Interview with Tim Fell (Tillers Turf)

Dave Saltmanin Consultancy

Editor: Good afternoon and welcome to the Pitchcare interview, this afternoon we are pleased to welcome Tim Fell, Managing Director of Tillers Turf

Tim Fell: Hello, Dave. Many thanks for inviting me to take part.

Editor: We have a few questions already, but perhaps we could ask you a little about your history Tim, How did you get into the business of turf growing?

Tim Fell: I started mowing my parent's lawn at the age of 7. I was never satisfied until the stripes were dead straight. Later I did a degree in Agricultural Botany at Reading University, specialising in grass physiology. Next I cut my commercial teeth with Fisons.

Editor: What did you do at Fisons?

Tim Fell: I was selling agrochemicals to farmers, which gave me a great understanding of pesticides and plant nutrition.

Editor: So what led you into turf production then?

Tim Fell: I saw commercial turf production in America, and I knew that was what I wanted to do.

Editor: Where and how did you start turf production?

Tim Fell: I went back to the family farm in 1982 and set up Lindum Turf. I decided I wanted independence in 1989, so left to set up Tillers Turf.

Editor: How much turf are you growing now?

Tim Fell: In the first year we sold 20 acres, and this year we will sell 500 acres. Because it's roughly a two-year cycle, we have about 1000acres in the ground at any one time.

Editor: To produce turf what do you need in terms of machinery?

Tim Fell: The machinery we use is highly specialised, and designed for high productivity to cover large areas. Automated turf stacking is very new, and it's probably the most important innovation since the introduction of the tractor mounted harvester in the 1950s.

Editor: Presumably the production of turf was very labour intensive, how many people do you need now compared to years ago

Tim Fell: Labour requirements per acre have dropped considerably with the use of wider mowing rigs and automated harvesting. But it's still quite labour intensive - we employ 25 people all year round. Even in the quieter winter months the mowing lads are kept busy stripping the machines down ready for the beginning of the next season.

Editor: In terms of production how much of your turf is soil based and how much is custom grown?

Tim Fell: The majority of our turf is grown on our natural topsoil, which is a very free draining sandy loam. But we are also growing an increasing acreage on imported root zones for sports purposes.

Editor: With regards the natural topsoil do you have to import the topsoil or use existing supplies?

Tim Fell: We don't replace the topsoil because the amount of soil left on the turf is actually very small. The turf itself is mainly a mass of root, and the modern turf harvester is designed to strip very thin turf. We don't want to be hauling topsoil around the country either!

Editor: So how much soil do you lose during production?

Tim Fell: There's no evidence that we lose significant amounts of soil. The great thing about turf is that it leaves an extensive root system behind in the soil after we've lifted it. This adds back a lot of organic matter.

Editor: A member asks: Why are you called Tillers?

Tim Fell: A Tiller is the technical name for a grass shoot.

Editor: What changes have you seen in the Turf Industry over the past 20 years?

Tim Fell: Main changes include the gradual decline in meadow turf to the point where it's virtually disappeared. Most turf today is purpose grown. Another important change is the improvement of perennial ryegrass.

Editor: What do you see as the improvements of ryegrasses that are used today?

Tim Fell: Ryegrass has been getting finer and finer, with the ability to mow them lower. In addition, disease resistance has improved. When we first started, we used Elka, but it is now too susceptible to red thread to continue using. The latest cultivar from Barenbrug, Bargold, looks very exciting. It's very fine, has excellent disease resistance, and will mow down to 6mm. I can see the use of fescues declining as a result of these improvements. For example, on golf tees which get a lot of wear and tear, we will be moving towards mixtures with ryegrass and smoothstalk, but no fescue, because the fescue won't last long anyway.

Editor: What ranges of turf do you provide- and is it produced for the domestic and the professional fronts?

Tim Fell: We grow turf for both landscaping and for sport, but it is the sport market where the production becomes more specialised.

Editor: For the sports market do you mean root zone turf- why is it more specialised?

Tim Fell: Yes, the demands of sports surfaces today mean that the turf on top needs to reflect the construction materials below. We grow turf for both golf greens and for football pitches on imported root zones to match the construction specification.

Editor: A member asks Do you see Custom Grown Turf as the way forward for new golf green constructions?

