Striking a balance between consistency and cost can be difficult when choosing and applying fertilizers.
After sitting down with our company agronomist to review our product usage from the past year, I realized that we needed a new product strategy. During the past several years, we have experienced rapid growth, which has put a tremendous amount of pressure on top managers to control costs. Product cost for a lawn care company is a major expense that is a large factor that controls profit margins.
Negotiating product pricing with our vendors is one of the more important decisions we make all year. It has been my experience to see lawn care companies’ product expense vary from 10-20 percent per year.
While many companies say that they make their product decisions based only for financial reasons, others base it on quality and results. For the past 12 years, we have wrestled with using liquid or granular. Some years we have used liquid and others we have used granular products – both having their advantages and disadvantages.
Through trials and tribulations, we have come to the conclusion that there really isn’t a right or wrong answer. Decisions need to be made based on each individual company’s specific circumstances. These decisions should be based on cost, storage, equipment and, most importantly, results. At the end of the day, results are the most important because without that you don’t have a loyal customer.
I have realized that combining liquid and granular fertilizers into our program was the perfect blend depending on the round.
The case for liquid. Using liquid fertilizers has helped with client perception. When selling a service, you never want to make a client feel that they can do the same job them-selves. When one of our 500 gallon spray trucks arrives at a client’s home and the technician begins spraying, value is truly added.
The client just feels that they can’t do it themselves. I liken it to when you dine out for brick oven pizza. I don’t care how good I can make pizza at home, it does not compare to eating pizza just cooked in a 600-degree brick oven. The service experience is there in spraying rather that applying granular. You wow the client and make them feel that they are receiving value that they could never attain.
Liquid fertilizers have their benefits, as many of you already realize. As we slowly moved over to using it, as well as granular, it was a perfect mix, but it took some time to train our staff and adjust to this new method.
I also thought it was in our company’s best interest to assert more control over our own mixing. This created consistency in our products and deterred theft and carelessness in product usage. For example, a lawn technician may not pay attention to the setting of her spreader and apply too much or too little granular to the application.
When we mix our own products, we can analyze our program during the year in such features as nitrogen output or usage of weed control, as well as eliminating the waste of opened bags not fully used. It also increased our quality control in treating weeds. No matter how well one manages a lawn technician, if he has to pass over the lawn twice to do the job, the second time around will never be as consistent as the first time. When our technicians are using granular fertilizers, they miss areas when treating weeds and crabgrass.
Loading our trucks each morning was beginning to look like one of those crazy restaurant kitchens with chefs bumping into each other. It was a madhouse when all we used was granular. Loading a half a dozen pallets of fertilizer into trucks was exhausting and labor intensive. It is also a lot cleaner to treat with liquids rather than granular. When using granular, technicians lose a lot of product when unopened bags are subject to the elements and products can spill onto driveways and walkways.
There are many advantages to having liquid in your program; however, one drawback is the up-front cost. To administer liquid applications, one needs the investment of equipment. That is the need for agitating enhanced spray tanks to apply liquid fertilizer on lawns. This equipment can range in cost from $4,000-$18,000. Additionally, if it is the desire to mix the liquid products prior to distributing to each individual truck, there is the need to invest in a bulk mixing tank system.
We invested in this when we reached 30 trucks in our service location. This cost us approximately $40,000. So, although it is a very good investment, it will take three years to see a return on investment. However, once accomplished, we have a clean method of loading trucks quickly and efficiently, making it more cost-effective.
The case for granular. Granular is much more cost effective to apply. Typically all one needs is a $400 dollar spreader, a $14 bag of fertilizer and a certified applicator for application. It’s also a phenomenal fertilizer to apply during dry and hot period times of the year.
Slow release granular fertilizers are much better for feeding lawns that are suffering from heat stress and dry weather. Typically, our company applies slow release granular fertilizers during the summer and fall seasons. When applied, our 30 percent slow-release fertilizers allow lawns to be fed slowly to avoid burning. Additionally, lawns can then be fed with less frequency.
They also make for a fantastic management tool. We have all received that call from a customer that the lawn technician did not treat the entire lawn or even treat it at all.
It is very easy for one of our service managers to immediately visit and address the situation by physically going to the lawn and seeing for themselves. A better solution is to educate the customer on the phone to go to the lawn and look closely to actually detect the granular fertilizer.
When we began our business, we were servicing less than 1,000 customers with granular fertilizers. It was easy to scale our service initially with granular fertilizer, although we always used liquid herbicides and insecticides. As our company grew and we needed to control costs and consistency in product, we slowly transitioned into both liquid and granular fertilizers and we have finally struck a perfect balance.
We start the first several rounds using liquid fertilizer to feed the lawn quickly without a slow release, because we know we will be back again in five weeks. We also have the ability of mixing the pre-emergent and broadleaf control so that we can hit control for every problem weed and grass on the lawn with one pass by technician. We then transition into a granular slow-release fertilizer for the warm and dry season and the fall as it is better for the lawn.
Having this balance has saved our company time, wages and product cost. Most importantly, we keep our customers best interests in mind by developing a superior lawn care program throughout the year.
The author is president of Noon Turf Care based in Hudson, Mass.
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