Friday, 20 December 2013

Sportsturf Microbial Conference - Royal Holloway December 11th

Last Wednesday I attended the inaugural microbial sportsturf conference at the historic Royal Holloway University in Esher. The great and the good of the turfcare industry were present to discuss biology and its place in the industry. The main focus was on the addition of beneficial microbes to the soil that many commercial companies have been pushing. Parties were present to discuss all sides of the argument.

The day began with presentations by six speakers followed by two break-out sessions to discuss where future research would be gathered. Professor Alan Gange, Head of Biological Sciences at Royal Holloway hosted the event. He started off by saying that if he heard any commercial companies plugging their products during the day they would be escorted from the premises. Fantastic!

I attended as a delegate and also spoke on the subject from an end users viewpoint. This is how I saw the day.

First on the floor was Professor Gange who introduced us to his experiences with microbiology. Two things became apparent. Firstly, there is a lack of research on this subject compared to other industries. Whether this is through a lack of necessity or investment is unclear but it reflects poorly on the turfgrass industry. Secondly (which I found quite overwhelming) how little we know about what happens beneath our feet. He suggests that we have identified around 1% of the species in the soil and he feels that he personally knows little about what's going on down there. If he knows so little what chance do we have at present?

I thought his speech was very matter of fact and to the point. A great start. Next up was John Moverley, chairman of the amenity forum. Now I admit that I've heard of John and the amenity forum before but not in much detail. However having listened to him it is apparent that his role and that of the amenity organisations are very important to the future of our industry. They are our voice to the politicians and we need to engage with them; if we don't, strict legislation could be implemented without us having much say.

Dr Alan Owen, Head of Sportsturf Agronomy at Myerscough College spoke about the current status of microbiology in the industry. I found this talk very relevant and informative. He spoke about his experiences and the research undertaken by his students at Myercough. He concluded that it is a very grey area with many things unexplained; in his experience meriting future solid research.

I found the STRI's talk by Dr Christain Spring the most disappointing talk of the session. Research is the third word in their title and yet little was mentioned in the talk about their findings over the years. I think that we can learn as much from negative results from research as from positive ones. I am sure that the STRI have done much work on this subject in the past but for whatever reason they don't seem to want to share the results with us all at present. Thinking about it, I wonder if their silence might mean that they are bound by companies not to speak about their results? Make you own mind up!

Before my talk, Steve Issac from the R&A gave a talk of their role in this country and around the world. I was pleased to see the R&A represented here and looking at their coverage of the world and the money that they reinvest in golf, for this subject to move forward they really should be involved.

And so finally to me. I must say that I was delighted to be invited to such an event but equally honoured to give a talk in such splendid surroundings. The conference took place in the glorious 'Gallery' room in the college. The paintings on the walls themselves totalled around 200 million pounds. Perhaps we could sell one or two of those to fund the research in this subject!

My talk was on the end user side of the industry from my position as an active course manager and golf course consultant. I have been campaigning (with others) for the need for solid independent research in this subject. All the data so far seems to be anecdotal from greenkeepers across the land. For as many people that say that applying microbes works there are as many that are talking about bad experiences with it. This I feel puts this subject in to a grey area in our industry. For too long many subjects in our industry have been implemented by historical stories. Good solid data is what is needed to clear up a lot of these subjects.

The first of two points that I wanted to get across in my talk was the need for data, specifically to introduce standards with this data. It's all very well saying that the soil is healthy but if the golfers, footballers or cricketers don't think so then our jobs may not be as healthy for long.

The other area that I wanted to cover was the need for commercial companies to get away from frightening buzz words such as 'sterile soils or 'dead soils'. This sort of scaremongering is doing no good at all as research in this area suggests the claims to be totally false. In fact Professor Gange conducted a study in 2005 on mycorrhizae fungi populations on a putting green. He concluded that the two traditional fungicides that we use (Iprodione and Chlorothalonil) had no adverse affect on their populations.

There was much that I found interesting during the day and many things that need to be investigated and explained. Some of these were follow:
  • Currently, certain laboratories can conduct microbial counts in a soil but cannot tell you what types of microbes they are. If they cannot identify them how do we know if they are the good ones?
  • There seems to be two trains of thought on this subject in our industry. You have one group who are mostly lead by the American Professors who say that the microbes are already there and you just have to work on the plant. Make the plant or sward healthy and a good microbial community will naturally be there. On the other hand you have another group that are lead by commercial companies who say that you need to work on the soil to make the plant healthy. Feed the soil with microbes to make the plant healthy. At the moment any data conducted points towards the American professors, but time will tell on this one.
  • As far as I can tell there are no industry standards or regulations for selling these microbial products. As someone pointed out on the day, many have nitrogen added to give them a instant effect. Could this be what is improving the turf rather than the added bugs?
  • The other interesting question of the day is 'what is the optimum level of microbial activity in a putting green?' Can you have too much of a good thing? Is it 10, 10 thousand or 10 billion? At present no one knows but it is a crucial question that needs to be answered.

