markets – the Northeast and Midwest – are the ones that experience the most grub damage. While the percent of customers opting for grub control varies by franchise, Buechner says that 40 to 80 percent of Lawn Doctor’s customers purchase preventive grub control.


Maximizing Profit
Weed Pro, based in Sheffield Village, Ohio, also goes with the add-on approach.

“It’s actually marketed as ‘Grub and Insect Control’ to our customers,” says President Rob Palmer. “We do this because most homeowners don’t know the difference between grub damage and other insect damage, such as billbugs and chinch bugs. Often, they see damage in their lawn and blame it on grubs and their lawn care provider.”
Weed Pro sees its “total insect control” approach as a way to set itself apart from how others in the market are selling grub control. Plus, Weed Pro offers a season-long guarantee on the service.

“Our grub control product comes with a strong warranty from Bayer, so we pass that on to our customers,” Palmer says.

About 75 percent of clients receive the application preventively, which goes down in late April in combination with a standard fertilizer application. The early-season application also suppresses chinch bugs and control billbugs.

“This allows us to cut down on labor costs by applying it at the same time,” Palmer says. “We, of course, charge our customer for the materials, but combining the application allows us to maximize our profits for this service.”


Marginal Concern
In regions where grubs aren’t as much of a threat, lawn care companies offer grub control, but it’s less prevalent.
For example, in Sacramento, Calif., where Nick Shebert is technical consultant for TurfPro, grubs are a nuisance, not a major problem.

“We get maybe two or three cases out of the 400 I manage where I’ll see a grub infestation,” he says. “It’s nothing like they see back East or in the Midwest. There will maybe be a couple grubs per square foot, so it’s not much for us.”

TurfPro does offer the service if treating is justified or if a client asks for it specifically.

“People who aren’t from the area will sometimes ask for it,” he says. “We explain that it’s not a big problem for us, but if they want it, we’ll offer it,” he says. “Five percent or less of our clients are getting preventive applications, and that’s all residential.”

For the company’s commercial accounts, Shebert will spot treat if he starts to see a problem, but it’s rare. For curative grub control, because it’s such a small service, Shebert bills clients on a time and materials basis. For preventive control, it’s priced per 1,000 square foot.

“Grubs are nowhere near the problem that they were when I was in the Midwest and East Coast,” says Gary LaScalea, president of GroGreen, Plano, Texas. For him, being in a primarily bermudagrass market, grub control is an optional preventive program or a curative application when damage is detected and diagnosed later in the season.

About 10 to 15 percent of customers subscribe to preventive grub control, which is primarily marketed with leave-behind literature and based on technicians’ recommendations. The average cost for a preventive grub application is one and a half times that of a client’s regular application program price.

“Grub control in our market is quite profitable, but the sense of awareness and urgency isn’t as big of an issue here,” he says. “The biggest problem in our market is primarily fire ants.”

The author is senior editor of Lawn & Landscape.