06 Sep 2022 | Clubs and Facilities |

Clubs want in on Cusick’s vision

by Dane Heverin

The animals roam in an out-of-play area beside a green at Eastern Sward Golf Club.
The animals roam in an out-of-play area beside a green at Eastern Sward Golf Club.

Golfers nationwide are discussing the possibility of their clubs housing goats and sheep, composting and implementing other environmentally-friendly measures since discovering Eastern Sward Golf Club’s ecological experiment.

The story on the south-east Melbourne based club’s biodiversity journey was published by Melbourne newspaper The Age late last month and other clubs want to know how they can follow Eastern Sward’s lead.

PGA Professional at the club Garth Cusick, who is driving the project where former farm animals roam the non-playing areas and composting bins surround the car park alongside superintendent Shaun Lehane, has been bombarded with expressions of interest from across the country.

“People have asked about lots of things,” Cusick said. “Whether it be using the animals to reduce the costs of managing their sites. Or we like the idea of reducing the chemical use or it’s been ‘it’s simply a feel good story, how do we get animals on our site?’.

“The interest has been humbling. People have also asked ‘do you need more money to continue?’ and ‘we like what you’re doing, how do you do it? Could you do it for us?’.”

The positive responses come while the experiment is still in its early days.

He is happy to share his ever-growing knowledge as he is fully aware of the amazing possibilities the project may create.

“What we’re doing is looking at expenditure, longevity of the practices and managing the asset which is the golf course,” Cusick said. 

“It is of no use keeping that information to ourselves.

“This work can save clubs money, improve their practice and most importantly bring more people to golf courses because they are not just playing golf, and that’s good for the game.”

Attracting and retaining more people to golf has long been Cusick’s passion.

After working in the industry for three decades, he won Golf Australia’s Visionary of the Year for the month of July for his work bringing Chinese-Australian women into golf through his business The International Golf Academy Australia, which is based at Eastern Sward. 

His desire to keep growing the sport led him down the microbiological path.

Following a chat with Lehane on how they could decrease the club’s expenses and increase cash flow, Cusick decided to study to explore various methods of soil management.

He commenced an online microbiology course with soil biologist Dr Elaine Ingham’s US-based Soil Food Web and has been studying 15 to 20 hours per week for the two years since.

“I wanted to contribute. I’ve been coaching the game for 30 years, but I didn’t think it was enough,” Cusick said.

“For the overall longevity of the game, I believe we need to protect the boundaries we play on. We have some ultra clever people building some impressive structures with amazing functionality.

“Can we focus it so that it is more natural, politically correct and cheaper? Yes. Hence, the study and luckily what I’m studying is 20 years of knowledge already in the agriculture sector. I’m bringing that knowledge to this site. I didn’t invent it, I’m just copying what others have told me.”

Garth Cusick with two of the 'Little Boys', the goats who were the first to arrive on site at Eastern Sward.
Garth Cusick with two of the 'Little Boys', the goats who were the first to arrive on site at Eastern Sward.

His research brought him to the idea of introducing animals to the non-playing areas.

Passersby on neighbouring Thompson Road are often perplexed to see sheep and goats gathered around the Eastern Sward Golf Club sign, but they have proven to be a game-changer.

Before the 160 animals - who either come from the Strong Hearts Animal Sanctuary, which rehomes animals surrendered by farms, or the RSPCA rehabilitation program - were introduced to the course, the grass in the non-playing areas was nearly head high and a fire hazard.

Now, it is kept short at no cost.

“Originally the staff managed 23 hectares and by using the animals, we have fenced off ten hectares,” Cusick said. 

“The animals manage those ten hectares and the same budget is now used on 13 hectares. We’ve intensified the energy rather than spreading out. Consequently, we’ve had significant change and we think between $10,000 and $12,000 we would spend on those ten hectares on staff, machines, maintenance and fuel. 

“So we’re not having that as excess, we choose to improve our playing surface. Our course is not at 100% capacity and we want more people to come and play. 

“We are not having six levels of cut, we’re down to three. We have green, fairway and tee, and rough. That means less machines required, less on and off machines. 

“Our golf course now is 75% fairway, 25% rough and we are aiming to have a 90/10 split this summer. That’s a big change that the members can see. It plays faster. They are enjoying the round and we’ve used that energy and money to focus more on our greens and green surroundings. 

“Our course is easy off the tee and the closer you get to the hole the more difficult it is. We’re entry level. People come here to learn the game.”

If a golfer hits their ball over the fence into where the animals roam, there is a simple local rule of taking a free drop inside the playing area.

Cusick gathers the balls, and returns them to the clubhouse, when he visits the animals to either check on them or gather microbe-rich manure for composting.

The animal manure has not had any artificial inputs and is perfect to add to his composting systems.

Cusick holds the compost which he is gathering to reduce chemical usage on the golf course.
Cusick holds the compost which he is gathering to reduce chemical usage on the golf course.

By extracting the microbes from the compost using an ‘aerated tea’ method to transfer it in water to the chosen. The local microbes support natural plant growth and are the key to the reduction of chemical use.

The club is conducting this experiment in conjunction with Dr Mary Cole, a well-known academic, plant pathologist and soil microbiologist, to provide peer reviewed data on process, methods, cost and outcome.

Cusick’s long-term vision is to use compost on the golf course instead of pesticides and fertiliser, and while working towards that goal, he has built an incredible rapport with the animals.

He knows them all by name, but he has a special bond with the ‘Little Boys’ in particular. 

They are four goats - who are not so little anymore but the name stuck - who were the first to arrive to Eastern Sward and have called the club home since they were six weeks old.

Some of the members have a similar connection with the animals and community involvement is a huge factor in the project.

When they shear the sheep at Eastern Sward, they donate the wool to the Tooradin Knitting Club - in the town on Western Port Bay - and educating people on what can be done with their natural resources is a massive part of the club culture.

“This golf club is more than just people walking on the course to play,” Cusick said. “We can teach them how the life cycle of plants works, why plants grow, why trees grow, how compost is used, what is compost.

“Having alternate interests is also important for club members.”

For now, Cusick’s focus remains squarely with continuing to evolve the project at Eastern Sward. Although, he cannot help but be excited by the prospect of his visions coming to life elsewhere.

“We are lucky to sit here in a live experiment where Eastern Sward Golf Club have given us their course to test these theories,” he said. “We are not inventing processes, we are modifying existing processes to suit the site.  

“The model we have here can be picked up and taken to any other golf club. That’s the dream, but right now I’m focused on this club.”

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