Fungicide programmes - a risky business

Daniel Lightfootin Chemicals & Fertilisers

BTME 2017 Continue to Learn Seminar presenter, Daniel Lightfoot MG MSc, of Syngenta outlined his approach to Designing a Pro-Active Fungicide Programme, developed in conjunction with Lee Strutt MG PGdip, Course Manager at the Royal Automobile Club in Surrey, to meet his specific demands. Daniel explains his approach

Risk management in designing a fungicide programme for your golf course or stadium needs to consider factors other than just the chance of disease attacks. There is also the risk to the reputation and financial cost to the club if lost turf quality hits income streams, along with the risk for the greenkeeping team, if things go wrong.

Turf disease pathogens are ever present in every turf surface. However, they typically only become an issue when conditions are such that populations are able to increase and develop, to the extent that the pathogens' impact on turf health causes plant die-back and scars on the playing surface - which affects ball roll and visual aesthetics.

Cultural controls to maintain environmental conditions that are unfavourable to specific disease development, along with inputs to promote plant health that can better cope with low level pathogen infection, can reduce the impact of disease.

The complex interaction of cultural controls to consider in the Integrated Turf Management programme include:
• Fertility
• Irrigation
• Drainage
• Light and air
• Thatch
• Height of cut
• Mechanical damage
• Turf species

However, managing turf in an intensive golf course or stadium situation creates artificial conditions that are all too often highly conducive to disease pathogens. Managing turf to the consistent high quality demanded by today's players has only increased the pressure on turf plants, and turf managers.

You still need to get all the cultural controls as right as possible, within the constraints of the demands for turf quality. But, inevitably, there will be times when turf will need the added protection of a proactive fungicide programme to maintain turf quality through high risk periods.

If you have a history of anthracnose outbreaks in the summer and there is a forecast for hot, dry weather, for example, it would be ideal to ease off mowing, raise the height of cut and take the stress off plants to reduce the risk. But, if that week coincides with the Captain's Cup and a prestigious week for the club, it may not be possible.

You can still make every cultural effort to minimise the effect of stressful conditions but, if that is not practical, a pro-active fungicide treatment, ahead of disease outbreak, is going to offer plants effective protection.

Furthermore, even after all the cultural controls, disease can still break out if conditions are right. On a parkland course, for example, trees are an essential part of the design and pleasure, but will inevitably result in shaded areas with reduced air flow that are more susceptible to disease. These physical limitations to cultural controls make fungicides an essential further tool in the defence strategy.

If you have the optimum cultural controls in place - and apply the right product, at the right time - it will ensure you get the best possible results and the longest lasting protection.

Application timing

Timing is an essential part of designing and implementing a pro-active disease control programme. Time and time again, we see that prevention of infection is most effective, compared to firefighting outbreaks after they have occurred. Not only is turf quality preserved but, over the course of the season, it has been proven that pro-active prevention can use less fungicide applications than treatment at the signs of disease.

Microdochium nivale hyphae from spores germinating on the leaf surface entering the plant through stomata ... ... compared to dead mycelium on a contact fungicide treated leaf preventing infection Curative systemic fungicide activity can still target early stages of disease development in the leaf

Six steps for disease control
• Understand the disease pathogen life cycle
• Create conditions to minimise the risk of infection
• Promote healthy turf growth
• Identify risk factors for disease infection
• Time fungicide applications to prevent infection
• Select appropriate fungicide choice for specific disease risks

Understanding how each fungicide active works is important in selecting the appropriate option. Contact fungicides, such as Medallion TL, stick onto the outside of the leaf and stop foliar disease spores from germinating and penetrating into the plant.

Contact+ active on the surface is incredibly effective at preventing new infection from starting but, if disease has already got into the leaf, it can continue to develop and break out as new lesions. Application of any protectant contact fungicide onto a leaf where disease is already active could give disappointing results.

If the disease has only recently entered the leaf, it can still be hit with a curative fungicide that can get into the plant, such as propiconazole in Banner Maxx or Instrata, before cells are irrevocably damaged.

Furthermore, systemic products require the plant to be actively growing to move fungicide to the point of disease infection, with some systemic formulations being more effective in cool conditions than others. Knowing how a product moves and works in the plant - the biokinetics - is important to select appropriate options for different times of year and conditions.

With all curative actives we are still talking about targeting disease in the early stages of infection, whilst they are developing in cells in the leaf, but before they are visibly seen as lesions on the leaf surface. If you are seeing sporulating lesions on the surface, it's about damage limitation to stop the spread and working to help turf plants to recover - but it is likely to require repeated treatments and costly intervention.

