Kickstart for turf growth

Some seed suppliers now pre-treat their grass seed products, but most don't. Are treatments worth the extra cost?

DLF Trifolium’s launch last year of Turfguard, a biological pre-treatment for grass seed, focused attention on what such products can offer groundsmen.
Treatments can fulfil a number of aims, either singly or in combination. Coatings can be used simply to make seed more manageable — the small, high-value seeds of agricultural clover are coated in clay partly for this reason.
For sport and amenity turf, treatments are geared more towards promoting rapid establishment by providing either a nutrient boost for the seedling’s early development or incorporating some sort of disease prevention.
DLF amenity sales manager Derek Smith explains: “If you coat a seed with
nutrients and put it in a sterile rootzone, it will tend to grow a little bit faster. But most people use a pre-seeding fertiliser anyway, in which case the difference will be negligible.”
DLF’s Turfguard, on the other hand, helps the seed make the most of the nutrients already available. It consists of a bacterium, Bacillus subtilis, which is already present in the soil.
“It works by what’s called ‘niche exclusion’,” says Smith. “The young shoot is susceptible to attack because it leaks sugars, which attract bacteria and fungi. But if it’s already coated in good bacteria, they exclude the pathogens.”
The treatment also gives rise to another sort of exclusion, he says: “Part of what is perceived as germination rate is actually establishment rate, which may be compromised by competition from weeds and other grasses. But this gives you strong, fast, even establishment, which means fewer weeds and less management.”
DLF’s trials have shown an increase in root mass of up to 80 per cent, he says. “It’s especially beneficial in species that are hard to establish, such as bents and fescues, which are finer and slower-growing. The percentage benefit to ryegrass will be less.”
By disproportionately favouring bents and fescues, the treatment yields a sward that is closer in composition to the original specification, he adds.
DLF treats all its premium Johnsons grass seed range and can also apply treatments to any custom mixes.
“If you’re using the best cultivars, it’s worth paying a modest premium for the treatment,” says Smith. “But obviously, you want a greater percentage reduction in costs than the percentage increase you’re paying for the treatment.”
He points out, however, that no coating is a magic bullet for turf establishment. “Successful seeding requires a combination of good cultivars, good seed quality, good nutrition and good husbandry,” he says.
But while DLF has committed to using pre-treatments, other seed companies are less enthusiastic.
Lincolnshire-based seed company Nickerson used to employ a coating called Fortiva, but company representative Keith Galley says: “We no longer do DLF Trifolium’s launch last year of Turfguard, a biological pre-treatment for grass seed, focused attention on what such products can offer groundsmen.
Treatments can fulfil a number of aims, either singly or in combination. Coatings can be used simply to make seed more manageable — the small, high-value seeds of agricultural clover are coated in clay partly for this reason.
For sport and amenity turf, treatments are geared more towards promoting rapid establishment by providing either a nutrient boost for the seedling’s early development or incorporating some sort of disease prevention.
DLF amenity sales manager Derek Smith explains: “If you coat a seed with
nutrients and put it in a sterile rootzone, it will tend to grow a little bit faster. But most people use a pre-seeding fertiliser anyway, in which case the difference will be negligible.”
DLF’s Turfguard, on the other hand, helps the seed make the most of the nutrients already available. It consists of a bacterium, Bacillus subtilis, which is already present in the soil.
“It works by what’s called ‘niche exclusion’,” says Smith. “The young shoot is susceptible to attack because it leaks sugars, which attract bacteria and fungi. But if it’s already coated in good bacteria, they exclude the pathogens.”
The treatment also gives rise to another sort of exclusion, he says: “Part of what is perceived as germination rate is actually establishment rate, which may be compromised by competition from weeds and other grasses. But this gives you strong, fast, even establishment, which means fewer weeds and less management.”
DLF’s trials have shown an increase in root mass of up to 80 per cent, he says. “It’s especially beneficial in species that are hard to establish, such as bents and fescues, which are finer and slower-growing. The percentage benefit to ryegrass will be less.”
By disproportionately favouring bents and fescues, the treatment yields a sward that is closer in composition to the original specification, he adds.
DLF treats all its premium Johnsons grass seed range and can also apply treatments to any custom mixes.
“If you’re using the best cultivars, it’s worth paying a modest premium for the treatment,” says Smith. “But obviously, you want a greater percentage reduction in costs than the percentage increase you’re paying for the treatment.”
He points out, however, that no coating is a magic bullet for turf establishment. “Successful seeding requires a combination of good cultivars, good seed quality, good nutrition and good husbandry,” he says.
But while DLF has committed to using pre-treatments, other seed companies are less enthusiastic.
Lincolnshire-based seed company Nickerson used to employ a coating called Fortiva, but company representative Keith Galley says: “We no longer do it because the chemical products involved are no longer certified. The coating involved several chemicals and the companies that produced them would not pay to put them through re-registration. It’s a very expensive process
and they weren’t selling enough to make it worthwhile.”
However, the company is developing alternative coatings for possible future release, Galley adds.
The withdrawal of Fortiva appears to be a loss to groundsmen, since trials at the Sports Turf Research Institute (STRI) had confirmed its merits.
STRI head of turfgrass biology and environment Dr Andy Newell says: “You could see with the naked eye that it established quicker. It had significant positive effects overall, including 20 per cent greater establishment.
“The downside was the cost — it
doubled the price of the seed. But fast establishment gets you through the most sensitive phase, closes out the sward and prevents weed invasion, so there’s a definite saving there.”
Trials with Fortiva, conducted by the STRI in the late 1990s, showed a particular improvement in the tricky Poa pratensis of 70 per cent.
However, while sward density increased, rooting depth did not.
The report also concluded: “Treatment with Fortiva had a dramatic effect on the severity of seedling diseases… The disease scores for untreated plots were at least five times greater than those for treated plots.”
Dutch seed breeder Barenbrug remains sceptical of the value of pre-treatment. UK research and development manager Jayne Leyland says: “We have trialled lots of seed coatings at our research stations in the Netherlands, but we have not found anything advantageous to germination.
“In fact, in some cases, coatings can actually inhibit germination,” she adds.
There are other drawbacks, says Leyland. “You could coat seed in fungicide but there are legal questions about that. You could use a coating to provide nutrients, but you can add those to the soil at any time. It’s also worth bearing in mind that a coating takes up weight, so you’re getting less seed for your money.”
Barenbrug’s trials suggest that other factors may matter more, she says. “More recently, we have found that sowing at the correct depth has a more significant effect on early establishment, percentage cover and species balance.”
Amenity seeds manager Richard Brown of UK firm British Seed Houses (BSH) shares Leyland’s scepticism: “We are a bit dubious of coatings, although we do use some on the agricultural side — usually in the form of fungicides.
“For cereals, your sowing rate is lower, whereas for amenity grassing you can afford for one or two to fail.”
For BSH, providing good advice and service is more important, he says. “If you do the right thing when sowing grass, you’ll get emergence in a week or two anyway. I don’t think it’s something we’re losing out on.”

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