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Winter's return means superintendents should keep their guard up


Winter in Michigan typically can be a long, cold test of one's patience. Not so much this year. In fact, Kevin Frank, Ph.D., of Michigan State University has been able to do something this winter he hasn't done in a long time.
"A lot of golf courses here have been open since mid-February," Frank said. "I've played nine holes twice already this year. While playing, I've been actively scouting for snow mold, and I've found only one spot of spring snow mold so far."
The average temperature in the East Lansing area in February was 43 degrees, a full 10 degrees warmer than the historic average, according to the National Weather Service. The highest temperature recorded for the month was 66 degrees on Feb. 22. Throughout the month, the temperature dipped below the freezing point on only five occasions. Typically, half the month is spent under freezing conditions.
Superintendents throughout much of the state already have made their first PGR application, and were counting down to the second one when Mother Nature hit the reset button, with daily highs in the 20s or 30s on 11 days during the first half of March. Growing degree days began to pile up in January and February, but have accumulated at a much slower pace since.
And although March 20 is the first official day of spring, more winter weather is expected for the plains, the upper Midwest and parts of just about every state east of the Mississippi that is not named Florida.
"From my perspective, we are in uncharted territory. Some golf courses in Michigan have been open since February 18, while in some places they are still under a foot of snow," Frank said. "There is a lot of discussion about will annual bluegrass be killed from such a rapid start in February followed by single-digit temperatures in March, and much of the research data tells us that it is going to be dead, but I don't think that is going to be the case."
Even though new growth has appeared - turf in the upper Midwest has been green at least since December and in some areas has at least given the appearance of being lush since last spring - the only real threat to annual bluegrass putting greens would be any freeze-thaw cycles where standing water is a problem, thus leading to the possibility of winter damage.
"If a superintendent has annual bluegrass greens, when any snow melts off, if there is a chance to get a refreeze, I'd recommend getting the water off the greens to avoid crown hydration," Frank said. 
Unseasonably warm temperatures coupled with wet conditions, especially this early in the season, could leave the turf susceptible to disease, including dollar spot. Any chance of disease associated with abnormally high temperatures likely is not a problem throughout much of the Midwest, either.
According to Rick Latin, Ph.D., of Purdue University, the long-range forecast throughout Indiana, Ohio and Michigan calls for temperatures that are cooler than average through May.
"My sense is despite the mild conditions we had in February, we have more seasonable conditions now, and that has reset the pathogen in its cycle," Latin said. "The 30-year average indicates it is going to be unseasonably (cool) between now and May.
"Things are more normal now. The grass has a grayish green to it, rather than bright green. Fungus responds to two things: temperature and moisture. If the temperature is not there, it's not going to grow, and if it doesn't grow it won't infect and cause disease. My sense "
The exception throughout Indiana, Latin said, is the threat of pink snow mold in turf that already is susceptible to stress.
"The only exception is pink snow mold," Latin said. "Where we have scars coming out of winter, in those cases, there are a lot of spores produced around those scars, and with ample moisture that will set the stage for reinfection."
There are concerns south of the Mason-Dixon Line also, where a warm winter in January and February has given way to freeze warnings in March, especially in the transition zone.
"It depends if you're talking about Bermudagrass on fairways or greens," said Brandon Horvath, Ph.D. of the University of Tennessee. "On fairways you don't have to worry at all. It takes prolonged and multiple periods of cold to set those back."
On warm-season putting greens it is a different story.
"On ultradwarf greens, anything below 25 (degrees Fahrenheit) is a cause for concern," Horvath said. "These are not killing events, but it takes multiple periods of cold temperatures to cause damage. You have to be cognizant of covering greens. A couple weeks ago  we were in the upper 20s. That's not usually a concern, but because we've been so warm, I sent out a Tweet reminding superintendents to cover greens just to maintain any gains they've already gotten this season. Because they're already greening up, a hard frost can set you back again."

From my perspective, we are in uncharted territory. Some golf courses in Michigan have been open since February 18, while in some places they are still under a foot of snow."


What is this late cold snap going to mean? At least in the South, that's a really good question.
"What is going to happen? We don't have a handle on what will happen when you go warm to cold to warm," Horvath said. "If you use covers (on greens), you should do OK with hard freeze situations.
"New, green tissue could slough off and die. The plant can grow new tissue from the stolon, but how many times will that happen before it hinders the plant's ability to recover? I don't think anyone knows the answer to that."
Research at the University of Tennessee has shown that late fall applications of Civitas have helped turf resist stress related to cold temperatures and remain green deeper into the calendar.
Many superintendents in areas typically under cover of snow in December, January and February have been in full golf mode for much of the past month. And that actually might be a bonus moving into spring, Frank said.
"Everyone is so alert because of how early spring started, that if something happens they're ready for it," Frank said. "I don't know if completely out of the realm. In 2011-2012, you could have played golf all winter."


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