So in conclusion I thoroughly enjoyed the day and learnt lots. The consensus was that doing nothing is not an option. We are talking about having similar future events and an action group is already being formed. I think that for it to function correctly all groups need to be represented. I would like to thank Professor Gange and Doctor Ravenhill for hosting this event. One thing I think we all agree on is that any data produced needs to be independent. Getting funding for this will be the issue but at least the process has started.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Fertility - Are you ready for the season ahead?

As the big thaw across Britain begins, our minds start looking forward to the season ahead and our thoughts turn to our maintenance programmes for the coming season. Without doubt one of the most crucial elements of producing good surfaces is how we apply nutrients to the plant. Too much all at once will produce soft, slow, spongy surfaces. Too little could thin out the sward encouraging diseases such as anthracnose. There has been a lot of talk over the past decade about how we have overfed our surfaces. This is probably true to some extent. Have some people now gone too far the other way? Could they be under-feeding their surfaces?

There are two basic things we can give plants to help them stay healthy. Water is obviously one (even fescue needs water), and nutrients the other. We all know about the NPK way, but I feel that time and method has moved away from this. It’s just not about NPK these days, but more crucially how and when you apply it.

At every seminar I have spoken at, the question is always asked ‘How much Nitrogen do you apply?’. It’s a valid question but always a loaded one. Giving a single figure doesn’t give an accurate representation. If I applied 100 units (kg) of N for the year, does it mean I applied 4 granular feeds with 25 units in each application? Did I apply it purely by foliar means or a combination of granular and foliar? All of these have different consequences on growth, performance and health. So instead of a number, think more deeply. First, think about what you want to achieve, then put a plan together that allows you to do so.

Be in control of growth

When I started in the industry in the early nineties, granular feeding was choice of greenkeepers. Ask any greenkeeper then and he would say, ‘35g/m2 of sulphate/ammonia’. This was great for growing grass, but surfaces would be uncontrollable one week, and starving the next. The key to producing consistent growth on an even keel is to apply it on a ‘little and often’ basis. Drip feeding the N on instead of blasting it on all at once will produce consistent greens every day of the week. You have to try to be in control of growth and not let it control you.

So how do we do this? 20 years ago a greenskeeper would probably have said that the greens mower was his most crucial piece of equipment. Today I bet quite a few would say that the sprayer is the piece of kit that they can't do without. The sprayer's role has changed a huge amount over the years. It is now a crucial piece of armoury in the greenkeepers shed. During the season it may be out there daily applying to all playing surfaces. So what is the perfect programme for the greens?

One of my biggest issues with fertiliser companies arises when they suggest products and programmes. Usually it is a generic solution for all grasses, whether they be fescue, bent, poa or rye. This cannot be right. Different grasses obviously have different needs. A poa sward will be a lot more juicy at certain times than a fescue one. Poa will therefore need feeding sooner than the fescue as the nutrients applied will be depleted sooner. Before you come up with your 'perfect' programme, consider the needs of your particular grass species and design your plan based on maximizing that plant!

Soluble or Liquid

Since the sprayer has become more popular I often get asked whether we should apply soluble or liquid feed. At the end of the day there is no difference (apart from price usually). The plant doesn't know whether it was in liquid formation or it came in soluble bags before it was applied. There are a lot of companies out there selling a ‘wonder product’. The sales pitch will be their secret formula that gets the product into the plant. But I ask you this. Do you think that a grass plant knows that product X is better than product Y? I don’t think so. What’s important to a grass plant is a) the nutrient source, b) the way the product is applied and c) how much nutrient is being applied at once. Once you know that then you can pick the correct product depending on price. If a liquid is more competitive, then buy that and vice versa.

Do your own homework

I get so frustrated when I hear that a greenkeeper has based their programme around the results of a fertiliser company's test results. We are skilled turf managers. We went to college or university to learn about growing grass. Fertility was one of the key areas, so why do we need a company to lay out our programmes? By all means ask their opinions, but do your own research. Get your tests, either soil or tissue, completed by independent laboratories. There are plenty of them about. That way you will be in charge of your own density and not reliant on a company (however good they are) whose core business is to sell fertiliser!