Tim Fell: In many instances, yes. For example, where you are building nine or 18 holes, using root zone turf will give you the ability to open the course early for play, and consistency over all holes, without the problems of incompatibility seen with turf grown on topsoil. Some clubs are using the old turf stripped off from the green during renovation of, say, one or two greens.

Editor: How does that work if a new green construction is built to USGA specification?

Tim Fell: Using old turf is not entirely satisfactory, because you're taking a thick layer of thatch with you. But the advantage is that all greens have the same grasses on them, and the feeling is that the new green will play the same as the others on the course. However, this won't be entirely the case because of the influence of the new root zone.

Editor: Would that work in other sporting surface scenarios?

Tim Fell: No. It wouldn't work in other sports. In golf, you are using turf, which has been regularly top dressed with suitable material. In addition, if you were thinking of football, the turf wouldn't be strong enough to lift.

Editor: Is the replacement of the golf courses own turf the way forward? Could this put you out of the golf green business?

Tim Fell: No, not all old turf is suitable. In addition, many renovated greens are bigger than the original, and so new turf has to be bought in. You can't have two different turfs on one green.

Editor: Percentage wise how much of your market is for sport?

Tim Fell: About 30%, which is made up mainly of golf and football. We distribute our turf to golf clubs through Rigby Taylor, but all other turf is supplied direct.

Editor: Can we talk about the actual production of turf; from seeding the field to harvest and delivery-how long is this process?

Tim Fell: It takes about fourteen months from sowing to lifting the turf. During the growing season we mow virtually every day, and collect the clippings with a giant hoover. Fertiliser and pest control is very similar to what most Groundsmen will be doing. Lifting of turf goes on throughout the year. Our free draining soils are useful in this respect because we never have to stop for rain.

Editor: I was going to ask you if the ever-changing autumn weather affected turf production this year for you Tim?

Tim Fell: October and November have been bad months for us, not because we can't lift, but because our customers can't prepare their sites.

Editor: With the rain it is difficult to prepare for turfing, but you'll still get those orders when they are ready to accept the turf

Tim Fell: Yes. The problem is that when the weather does dry up, everyone wants turf at the same time.

Editor: A member asks: How does Tim see the future of the Turf industry?

Tim Fell: There are challenges facing all of us. I can see the influence of Europe bearing down on us, particularly where pesticide usage is concerned.

Editor: You must be somewhat limited on the chemicals available for you to use now-is it a serious problem for you?

Tim Fell: Yes. It's going to mean that many chemicals are not going to be available for us. For example, the only chemical we can use to control crane fly now is chlorpyrifos. That will soon go, like Gamma HCH. So what do we use then? I think it will force us to use cultural methods in the control of both pests and diseases, although I don't have any clear strategy for that at the moment.

Editor: Controls are already tighter in Europe how do they cope with the legislation?

Tim Fell: In Scandinavia, I know that local authorities are not allowed to use fertilisers and pesticides on their open spaces. Their solution is to sow mixtures containing grass and clover, where the clover provides the nitrogen by fixation, and also provides a bit of biodiversity to help with pest control.

Editor: A member asks: As a turf "farmer" you are not limited by the same constraints regarding chemicals as an amenity user are you?

Tim Fell: Not to the same extent, bit it's only a matter of time.

Editor: Another member asks: Are you able to cure the problem of annual meadowgrass in fine turf yet?

Tim Fell: Yes, but I'm not going to tell you how we do it! The problem is, of course, that when the turf leaves us and is put into use on site, annual meadow grass will inevitably start to encroach.

Editor: A member asks: Good afternoon gentlemen, Tim, are the problems at Cardiff mainly due to root zones?

Tim Fell: I think it's more complicated than that. I understand that they are taking the pallet system out and replacing it with a conventional pitch, with the intention of re-turfing as and when necessary.

Editor: Yes I read in the press the new chief exec David Moffett, slating the pitch- what are your thoughts?

Tim Fell: It's important to understand that the pallet system is designed with two pitches in mind, so that one could replace the other. At Cardiff, they don't have room outside the stadium to store pitch no 2. A shame really because the pallet system could be the answer in some situations.

Editor: It is a shame, the pallet system has been used to great effect elsewhere. What alternatives do you see for the use in stadium situations?

