At Home on the Range
Over the last decade, the founder and owner of NuTec Soil, a precision turf management company, has sought to apply lessons learned from working on his family’s farm to the golf course industry. From comprehensive soil sampling and golf course mapping to auto steering and automated tip controls, his ideas, inventions and partnerships are effectively taking the guesswork out of turf management, delivering more sustainable, healthier soils, reducing product waste and improving operator accuracy.
To date, he’s attracted the attention of golf course owners and superintendents at some of the industry’s most recognizable venues including Quail Hollow, home to the 2017 PGA Championship.
Here’s an inside look at how Thigpen’s NuTec is transforming golf course management—one GPS system at a time.
From Farms to Fairways
Creating repeatable data is one of the many advantages to GPS spraying using RTK navigation. When GPS first came out for commercial use in the 1990s, Thigpen saw it as a possible competitive advantage to grow higher yields on the family farm. He recalls, “Of course, there was no off-the-shelf navigation system available. But, with a little help from a NovAtel® dealer in the area, I was able to piece one together.”
He tuned his GPS to the U.S. Coast Guard Beacon to map the land. He combined the GPS data with infrared sensors and Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) data.
He explains, “My specialty is soil fertility. I do precision applications of fertilizer—in other words, I only put product where it needs to be based on soil conditions. Our farm won an award for state yield.”
When one of his relatives suggested that he put his soil fertility ideas to work as a business, he looked to the golf course industry.
He adds, “In my opinion, the golf course management industry does not pull enough data from the soil to match the soil potential. They do one sample per hole. That’s not enough data to maximize the soil potential. In most cases, we’re taking 10-15 samples per acre. We’ve turned turf management into a science.”
Once the soil samples are analyzed, Thigpen would map the fertilizer requirements for the course for the greens, fairways and tee boxes. After seeing the results, superintendents at some of the industry’s top golf courses bought in.
In 2005, Thigpen was contracted to apply fertilization to Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club in Southern Pines, N.C., in advance of the 2007 U.S. Women’s Open Championship and then again at Saucon Valley Country Club in Bethlehem, Pa. in advance of the 2009 U.S. Women’s Open Championship. In both cases he utilized WAAS (Wide Area Augmentation System) GNSS corrections while mapping the course which enabled sub-metre accuracy positioning. The results were great, but he saw some potential shortcomings.
He says, “I watched the operator spray the fertilizer on the first hole and knew I had a potential problem. As the operator sprayed the green, he’d spray into the sand trap and at every turn. My first thought was, here I am doing my thing to improve soil conditions, and all the superintendent will see are inconsistent results from bad spraying.”
The next day, he called a friend to talk about building a sprayer with auto steering and tip control to eliminate overlap. He recalls, “I knew enough about how to use GPS in farming to know that we could easily build a simplified auto steer system that could guide the operator.”
He did an informal survey of about 100 superintendents to see if there was interest in an auto steer sprayer with a tip that turns on and off automatically, and if so, determine the necessary accuracy.
“Turns out, they were all for the idea and wanted sub-inch (less than 3 cm) accuracy,” continued Thigpen.
He set out to build an auto steer system with tip control that would automatically spray liquid fertilizer in designated areas, eliminating the over application, overlap, spray drift and application gaps of manual fertilization. Of course, to build an auto steer sprayer with tip control, Thigpen would need to step up his positioning and golf course mapping capabilities.
Thigpen was knowledgeable enough about satellite-based positioning to know that he needed more than sub-metre accurate GPS before moving forward with his auto steer idea.
He explains, “Many golf courses include large tree canopies, hills and big slopes—all the kinds of features that cause trouble in the positioning world. I knew I’d need a large constellation of satellites that would include the GLONASS satellites to deliver a reliable, resilient golf course solution.”
When the GLONASS network became globally available and reliable in the civilian space around 2011, Thigpen was ready to market an auto steer sprayer system that was effective, reliable and affordable. He initially started with a GPS-only solution boosted by correction services such as the WAAS or by using Real- Time Kinematic (RTK) base stations with radios. While that solution worked great in an open field, he needed a more robust solution for common conditions such as under trees or in courses with significant elevation changes.
Subsequently, he teamed up with Ag Leader to use the Direct Command sprayer and SteerCommand auto steer systems, which both incorporate the NovAtel SMART6-L™ smart antenna—Ag Leader’s 6500 GPS System. Available to the market in 2012, the system is designed to support extended RTK baselines in excess of 20 miles utilizing the RELAY® CDMA or RELAY HSPA cellular radio modules.
