Fertigation: It's For Contractors, Too

Fertigation systems have long been valued for agriculture and sports turf arenas, and are now options for contractors as well.

Television has helped spawn the desire for the perfect grass by showing the lush green landscapes that are available to sporting champions around the world. As a result, landscape contractors are challenged to provide comparable turf conditions for their commercial and residential customers while making their services affordable, meeting labor challenges and securing profits and growth.

Fertigation, or the process of applying liquid nutrients through an irrigation system, is beginning to catch on as a tool for landscape contractors to provide the finest turf.

First developed in the 1940s for the agricultural market, fertigation is now the primary source of nutrient application for crops. The turf industry turned to fertigation more than 25 years ago as a cost effective, environmentally sound process to provide nutrients to the grass in extremely large turf areas. Today, turf applications have expanded beyond these large turf areas to corporate campuses and mid-sized commercial properties.

FERTIGATION AS A CONTRACTOR SERVICE. Until recently, fertigation for the turf market has been primarily limited to treating large areas like golf courses, athletic venues and park or municipal settings. Experimentation in this market has paved the way for success in other turf environments, including those served by landscape contractors.

The key to integrating fertigation into contractor businesses resides with the ability to educate contractors about the superior benefits of fertigation. Obviously, it is the contractor who recommends a fertigation system and that person must then serve as the brain power to conduct turf sampling and dial in the appropriate prescriptions of liquid nutrients in order to guarantee the system’s effectiveness.

In order to accurately establish the fertigation program, contractors can prescribe the nutrient application based on the turf and soil conditions. One way to do this is with Near Infrared Reflectance Spectroscopy (NIRS) testing of a grass sample. A contractor collects grass clippings to submit to a regional laboratory licensed to conduct these diagnostic services which are part of a program used to identify various nutrient levels in the grass. From these results, a liquid nutrient fertility program is prescribed and applied to the site.

A key to bringing fertigation to the contractor market is that equipment and liquid nutrient products are both now available for moderate-sized turf areas. The smallest pump available from The Toro Company, Bloomington, Minn., applies 2.5 gallons of nutrients per hour and can be used on commercial properties and corporate landscapes. At the same time, liquid nutrients are available in compact 275-gallon containers and in 30-gallon drums. These low volumes reduce the upfront cost and eliminate the concern of having unwanted nutrients in storage tanks.

ADVANTAGES OF FERTIGATION. The advantages of fertigation over traditional methods of providing nutrients to turf make it an appealing program for landscape professionals. Fertigation is a process of “spoon feeding” nutrients in doses that are more accurate, lighter and more frequently delivered than those of granular fertilizers. This results in smaller amounts of nutrients being leached into ground water and eroding into environmentally sensitive areas. There is also no danger of burn to the landscape because the fertilizer is diluted as it is applied through the water and immediately soaks into the soil.

The labor factor makes fertigation appealing to contractors. One person is able to control the entire system and decide how much fertilizer is applied and when the application is made. System operators are able to make adjustments in the amount of nutrients with the turn of a single dial. For contractors, there are no bags of fertilizer to handle. Additional staff is no longer required to spread granular fertilizer, since one operator can control the entire system from a central pump unit.

The cost of liquid fertilizer is comparable to that of dry materials and some of the large turf venues using fertigation have found that liquid fertilizer products used in fertigation actually cost less.

In essence, the application of liquid nutrients through an irrigation system is controlled, and low levels of nutrients provide the necessary plant nutrition.

Fertigation eliminates the feast or famine feeding that occasionally challenges granular fertilizer applications. The release of liquid fertilizer is more constant than that of granular, since dry nutrients are dependent upon outside factors such as temperature and rainfall, which cannot be adequately predicted.

BARRIERS TO FERTIGATION BY CONTRACTORS. Many turf professionals are comfortable with granular applications because of the long history of positive experiences they’ve had with these products. As a result, they don’t to understand the benefits of fertigation. Other contractors know the advantages of liquid nutrients, but rely on spraying techniques rather than the labor saving fertigation methods.

The lack of availability and access to fertigation equipment and liquid nutrient products designed for fertigation of smaller turf areas has hampered the advancement of the technique.

The quality of the irrigation system that applies the liquid nutrients is obviously important to a fertigation program. The installed irrigation system must be adequately designed with proper water flow in order for nutrient application to be effective. In addition, it is difficult to apply fertilizer through an irrigation system during rainy weather. Contractors interested in fertigation may need to have a backup granular system when in regions with long rainy seasons that prevent the application of liquid nutrients.

For smaller sites, cost of the hardware is also a barrier. For example, fertigation is not currently a viable option for residential properties since the base price for a small fertigation system starts at about $3,500.

DECIDING TO USE FERTIGATION. The decision to use fertigation as a tool should be based on the customers’ expected or desired results and cost benefits for the customer. Customers will need to invest in a pump station. Contractors need to counsel their customers about fertigation systems that result in superior nutrient applications with cost and labor savings. Customers can have the green, lush landscapes they desire. Contractors need to teach them how.

The author is Director of Agronomics Research and Development, The Toro Company, Bloomington, Minn.

October 1998
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