Except for the occasional metallic ping of a titanium driver hitting a golf ball, a visitor to Dairy Creek Golf Course could be excused for mistaking the place for a farm or wildlife refuge.
The bleating of newborn lambs mixes with the gobbling of wild turkeys. Hawks sit on dozens of perches provided specifically for them, scanning the grassy links for their next meal.
In the clubhouse kitchen, all food scraps and paper are collected and taken to the facility’s composting facility, called the zero-waste park, where it is turned into turf-building mulch and brewed into organic, nutrient-rich irrigation water.
All of these eco-friendly features make Dairy Creek, situated halfway between San Luis Obispo and Morro Bay on Highway 1, a national if not a world leader in zero-waste golf course management, said Josh Heptig, superintendent of county golf operations.
Jeff Jensen, southwest representative with the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, confirmed that Dairy Creek is a national leader in the field of zero waste.
“Josh is definitely one of the bright young minds in our industry,” he said.
“Keeping food waste out of landfills is the main goal of our zero-waste park,” Heptig said. “We also hope that the community will use it as resource for learning how to compost in their own homes.”
It has already had a noticeable effect on the golf course. It has gone from needing 18 trash cans down to needing only one, which is emptied every other day.
All food waste, grass clippings, paper and other organic matter goes into the zero-waste park where both hot and cold composting is used. Both methods are used in an effort to show the public what composting options are available.
Hot composting is the more traditional method that uses microbial life to decompose the waste. Temperatures can reach 200 degrees in the hot composting bin.
Heptig lifted the lid off the hot composting bin and a cloud of earthy smelling steam enveloped him. “You get both compost and a facial,” he joked.
The cold composting bin uses earthworms to break down the waste. This method is also known as vermiculture and produces no heat or odor.
Either way, the resulting compost is ideal for building turf along the 6,548-yard, 18-hole course.
Another key feature of the zero-waste park is its compost tea brewer. Buckets of compost are loaded into mesh containers that are lowered into a 500-gallon barrel of water aerated by a continuous stream of bubbles.
After 36 to 48 hours of brewing, the tea is ready to be used for watering the course’s putting greens. The tea is highly nutritious for the grass, and microbes from the compost act as organic pesticides, Heptig explained.
Other eco-friendly techniques are also used throughout the course. All are designed to keep the facility as close to a natural ecosystem as possible and reduce the use of fossil fuels and pesticides, said Rob Rutherford, a retired Cal Poly professor who grazes 25 head of sheep in the chaparral and grassland areas surrounding the links.
Sheep are an effective way of controlling brush and invasive plants without using gasoline-powered weed whackers or chemicals.
“When you cooperate with nature, good things happen; when you don’t, bad things happen,” Rutherford said.
Scattered throughout the course are 16 owl boxes and 40 raptor perches. Attracting hawks and other birds of prey is an effective and natural way to control gophers, ground squirrels and other small rodents that can be a major nuisance at golf courses.
The owl boxes are cleaned out when they get full of droppings. A biologist once counted the bones of as many as 1,600 small rodents mixed in among a solid block of rodent hair that had passed through the owls’ digestive systems, Heptig said.
Although the golf course has made significant strides toward being eco-friendly, Heptig is still not satisfied. Plans are in the works to convert the course’s fleet of vehicles to biodiesel, install solar panels and use compost tea to water the entire golf course rather than just the putting greens.
He is also expanding the zero-waste program to the county’s other two golf courses: Morro Bay golf course and Chalk Mountain in Atascadero.
“I will consider this program a success when I hear another golf course manager say, ‘I want to create a zero-waste program like yours,’” Heptig said.