As we head in to spring we will all be thinking about our fertility programmes for the year ahead. First decide what you want to achieve this year. It might be to reduce your poa content, or to reduce your disease pressure in the summer months. Then think about your application methods; Granular or foliar or both. Finally, select products that will give you results at a competitive price. That at the end of the day is why we are turf managers!

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Happy New Year To You!

Since I wrote my last blog, ‘Snake Oils, a Load of Balls?’ a lot of things have happened. For starters, the blog got a few of my friends excited, questioning why I was raising the subject. To clarify; my point in that article was not to dismiss anything but just to question whether things
work and to look for solid independent evidence. My advice to anyone who is considering new theories or products is to do your own research. It may take a little more effort, but will make you a better turf manager and you will be able to understand what you are applying better!

On the evening of that blog my wife went into labour. 1 hour and 40 minutes later Thomas Christopher Evans arrived. There might be something in this Bio thing after all! Anyway, mother and baby are doing just fine and young Thomas has not stopped eating since that day. He may take after his Dad after all!

Then we went into the Christmas and New Year period. Very hectic around here with two young girls very excited to see what Santa would bring them down the chimney. Well, we have a Playmobil airplane that should take them to visit their cousins in Canada and my middle child got her best present ever. Not one but two avocados. Brilliant!

As we enter the New Year there will be plenty of challenges for turf managers. The economic situation is dire and membership renewals will be due soon. This is going to be a very hard year I feel. Members will be looking at their finances to see if they can afford another year of golf. They
will have to justify it to their partners. Many like me will have young families, so things will be extremely tight. So what can we do as turf mangers to help the situation?

I think that despite economic uncertainty, this is a very good time for course manager/head greenkeepers/superintendents. We can take control of the situation. Some clubs are still run poorly, but many greenkeepers that I meet are professional, skilled and full of enthusiasm. Being proactive and giving your customers/members a product that they will enjoy and come back for, will put the turf manager in a very strong position. But we must be professional and justify everything we do. Budgets will become tighter so we must adapt to ultimately produce 'more for

So as we begin a new year, I look ahead with a great belief that it will be a good one. I urge you all to take control of your departments and produce products that your members will enjoy, hopefully putting pound notes (or dollars) in to your clubs bottom line.

For now let’s cheers young Thomas!

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Snake Oil, A Load Of Balls?

As we enter the depths of winter we are well and truly in the middle of the seminar/conference season. Listening to all these companies, they all seem to have the answer or magic cure for what ails our greens. Compost tea, phosphites, seaweed, all seem to be hot topics this year. We are being told that these are the way forward for both plant health and reduction in pesticides. But is this correct? Should we commit fully without solid independent evidence?

Last spring I was lucky enough to meet in person the legendary doctor Mr. James Beard. Me being me, I was right on him, trying to get inside that experienced mind of his. After two long days of careful probing there were two things he said that really stuck in my mind. The first was that there was no merit in so called ‘snake oils’ (meaning magic cures). He went on to say that in the future, some companies might find solutions, but at the moment it was like ‘throwing a load of balls up in the air and hoping that one would land correctly’. His words not mine!

The other thing he said that swayed my mind somewhat was that all a plant basically needs is a ‘a little N and sometimes a little K’ (meaning consistent application of Nitrogen over the season, followed by some Potassium at the right time). All this made me wonder; What should a plant management programme consist of?

I was prompted to write this blog today because of a phone call with a fresh Course Manager. This guy is not young but has only been a CM for two years. He’s on a very poor site, his greens sit on clay with no land drainage. His grass species is Poa, the perennial type rather than the annual. This poor guy doesn’t know if he’s coming or going. He has one rep telling the bio method is the way forward with compost teas, another saying only seaweed and yet another insisting that chemicals with phosphites will allow him to reduce his fungicide needs. Which way should he go? All these companies have data to prove their methods? Should he keep it simple and just concentrate on keeping the plant healthy with as Dr. Beard said ‘a little N and sometimes a little K’?

Choices, choices!

A green that has not seen an application of seaweed for two years!

Well I’m going to tell you what I told him. For me there is not enough evidence to prove many of these theories. However, that’s not to say they are wrong. Dr. Beard did say ‘some balls may land correctly’. But before he, you or I think about committing vast sums of money on these unproven products we should do our own research. Why not challenge these companies to put their money where their mouths are and give them an area to prove their product's worth. Over the last few winters I have managed selected greens differently to the others. For instance, I have greens that haven’t seen any seaweed for the last two years. The greens without the seaweed look and perform no differently from those that have received seaweeds.

