1 Do you 'listen' when your turf cries for help?

FairyringsHow would you feel if your greens started shouting to you for help, the next time they were attacked by Fusarium? How would you feel if your greens groaned in agony when they became stressed to, say drought? How would you feel if your greens asked you politely if you would be so good as to get rid of the pesky Leatherjackets that are chewing away at their roots?

Well, this might well be a scenario that turfcare professionals of the future will have to face on a daily basis! Let me explain this "glimpse" into the future.

As I am a member of the ABA (Association of Applied Biologists), I attend several conferences in any particular year. Just before Christmas, I attended a conference where the topic was "The Early Detection of Pests and Diseases of Plants". I thought that this would be of great interest, particularly if it proved to be of use to turf managers who have to manage their turf in a way which minimises any impact from Fusarium and other fungal diseases. What I actually discovered on the day was fascinating, and gave me a potential insight into the future of turf management

Get this ...

Apparently, every plant in the world, whenever it comes under attack from any pest or disease that threatens its well-being, emits a 'cry for help', and this cry for help starts well before (sometimes days and days) any actual visible symptoms of any outbreak becomes apparent.

Fusarium2The cry for help is a somewhat new concept, but what is really exciting is the fact that, sometime soon, we will actually be able to hear it, and take the best and most appropriate action in order to rescue the plant from the danger it finds itself in, at the earliest possible opportunity.

All this would transform the science of pest and disease management and in a big way.

Let me explain ...

The "Cry for Help" is a generic term and not a literal one. What I mean is that it is not an actual sound, it is an actual smell.

What are smells? When we sniff something, anything, what is it that we are actually sensing? We are actually detecting and sensing a combination of chemical compounds within the atmosphere, and the 'blueprint' of the selection and number of compounds tells us what the actual smell is.

So, for example, the smell of frying bacon and eggs is a particular 'blueprint' of compounds that most of us recognise, as is any other smell, either pleasant or foul, that we have had previous experience of. Once our brains have determined what each smell relates to, then we build up our own databases in our minds so that we can recognise those smells in the future. Most of us would recognise bacon and eggs, fish and chips, Chanel No 5 or, at the other end of the scale, stale bread, rotten fish or decaying flesh, because we have had prior experience of the smells.

RedThreadThe compounds that plants emit into the atmosphere, when under attack from any pest or disease, are actually smells and, because they are too faint for us to detect with our noses, we have been blissfully unaware of their existence ... until now!

For the last few years, scientists have been designing and developing pieces of equipment which have the generic name "Electronic Noses", and they do exactly what it says on the tin.

Electronic Noses are basically sensors (or a series of sensors) which are able to detect any chemical compounds which pass by them. They then feed the data into a computer, which then analyses the data and comes up with the identity of the smell from within its database, each smell having been previously identified and stored in the memory banks.

There are, and always will be, an incredible number of uses for Electronic Noses. Whether it is for quality control within the food industry, monitoring a person's health or searching for drugs, these devices will be incredibly important because, the thing is that, 'everything' has a smell. Electronic Noses are becoming so incredibly sensitive that they will be able to identify smells at such an early stage that they will enable us to make incredibly well informed management decisions.

We won't have to wait until we actually see or smell the symptoms for ourselves, the Electronic Nose will warn us if anything is wrong well before that time.

In the examples given, the Electronic Nose will tell us exactly when food begins to "go off" because of the smell. It will be able to detect many illnesses and ailments at a very early stage because of the smell ... and what does it mean for us greenkeepers and groundsmen?

It means that we will be able to detect, incredibly accurately, whenever out turf comes under attack from any pest, disease or stress situation - well before we can see any symptoms ourselves. And not only that, it will tell us which grass species is affected, exactly where it is on the green and even tell us exactly what disease, pest or disorder is involved.

Remarkable stuff ...

So, we will know exactly when to apply, for example, a fungicide and can choose the most appropriate active ingredient. It will tell us if we need to spray for leatherjackets, or whether or not we need to irrigate certain areas, and all because of the smell.

This will mean healthier turf and much, much more efficient use of pesticides, which has to be good for the planet. If we take it to the ultimate, we could hook up the Electronic Nose to our sprayer and, using a little GPS technology, we would be able to drive over our precious putting surfaces and literally spot treat infected areas, automatically eliminating the need to spray the whole green. This will significantly reduce pesticide inputs, saving costs and saving the environment.

When will this actually happen?

It is happening right now. As far as we are concerned, it will happen in agriculture first, and we will get it later.

As I write, very clever people are calibrating their Electronic Noses in farmer's fields, detecting and memorising all the millions of different smells. The ultimate challenge facing mankind is the one of feeding seven billion people, whilst utilising less water, less fertiliser and less pesticides. Electronic Noses are set to play their part in helping us to take on these challenges.

It might take some time to trickle down to us, the main problem being the question of money. Electronic Noses are not cheap, especially when balanced with the cost of the pesticides we currently use, so it will be a real challenge to make it cost effective but, when it becomes real, it will change turfcare professionals' lives.

So, one day in the future, when our greens are "Crying for Help", we will not continue to ignore these cries in blissful ignorance. Indeed, we will be actively "listening", and the world will be a better place for it.

Tony Kvedaras, Director, Independent Turfcare Solution Ltd.

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