Tim Fell: Most people would agree that the ideal solution would be to slide a pitch in and out of the stadium, as they do in Japan, for example. Obviously, practical considerations preclude that in most stadia.

Editor: What clients do you currently work with in stadia environment and what problems do they have?

Tim Fell: As you know, some football clubs with conventional pitches re-turf during the season as a matter of course. We have a pitch under production for Chelsea FC at the moment, commissioned by Kestrel Sports, which is due to be laid early in the New Year

Editor: A member asks: As a grower the prospect of league pitches re-turfing once or even twice during the season makes for good news. But what message does this send out to Groundsmen?

Tim Fell: Yes, it's good news for us, but I think the stadium Groundsman of today has to do a completely different job from his former colleagues. It's our job, as turf growers, to try and provide a product that will help him in his work.

Editor: A member asks: what, in your opinion, would the thickness of turf be, for lay and play on a winter sports surface. (Minimum/ Maximum)

Tim Fell: We're growing the Chelsea pitch on an 80/20 sand soil root zone, 45mm thick. This will allow us to lift the turf 40mm thick, which is what is required for immediate mid-season use.

Editor: What part does re-inforcement play in your root zones?

Tim Fell: High sand content root zones have had a huge influence on the quality of playing surfaces in recent years. But when grass cover is lost, they do suffer from instability and hardness. The instability can be overcome with the use of fibres, of course, but hardness is still a problem.

Editor: I understand what you mean about hardness, it is about getting the root zone right, but there other methods to produce softer turf for play?

Tim Fell: If you can keep a good cover of grass, instability and hardness will not be a problem. One area we're very interested in is compaction, because we know how damaging the effect of compaction can be on grass.

Editor: Compaction is a significant problem, are there solutions available other than cultural practice?

Tim Fell: What we're doing is to incorporate rubber crumb into the sand/soil root zone in some of our Root zone Turf. We feel that the rubber crumb will give a cushioning effect in the top 23-30 mm of the root zone where most compaction occurs.

Editor: A member asks: What evidence do you have to support your view that reinforced root zones give hard surfaces?

Tim Fell: It's not just reinforced root zones that become hard; it's all high sand content root zones. We've just had the STRI over to carry out hardness tests with their Clegg Impact Soil Tester. It showed that the root zone turf without the rubber was 20% harder than the root zone turf with rubber crumb

Editor: What situations could the rubber crumb be used in?

Tim Fell: It could be used in any grassed area, which gets a lot of use in wet conditions. We've just sent a delivery to Brian Turner at Sunningdale for use on high wear areas between green and tee, and for paths.

Editor: Does incorporating rubber crumb provide longevity for the turf?

Tim Fell: I think it will because by reducing compaction, you're giving the plant a better growing medium to grow in. A plant needs a well-structured soil, with adequate air spaces, for healthy growth.

Editor: A member asks: If Chelsea are to re-turf in the New Year, how is their Desso incorporated?

Tim Fell: The turf is laid over the Desso pitch, but next spring I understand that the Desso pitch is coming out.

Editor: We touched on seed mixes earlier, what new mixes are available for use?

Tim Fell: One interesting development is the new So-green seed mixture from British Seed Houses. We market it under the name of 'Staygreen'. The main component of this mixture is the ryegrass Abernile, which stays green when under stress.

Editor: How does it stay green then?

Tim Fell: The process whereby the green pigment chlorophyll is broken down does not happen in Abernile, due to the lack of a particular enzyme. So, for example, during drought, or in the winter, Abernile keeps its green colour.

Editor: How much different is it from more traditional cultivars?

Tim Fell: I was initially rather sceptical, but having grown 'Staygreen' side by side with normal ryegrass mixtures, the difference is impressive.

Editor: Are you encouraged for the future with these types of developments?

Tim Fell: Yes, there are many turf related problems out there, and as long as we keep trying new methods and materials in an effort to supply better products, we should be able help the Groundsman and Green keeper in their jobs.

Editor: Tim, I've taken a couple of hours of your time, it's much appreciated and been extremely interesting, on behalf of our members, thank you very much

Editor: Thank you to all of you, who have asked questions this afternoon.

Tim Fell: It's been a pleasure, Dave. Thank you again for asking me to take part. A very merry Christmas to you and the Pitchcare members.

Editor: Merry Christmas to you too- Goodbye

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