So before you go out and try new products I encourage you to do your own research. If a company has a magic cure that they claim will reduce your fungicide usage for instance, challenge them. Give them a green that you will apply their product to, and then see what the difference is from your other greens that are maintained with your own methods. You never know, the ball might just land on that green!

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Sustainability - what level are you at?

Last week I was driving to a turf seminar and while stuck in road works on the world renowned M25 (looking at Caterpillar diggers) I started to wonder; How sustainable am I? Apart from thinking that the motorway (highway for you North American boys) was not very sustainable I started to think about all the good things I'm doing. Less fungicide, less herbicide, basically less pesticides all make me happy. Then I thought about the grass species I like; creeping bent grass, poa annua and ryegrass and I started to panic. Perhaps I am not sustainable. Will my world fall apart?

A well maintained creeping bent green

When the R & A brought out their articles about sustainability and the reintroduction of the finer grass, fescue all those years ago, it gave turf guys like me a bad name. We were seen as the bad guys who would work with species that the R & A classed as unsustainable such as poa annua. The fact that people like me see this grass as an indigenous species which if managed correctly can produce 1st class surfaces, didn’t matter to these guys. We were unsustainable and it’s as simple as that!

Looking back over my career I’ve always felt I was a sustainable turf manager. The surfaces that I produced were always what the R & A wanted; Firm, fast and true. But the fact that I was not doing this with their ‘dream’ grass fescue was seen as a sin in their eyes. So what does sustainability really mean?

This is a hard question to answer and I’m not too sure there is one answer. In Wikipedia (my new dictionary) it says ‘ the capacity to endure’ meaning the ability to last. But what does this mean in the turf business? Which is more 'sustainable', the golf club that produces fescue greens but is losing money through a lack of customers, or the high end golf club who has very high chemical usage but is making huge sums of money? See. It's hard to answer.

Well me being me I have to have an opinion on it.

In all the years I’ve been visiting golf clubs I don’t think I’ve ever met a greenkeeper who I thought was ‘unsustainable’. Yes they could be doing some things better, but on the whole they try their best. They top-dress often, reduce their fertility levels and generally produce a good surface under trying circumstances. We know some guys are more proactive than others, but a lot of this comes down to what the clubs want and what resources they have at their disposal.

So what is sustainable in the golf industry? I’ve categorised that there are 3 levels. Which one do you fall in to?

1. The top level. All singing, all dancing ultra-sustainable. No outside agencies to help you maintain the course. Sheep used instead of mowers, seed produced on site (not at a factory in Holland), and all fertilisers (if needed) produced from local manure. Not many clubs fall into this category me thinks.
2. The middle level. A more realistic approach. Good surfaces are produced that deliver profitable businesses without the need for high end budgets.
3. The bottom level. A high end unsustainable approach. Huge resources are needed to produce a product but the numbers don’t add up. Manchester City comes to mind in this level.

So there you are, this is my take on sustainability. 3 levels with the majority of us falling in to the middle category. For the record I consider myself in level 2. Yes, at certain times of the year I do rely on chemicals but this is done at a reasonable cost, without the need for excessive use, but ultimately gives the customer a product that they can market and sell. That’s the balance we all have to get right!

Monday, 31 October 2011

Cut those spores away!

As we are in to the peak months for disease pressure, how do we keep our surfaces clean of those dreaded parasites? We all hear about using the right cultural practises such as aeration, dew removal and fertility reduction; Basically anything that will dry out the surface and keep it lean. But what about cutting heights? We are always told to increase them at this time of year, but could keeping them tight help in our IPM programme against disease pressure?

Over the last few years I have caused quite a stir with my revolutionary cutting height recommendations. Without giving numbers my theory is to keep them tight 12 months of the year. This will not only help with the playability of putting surfaces through better ball roll and increased speeds but also may help from an agronomic view point as well.

When I was a young assistant I enrolled at my local college. One of the most important things taught was cutting height. Suggested heights ranged from 4mm in the summer months up to 5 or 6mm in the winter months. This was very conservative and on entering the real world I soon found out that it was nonsense. Visiting top courses and viewing great putting surfaces I soon gathered that their cutting heights were far lower. 3mm or less seemed to be the norm so I started to experiment with these sorts of cutting heights in the summer months. What about the autumn and winter months? What should we do here? ‘Get those heights up’ I hear the agronomists cry!

