David Helt says there is a clear difference between the “old” and “new” ways lawn care operators (LCOs) can manage their fertilizer applications.
“The old way of fertilizer application is based on a premise that the customer correlates value with the number of visits—if they don’t see you out there, they think your service is poor, regardless of the quality,” says Helt, president of Target Specialty Products, a provider of pest management and turf and ornamental products, based in Santa Fe Springs, Calif. “The new way is to utilize longer-release fertilizers that not only feed the turf for a full season but also provide other benefits in one application. This method enables the LCO to increase overall turf quality while lessening the frequency of visits, lowering overall cost.”
When considering this theory, it seems clear that LCOs should prefer the method that can improve turf quality in fewer visits and at a lower cost. But industry experts agree that this approach is not the most common. Many LCOs continue to use the old way, regardless of advancements in fertilizer technology that can save them time, money and labor.
“The residential lawn care industry, which kicked off in the U.S. in the 1970s, and the way LCOs fertilize hasn’t really changed much,” says Eric Miltner, Ph.D., an agronomist for Koch Industries, a fertilizer manufacturer based in Wichita, Kan. “If you think about how many other things have changed over the last 40 years, there is definitely room for innovation.”
Fertilizer technology has come a long way in the past several years. Manufacturers have developed polymer-coated controlled-release products that break down slowly and feed the turf as needed. With some controlled-release products, as much as 95 percent of the fertilizer can be used by the turf, compared to traditional fertilizers that release the majority of their nutrients so quickly that they wash away or vaporize into the atmosphere before they can be fully absorbed, says Bob Hartman, director of sales and marketing for Knox Fertilizer Co., a specialty plant food manufacturer in Knox, Ind. These new products are effective for three to four months or longer, eliminating the need for the regular four- to six-week visit. New combination products that include insect control, weed control and fertilizer in one application also reduce the need for frequent visits to the same property.
“Predicable release products will feed the turf over a number of weeks based on the thickness of the polymer coating, so LCOs won’t have to come back every six or eight weeks,” Hartman says. “You get a longer feed without the crazy flush of growth you get when you put down straight minerals. From a sustainability and environmental standpoint, this is really the most effective and efficient use of nitrogen out there.”
Change is challenging
So why are LCOs hesitant to use these new fertilizers and change their application methods? Industry experts say there are several reasons.
One is simply that change is difficult. Hartman says many LCOs view their current practices as an efficient way of doing things and don’t realize the benefits they could gain from switching things up. Additionally, customers, particularly residential homeowners, want to know their lawn care provider was on their property before they will pay the bill. Some LCOs can’t wrap their heads around the idea of billing their customers for a season’s worth of work while making fewer visits to the property—even if the turf ends up looking as good as or even better than before.
“The challenge to the industry as a whole is changing the mindset of the LCO and the property owner regarding the frequency of applications and the frequency and cost of billing without sacrificing efficacy,” Hartman says. “It’s a fine line to get people to switch from the way they have always done things, but with labor costs rising and the availability of good labor decreasing, coupled with fuel price increases, it’s more important than ever to find efficiencies wherever you can.”
Another challenge is the higher price of controlled-release fertilizers. While LCOs may be able to specify the amount of controlled-release nitrogen in their fertilizer to help control the cost, Hartman says these products cost approximately 30 percent more than their traditional counterparts. The price difference can be a tough pill for LCOs to swallow. But paying for a higher-quality product upfront can save money in the long run, Miltner says. Making fewer visits to each property saves money on labor and fuel, and making fewer fertilizer applications decreases wear and tear on equipment, so spreaders last longer. Miltner says new truck regulations and rising freight costs are growing problems facing the industry, and using less product can decrease a company’s freight and shipping expenses. While some of these savings aren’t initially obvious, Miltner says they add up over time to make a big difference.
“If LCOs buy a controlled-release fertilizer that will last three months, it will be more expensive upfront, so there is some sticker shock,” he says. “We are trying to educate the industry not to buy fertilizer based on price per bag, but instead to understand what is in the bag and what they’re paying for. The more expensive bag can ultimately cost less to use.”
Helt says LCOs can utilize the time they used to spend fertilizing to provide profitable add-on services. Tree care, pruning, pest control, bed maintenance, mulching and targeted weed control are all services that LCOs can upsell to their existing customer base and provide during the four- to six-week visits that were previously reserved for fertilizer applications.
“By following the new way, fertilizer can be applied as little as once per year, and the remaining visits can be used solely to provide add-on services instead of reapplying fertilizer,” Helt says. “This reduces the average length of the visit and increases revenue generation, maximizing profitability. At the end of the season, the labor savings from this model alone typically offset the added cost of the new fertilizer, even if a customer doesn’t want additional services.”
For LCOs interested in approaching their fertilizer applications the new way, Miltner suggests starting with a handful of commercial clients who typically are more concerned with having green, weed-free turf than they are with how many times an LCO visits the property. Full-service landscape companies also can try this fertilization approach, since they are on clients’ properties to provide many services at different times throughout the year. Education—for both the LCO and the customer—is another important piece of the puzzle to ensure everyone is on the same page.
“For anyone interested in doing something innovative, be sure to dig into the details and take a hard look under the hood,” Miltner says. “At the outset, it seems that this fertilizer might be more expensive and that this type of program might be difficult to implement operationally. But if you put the pencil to the paper, it is really something that can save resources, save money and produce high-quality turf.”