Turfnomics: The Law of Turf

Paul Brannanin Drainage & Irrigation

Turfnomics - yes, you are correct, no such word exists in the English dictionary. However, every sports turf manager will be familiar with agronomics and economics - the A&E of our industry - often requiring the turf doctor in all of us to come to the fore and make decisions on what is required to keep our sports surfaces in the best condition possible, whilst using good economic practices.

The suffix nomics is derived from the Greek nomos, meaning "law of" whatever the prefix is. In the world of turf, or turfnomics, that would equate to "turf law", and groundsmen and greenkeepers are forever making tough decisions on a daily basis.

If we we look at our management practices, we see the use of the suffix in several other areas; agronomics, economics, ergonomics and environomics. These four main areas require turf managers to remain focused on producing good playing surfaces that are financially viable, without causing harm or damage to the environment.

Agronomics, the branch of economics dealing with the distribution, management, and productivity of land is, therefore, in agricultural agronomy, known as the "science of soil management and the production of field crops".

We may not be growing field crops and harvesting them, but our perennial crop requires continuous agronomic monitoring to produce the best sward possible in every environment. Mind you, if we are managing annual meadow grass surfaces, it may seem, at certain times of the year, that we are harvesting a crop!

I often think, when I read any article on the genus Poa, that is should be an acronym - P.O.A. (Plan of Action) - as anyone who manages high percentage Poa surfaces knows there must be a plan of action in controlling, if not eliminating, this grass species; an agronomic, economic and environomic decision.

The word agronomy is derived from the Greek word agronomos, meaning "overseer of land", and this is hopefully appreciated by sports turf employers that the job carried out by turf managers is more a vocation than merely a job. The agronomic aspect of the job never stops for turf managers as they continually assess what is required for good turf management. The advances that have been made in turf management, soil analytics and in products available to turf managers can make life easier. However, that is when thoughts must turn to the economics and whether decisions taken via agronomics are economically viable and sustainable.

These are areas that require a level of knowledge and expertise to enable turf managers to understand exactly what is happening with the grass plant throughout the year, and what reactions there are to weather, especially some of the weather extremes the UK has faced in the last ten years, from winters with long periods of snow cover and low temperatures to periods throught the year with extreme rainfall. It will still be fresh in everyone's mind the terrible flooding experienced across the UK last winter.

Just when we think we have the correct 'turfnomics', the weather can play havoc with maintenance plans. Agronomics requires continual monitoring and critical analysis of data, that should be recorded using modern technology, to inform turf managers.

At this time of year, there is always pressure on to have golf courses and football pitches playable, with rain and frost forcing the decision of the greenkeeper or groundsman on playability.

Within the realms of agronomics, turf managers are required to carry out risk and COSHH assessments on products and that they are fully approved for the use intended. This requires a continual professional development and understanding of modern practices, methods of work and professional products available to them.

Current UK pesticide legislation must be followed, by law, but with Article 50 about to be triggered following 'Brexit' there will be inevitable implications for the turf industry and the legislation regarding the products we use in the turf industry.

Turf managers, faced with changes in weather and less light hours, will know that the grass plant is susceptible to outbreaks of disease during this period. For them, it is not as simple as just applying a fungicide; he or she must look at the disease present, the severity of attack, plus the chemical family and modes of action available to tackle the disease whilst, all the time, keeping cost of application low.

Preparing turf for the winter and possible attacks usually requires turf managers to make agronomic decisions two or three months in advance of periods of possible disease pressure. More often, turf managers are seeking the correct nutrient balance in soil and plant to prevent disease attacks, along with choosing grass cultivars that are less susceptible.

I'm sure we are all aware of how much economics dominates everything we do in our industry and in our respective workplaces. More and more we hear the saying "every penny is a prisoner", and this applies to every household budget as well. Therefore, when it comes to joining the bowling club, golf club or going along to the football or rugby, we understand the pressure that is on to produce turf surfaces worthy of every penny spent on maintaining them.

Arriving at the correct agronomic results requires assessment across the nomics of all areas of turf management, taking into account budget considerations of whatever maintenance or project is being undertaken. It is important for turf that our managers are up to date with modern agronomic practices and are correctly informed to advise 'economically' of practices that can assist in turf maintenance, thereby reducing pressures on budgets.