Today, Thigpen’s auto-steering sprayers, spreaders and mowers support WAAS/ EGNOS, GLONASS, TerraStar-C as well as RTK networks. In addition, they provide builtin cell modems for access to CORS and NTRIP networks or base stations with RELAY 400 or RELAY 900 rover functionality.
“With the 6500, we have reliability, faster processing, better signals, and a system that works in shaded areas with less signal loss,” he says. “Creating repeatable data is one of the many advantages to GPS spraying using RTK navigation. Many of these golf courses have a $150,000 USD or more fertilization budget. Automated sprayer systems equipped with GPS can cut 20% or more from that budget in the first year.”
On the Course
Clark Weld, Superintendent for Hidden Creek Golf Club in Egg Harbor Township, N.J., is one of the first golf course superintendents to take advantage of GPS-enabled sprayers.
“There’s no skipping or overlapping during the application. We’ve virtually eliminated the chance of operator error. The GPSenabled auto steer sprayer system paid for itself in less than 3 years,” says Weld.
The Ben Crenshaw, Bill Coore-designed course was constructed in 2002. The 125-acre course consists of bent grass, a lot of rough, natural areas and, if not controlled, a lot of weeds.
Weld says, “We were using one of the old sprayers from another course and it wasn’t working very well, very inefficient. We needed a new sprayer. I have some farming friends who swore by the GPS technology for managing crops. At around the same time, I ran into Marcus at a turf management show where he was demonstrating his new auto steer sprayer system with tip control.”
He bought one 300-gallon Toro sprayer in winter 2012 as well as two GPS systems (one for the new sprayer and one for the old sprayer) with an RTK base station. In the first year, Weld was able to reduce his chemical budget from $125,000 to $80,000 USD.
Weld says he knows exactly how much product is applied per acre so there are no longer surpluses or shortages at the end of an application.
Weld has since moved the auto steer system to a fairway mower. He confirms, “The auto steer system is almost a plug-and-play device that we can shift from one piece of equipment to another. So we tried it on a fairway mower—and saved two hours in mowing time the very first time. That may not seem like a lot, but when added up over the course of a week, a month and a year of mowing, that’s a lot of savings in fuel and equipment wear and tear.”
Both Adam Mis, golf course superintendent at Brookfield Country Club in Clarence, N.Y. and Joe Lucas, vice president of greens and grounds at Saratoga National Golf Club in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., are advocates of NuTec’s automated sprayer solution.
Lucas says he heard some conversation about GPS-enabled spraying, about five years ago, but wasn’t convinced until he visited longtime friend and colleague Clark Weld.
He recalls, “Chemicals are a big ticket item for every superintendent. We try to be careful in the application and manage our turf in environmentally friendly conditions. I thought a GPS-enabled sprayer might help improve our processes.”
Clark touted the chemical cost savings that he was realizing with a GPS-enabled sprayer and invited Lucas down to see his auto steer sprayer with individual tip control. “I got a first-hand look at the auto steer feature—and I was sold,” says Lucas. “I’d evaluated other GPSenabled sprayers with individual tip control before but felt there was something missing. I quickly realized that auto steer is the key.”
Lucas convinced his owner to invest in the system, which, at the time, included a base station. He adds, “We didn’t have to have the base station, but I didn’t want to rely on outside signals and I wanted consistent, reliable sub-inch accuracies.”
In June 2015, Lucas’s auto steer sprayer setup was enabled. He mapped the course from greens, tee boxes and fairways and defined where and how much chemical was to be applied. His chemical budget is now $115,000 USD In the first two years, he saved about $70,000 USD.
“I’ve decreased the amount of product used across every aspect of the course—fairways, tee boxes and greens,” he confirms. “With it, we save money and time, reduce the amount of chemicals used, there’s no overlap and we use less fuel in our machines. It’s so much easier to spray challenging areas such as around ponds, bunkers or tee tops. It’s also much easier to spray with the auto steer machine, than to train someone to spray manually. I really don’t understand how every golf course owner and superintendent doesn’t consider the investment. The system pays for itself inside of two years.”
Lucas is now considering putting auto steer on all his mowers.
Thigpen has worked with Keith Wood, superintendent of Quail Hollow Country Club in Charlotte, N.C., home to the 2017 U.S. PGA Championship, for soil management and GPSenabled systems, among others.