Pro-active treatments to prevent damage should be applied as close as possible to the point of infection risk, but before the infection actually takes place; the rationale is that, as soon as a product is applied, it naturally starts to break down and decline in efficacy, so the longest lasting results can be achieved from application close to infection risk.

A lot of that comes down to the greenkeepers' skills, experience, local knowledge of conditions and course susceptibility. That can also be supported with technological advances. The Greencast disease forecasting, which uses a combination of local weather data and disease models, validated by STRI, will predict periods of infection risk over the coming seven days.

Furthermore, turf managers and agronomists can look back at historic disease risk and weather data, for any site over the past decade, to see when disease typically hits and the sort of pressures a club is likely to face.

The GreenCast site also includes a five day spray window forecast, which highlights when there is likely to be an opportunity for application in good conditions. Used in conjunction with the disease risk forecast, it can help to ensure preventative treatments are in place ahead of infection.

Or, if conditions have prevented treatment and an infection period has occurred, indicate the need for curative activity with the fungicide.

In designing a pro-active fungicide programme, we look to create a framework to tackle the key threats through the season and ready to implement if required, but if conditions - and risks - change, there remains the flexibility to shift timing or adjust product selection to counter the in-season pressures.

Business Risk

Syngenta player research has shown that, in most instances, it's the course playing conditions and design that is the main attraction. Turf quality delivered by the greenkeeping team is paramount to keep players coming back and generate income for the club.

For every individual club, it's about finding the balance between the time and money invested in keeping greens clean and free from disease scarring, and the impact on the club of lost income from player dissatisfaction with greens quality and consistency.

It's all about achieving the best possible result from available resources, to minimise the risk to the club.

Longer-term, if the reputation of a club is damaged by questions over turf quality and playability, today's nomadic golfer is increasingly likely to roam to another venue that offers more consistent conditions.

Investing in an effective ITM programme, and the greenkeeping team to deliver it, makes economic sense for the club and the players.

Case Study - Royal Automobile Club

When Lee Strutt MG took over as Course Manager at The Royal Automobile Club in Surrey in 2015, he inherited two courses with a history of damaging disease outbreaks and a litany of soil structure issues to address - along with some challenging targets set by the club to restore the course layout and reputation.

The challenges faced imposed serious increased risk of disease outbreaks that demanded an intensive pro-active fungicide programme, but always with the objective to lower the future risks and, in the longer-term, reduce overall fungicide use with an improved ITM approach.

To truly test the approach and validate any success, Lee has adopted a routine of measuring turf quality and playability throughout the programme. Objectives of the monitoring programme included:

• Regular testing on best and worst greens to plot performance
• Use of industry standards to grade between unacceptable and best performing
• Tracked monthly and then presented to committee at meeting
• Establish annual data to identify true changes and trends
• Gain understanding for the club and greenkeeping team about what is being done and how it affects playability and plant health

To cope with the high initial pressure and the intensive aeration and amelioration work - undertaken over a high disease risk period to avoid disruption to golf - the fungicide programme involved nine applications.

Each application was planned to coincide with specific disease risk spikes, identified from GreenCast historical data, and planned key dates for turf management operations and club competitions. The focus was firmly on prevention.

The plan also included alternating fungicide modes of action as good practice to maintain optimum control of the range of diseases and minimise the risk of any resistance developing.

As a result, and even through the intensive remedial works, the measured differences - using a combination of stimp; smoothness meter; firmness meter; moisture meter and an NDVI turf health monitor - have already been transformational.

From December 2015, when 86% of greens would have been rated below average or poor compared to industry competition standards, by the end of 2016 just 17% were poor and 27% below average. Now 33% were rated ideal or best, compared to no greens reaching the best standard and only 7% ideal a year earlier.

Furthermore, a review of the fungicide programme and the experience gained for specific disease threats has seen the planned usage for the coming year reduced to six applications, and the potential to further refine recommendations and timings in the future.

For Lee, the key points from the initiative have been:
• A fungicide strategy is part of a structured ITM strategy
• The fungicide programme has enabled the ITM approach to happen
• The importance in identifying how changes in the environment influence disease pressure
• Understanding how the chemicals work and where they are most appropriate to use
• The importance of application timing

"Clearly, turf quality and playability are inextricably linked to player satisfaction," said Lee. "Ultimately, our actions have a huge influence on the financial performance of the club."

"Our aim is to keep the course open and playable 365-days a year, which means the club should never have to lose income from a booking, or dissatisfied member who doesn't think they have had value for money."

"No one element of the ITM strategy works in isolation," he added, "so we have to look at all the points and decide which bit we can influence and how we can use the approach to develop the most effective solution that works for us."

"Throughout the process, the repeated mantra is 'high quality', which the whole club ethos strives to attain; now we can measure and demonstrate the contribution that the greenkeeeping team has made."

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