The use of growth regulators is an area that can be explored by turf managers to assist in all areas of turfnomics. How? Because this type of product has significant benefits agronomically for the plant and its growth on greens whilst, in other areas of the course, it can cut fuel costs by reducing the amount of time machinery is used in certain areas (economics).

For instance, by reducing mowing frequencies on tees or greens banking, it may cut down the time spent using machines such as strimmers or hover mowers, thereby saving the staff valuable time (ergonomics). In addition, this extends the life of machines as they are cutting less often whilst also reducing the clippings on these areas. Something that can also be considered is the reduced carbon footprint (environomics) in the use of this type of product in turf management.

When we refer to the golf course environment, we can easily identify these as fairways, greens and tees. However, we are required to consider the entire environment and there have been significant improvements within our industry to take this into account by encouraging biodiversity and ensuring habitats and activity by ourselves is carried out in a way that reduces such impact.

Strategies have been developed in recent years that encourage golf courses to look at habitat management to encourage pollinators on the course. The National Pollinator Strategy for bees and other pollinators in England (2014) and the consultation document from Scottish Natural Heritage (2016) are useful documents to assist turf managers in looking at areas around the course that can be managed in a way to assist pollinators.

When we use the phrase 'environmental conditions' in relation to disease pressure and disease management, then the term 'environmental' is looking at disease management. We are referring directly to the environmental component relating to the cause of disease. This includes temperature and moisture and how both of these can be managed or influenced in what we do, and what work or corrective measures can be carried out to turf plants that are identified as being disease prone in a particular enivironment. This could relate to the time a host plant remains with moisture on its leaf during periods of susceptibility.

At this time of year, we can also find ourselves removing water by way of draining greens, tees, fairways and football pitches, often under challenging weather conditions, resulting in greenkeepers and groundsmen moving from being turf doctors to construction experts.

The demand for improved surfaces has resulted in newly constructed surfaces with good drainage capability, but pushing up the costs of irrigation and nutrient inputs.

The third environment we need to think about carefully is the working environment, where it is important that staff and users are kept safe and informed. This type of environment is 'ergonomic'.

Having discussed agronomics, economics and environomics, we must take in to account ergonomics. Ergonomics in the workplace is paramount in making full workplace risk assessments. To do this, turf managers are required to choose the correct machinery suitable for the terrain, whilst also taking into account the hours that staff will be operating machinery. Therefore, the ergonomic design of machinery is important, when making a purchase, to get the best results.

There's lots to consider when purchasing machinery, such as how suitable is it for the job intended, is it ergonomically suitable for time in use by staff, such as compliance with the Control of Vibration at Work Regulations 2005? Failure to monitor this type of exposure, and have proper health surveillance, puts staff at risk of Hand Arm Vibration Syndrome (HAVS) and Carpel Tunnel Syndrome (CTS). The Vibration Regulations include an exposure action value (EAV) and an exposure limit value (ELV), based on a combination of the vibration at the grip point(s) and the time spent gripping or holding pieces of equipment.

Manufacturers and suppliers have a duty, under the Supply of Machinery (Safety) Regulations, to provide health and safety information in equipment handbooks.

Manufacturers and suppliers also have a duty to list the vibration emission in literature describing equipment performance. This should be, but is not always, suitable for estimating vibration exposure - check with the manufacturer or your supplier.

When purchasing machinery and equipment, you should expect your supplier to provide the following: warning of any vibration-related risks from using the equipment;

- information on safe use and, where necessary, training requirements;
- information on how to maintain the equipment;
- information on the vibration emission of the equipment.

The HSE website has a wealth of information to assist in the selection of the correct machinery and ensuring correct measures are in place for the safe management of staff. Once the correct machinery, equipment and products have been arrived at, there is the requirement for Risk Assessments to be carried out on work practices and measures taken to provide staff with Risk Assessment and Method Statements (RAMS).

We also see a great need for a 'Young Person's Risk Assessment' as we often have youngsters coming in from school on work experience, or modern apprentices, with no knowledge of work environments, who suddenly find themselves in areas where large pieces of machinery are moving around.

Turfnomics - all in the course of a day in the working life of a sports turf manager.