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.
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.