I recently undertook a fact-finding mission in Ireland. No, nothing to do with the 'black stuff'; it was a whistle stop tour of the facilities at Queen's University in Belfast. Dr. Colin Fleming and Maggie McDowell were kind enough to give up their time to allow me to look into the case study they are currently undertaking on behalf of BioMass Sugar.
There is a growing awareness of the importance of micro-organisms found within a healthy soil. Maintaining microbial activity in the soil has become one of the mechanisms used by turf managers for producing a healthy plant. Many species of turf grass plants export up to 25% of their photosynthates through the roots, to feed the soil microbes that are the primary decomposers of organic matter and liberate minerals needed for plant growth.
When a plant is under stress, it is unable to produce enough proteins and sugars to meet its own needs. The importance of carbohydrate reserves to management practices can be seen when considering cutting heights, and the ability of the grass to make its own sugars or to withstand stress from shading and drought. At this point in the year, one may consider the impact of renovation operations such as intense scarifying and coring upon the plants reserves.
Turf managers face increasing pressures to produce better surfaces with diminishing resources; diminishing in terms of budgets and also in terms of products being removed from the list of approved chemicals.
Over the past few years we have seen a number of products, that were once in every turf manager's chemical store, disappearing and, in certain cases, not being replaced. Turf managers have been resigned to looking at the alternatives of either reducing the quality of the surface or investigating alternative management practices and products.
In some situations the latter route appears to be opening up new possibilities. Controversially, sometimes, we have to question the way that we do things, e.g. what's the best way to control disease? What species do I want to be dominant on my greens? These aren't new questions but, importantly, one resource that has massively increased is information. Many turf managers now have internet access in their office. This vast resource is an important tool that requires management, but offers considerable benefit to the organisation. The best reps in the industry will be able to provide independent data substantiating the claims made by manufacturers.
New suppliers are also establishing themselves within the market, the very best of them legitimately, by providing an evidence base for their product. Dr Colin Fleming agrees that there should be evidence for products, and that this should be statistically based. Pretty graphs are all well and good within marketing material, but turf managers are becoming increasingly savvy as to what products they use. As Colin pointed out, "If a turf manager can calibrate a sprayer, they should have no problem working out the significance of a 'p-value'."
Turf managers have known that some things work well for years, though they haven't always known why. We are now in a situation where we can discern not only that something is happening but we also know how. The entire gene sequence of Thale Cress (Arabidopsis thaliana) has been mapped, this allows us to see what is happening within the plant; to see how it reacts to particular events, e.g. stress in the form of cold, low-light levels, heat or drought. This level of technology is startling and will have a distinct impact upon what we do.
One of the products that Dr Colin Fleming is currently looking at is BioMass Sugar; a by-product of the cane sugar industry created in South Africa. Amongst the benefits they will be assessing is the following;
• Increased disease resistance
• Can assist in helping the plant under low-light conditions
• Increased drought resistance
• Shade resistance/shade tolerance
• Increased root depth
• Increased populations of beneficial fungi and bacteria
• Provides a 'green-up'
• Variation of application rates to suit purpose
• Tank mixable with seaweed
• Increases nutrient take-up
• Improves soil structure
• Assists mycorrhiza
• Balancing of carbon to nitrogen ratio in the soil
• Increase in cold-hardiness and heat stress resistance
• Evidence of thatch reduction
Undertaking such independent trials is an important process, which means turf managers can make decisions based upon evidence. It also allows consumers to compare the merits of one product against another. The application of science will be an increasing function of progressive turf managers, and knowing where to go for good quality information is more important than ever.