In my opinion too many turf managers are setting cutting heights by the calendar. As soon as the clocks go back, the heights go up. But sitting in my office this morning at 7am looking at my weather station it is telling me 12 degrees in London. So why increase them? ‘Because we always do it at this time of year’ would be the answer. But is this right? Could keeping those heights tight during the autumn months actually help against disease pressure?

As well as improving the playability of greens, keeping those heights tight can help with your agronomics as well. Organic matter build up is less as there is less leaf mass to break down and more importantly for this time of year, the sward will be drier as less moisture is able to build up in the sward. So often I see greens where the heights have been increased and spores are just sitting there in the turf canopy ready to attack. By decreasing the sward length you might find that you are able to keep disease at bay for longer periods.

Keep those greens tight during the autumn months

So when you are planning your autumn maintenance programmes, think about your cutting heights. Keeping them at your summer heights might not only improve your putting surfaces but improve your IPM as well.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

How Smooth Are You?

The first question I get as a turf manager from members and visitors is 'What speed are they today?' and it's very true, speed matters a great deal to golfers. Golfers generally love quick greens. When have you ever heard a golfer say, 'Wow those greens were amazing, they were so slow!'. Not often I bet. However, for us turf managers, while speed is important (especially for bragging rights), smoothness is undoubtedly the key ingredient for top quality greens.

Personally, I hate slow greens. As a former decent golfer (yes, I used to hit a fairway once), if I went to play a golf course where the greens were sluggish I would be counting down the holes waiting for the 18th to get off the course. But far worse than this were quick, bumpy greens that you used to get in the English springtime with those northerly winds. A round in March when the greens were lightning fast but bumpy, would produce putting strokes where, if you watched carefully, you could just about see a backswing! So for me, even though I still detest slow greens, if they are true they remain superior to quick bumpy ones.

So now that we have established that smoothness matters and rates above speed, how do we measure it?

As I reported in my September blog 'Greens Performance - Are you measuring it?' the STRI brought a tool out a couple of years ago called the 'trueness meter'. The device is outstanding, giving precise data on lateral and horizontal movements of the putting surface. The R & A now use it for The Open Championship to record smoothness data. The only problem with this tool is cost. At present, according to an STRI agronomist, it costs £12,000 to purchase. So unless you have a spare £12k knocking around in your course budget, how do you measure smoothness? I've come up with a system that might just allow you to do so for a cost of a stimpmeter (£50), 3 golf balls (£10) and the golfer's golden rule, no cheating!.

I collate data on my greens regularly. Everything from organic matter levels to percolation rates is measured. I also perform weekly performance tests where I measure speed and on course actual cutting heights with a prism gauge. It was during this time with a stimp meter that I started to think about how I could rate ball roll. So I implemented a system based on a 10 point scoring system:

  • Go to a flattish location on one of your greens where the hole cup is (try to keep to the same green weekly if you can).

  • Measure a distance of around 6 feet (don't go under this distance but if the greens are quick you will have to go further away).

  • Place the stimpmeter on a small bracket so that it is angled around 25%. A small bucket (as shown) or an old hole cup will do.

  • Send the ball down naturally allowing for it to finish 1 foot behind the hole. Once you have this measurement then you are at your optimum distance (remember, it must be greater than 6 feet).

  • Now adjust the meter so that the ball travels in to the centre of the hole on a regular basis. This may mean that the meter is facing the right lip position for example so that it takes a slight break and drops in the middle of the hole.

    Once you have done this you are now ready for the test. Send down 10 balls and score accordingly:

  • 1 point if it finishes in the centre of the hole, 1/2 a point if it goes in the right or left half and zero points if the ball misses.

  • After 10 balls you should have a score out of 10. So for example if you sent down 10 balls, with 8 going in the middle, 1 slotting in the right half and 1 missing, you score 8.5 out of 10, a perfectly reasonable score. On the other hand, if you send down 10 balls and 3 go in the middle, 3 in the right half, 1 in the left half and 3 miss, you have only scored 5 out of 10, so get that top-dresser out to smooth those greens a bit.

This system may not be as scientific as the STRI's trueness meter, but it certainly costs a lot less! If you did start to implement this system on a weekly basis I bet your life that very quickly you will see how good or smooth your greens are. Either way, just like speed, measuring smoothness is a crucial element in judging how your greens perform on a daily/weekly basis. Your golfers demand it!