State of the Industry - Turf sector

We investigate how the turf industry is responding to water restrictions and other challenges.

The turf and groundsmanship sector has become a technologically sophisticated, multi-million-pound international industry that encompasses a wide range of specialisms and opportunities.

It is also one of the more buoyant branches of horticulture in contrast with the slowdown in garden retailing and the ever-tighter margins afflicting nursery growers.

Groundskeeping is now a skilled and respected profession, whose needs are met by courses up to university level. Technological developments give groundskeepers sophisticated control over use of water and chemicals, allowing both to be kept to the minimum required.

Meanwhile, new and innovative sports surfaces, such as the recently reopened Royal Ascot Racecourse and the pitch at the new Wembley stadium, are created with computer-guided precision. And breeding of new grass seed varieties continues to yield tougher, more dependable and attractive surfaces for sports and leisure.

Water use

The most pressing issue affecting the turf and groundsmanship sector in this year of  drought is water use.

Sports Turf Research Institute (STRI) chief executive Gordon McKillop says: "Water restrictions will make life hard in the short term for many greenkeepers, but may help in the long term by promoting the survival of finer grass species, such as bents and fescues."

Water shortages have made sources previously considered marginal, such as "grey" (re-used) and desalinated water, into realistic alternatives for some.

McKillop adds: "If we switch to grey water with a higher salt content, this will alter things again as some fescues will survive much better under these conditions."

The drought has also increased awareness of the sophisticated irrigation technology available, much of it imported from the US. British Turf & Landscape Irrigation Association (BTLIA) secretary Martyn Jones says: "Before, irrigation was just taken for granted. Now, it is seen as a valuable management tool. People realise that it’s worth spending money to ensure uniform and ef-ficient irrigation."

Jones believes the potential for "smart" irrigation systems is limited by the "exorbitant" cost of meteorological data, in contrast with the US, where such inform-ation is freely available. This cost has boosted demand for on-site weather stations, though Jones points out that even these may not account for the varying micro-climates on a typical golf course.

Pests and pesticides

National and European regulations mean use of pesticides in all situations is becoming ever more restrictive.
DEFRA’s new code of practice on pesticide use, which was launched in January, unifies regulations for agricultural and amenity use, while aiming to "reduce to the lowest possible level the effect of pesticide use on people, wildlife, plants and the environment". But Amenity Forum chairman John Allbutt describes uptake of the new code as "slow and disappointing".

McKillop points out that lower rainfall will affect the nature of turf diseases. "We cannot see it affecting Fusarium, but foliar blight may become more problematic, along with fairy rings and localised dry patch."

On pests, though, he adds: "It may not make any difference as the pests we have come at times of the year when water is not really an issue."

Recruitment, skills and training

Unlike most branches of horticulture, turfcare and groundsmanship enjoy reasonable public profiles and do not struggle to attract new entrants. They also provide a more structured career path. Well-paid senior positions are on offer to those with talent and perseverance. Course managers at top golf clubs attract salaries of £50,000 and above, while senior football groundsmen can expect to earn upwards of £35,000.

There is considerable regional variation in pay, a situation acknowledged by the Royal & Ancient in its advisory pay scales. Fortunately, accommodation for greenkeepers, often a key part of the employment package, has improved significantly in recent years.

Placing a figure on the number of employees in such a diverse and often small-scale sector is problematic, but the overall figure, taking into account all field sports, local auth-orities and contractors, is believed to be between 150,000 and 250,000.

Nearly every employee in the turf and grounds-care sector requires training. The skills required are more wide-ranging than is often realised. Groundsmen will often be responsible for all planting and surfaces at a venue, not just the pitch.

Many come from backgrounds of general horticulture and are quite capable of potting up a container or hanging basket for the season. Managerial posts require additional knowledge of health and safety, as well as employment and environmental law.

Basic courses are run by the NPTC, which also administers the National Register of Spray Operators, a scheme that allows participants to update their certificate every three years by providing evidence of having undertaken continued professional development. Trade bodies such as the STRI and BTLIA also provide regular training courses covering their
individual specialisms.

Turf production

The British Turfgrass Growers’ Association has 39 members and represents around 70 per cent of the UK turf growing industry. Chief executive Tim Mudge says: "The UK is just about self-sufficient in turf. There are very few imports because of the time--sensitive nature of turf — you have about 24 hours from cutting to laying.

"But advances in transportation mean you can export specialist turf in a controlled environment to ‘near Europe’ in a short time and in good condition.

"Some companies are exploiting this, though it remains small. That said, within the UK, growers distribute far and wide."

The turf market remains fairly steady both in market size — around £50m a year — and number of participants. "I have not seen the same consolidation in turf as has taken place in other areas of horticulture. In future though, it will depend on how the economy goes," says Mudge. As for water restrictions, Mudge says: "They have had some impact, not as dramatic as with other areas, but it is still too early to tell."

The drought has not given rise to an overnight change in the sort of turf being grown and sold, he says. "Working with seed companies to develop turf that can cope with all sorts of stress — drought, shade, wear and tear — is an ongoing process."

One company working on more sustainable turf is Suffolk-based Sovereign Turf, which launched Xeris Turf last year. The turf is deep-rooted and developed not only to withstand lower rainfall, but also to require less mowing and fertilising.

Sales manager Ellis Cummins says: "We saw this as an opportunity three years ago and began developing a more drought-tolerant, hard-wearing turf. This year, it has paid off."

Seed breeding

IGER is the only amenity seed breeder in the UK. Principal research scientist Dr Danny Thorogood says: "We are hybridising different species to pass on the positive traits of each — for example, crossing Lolium perenne with fescues for greater stress tolerance. Festuca arundinacea is drought-tolerant, while F. pratensis is cold-tolerant, so it is good for northerly latitudes.

"By crossing, you identify which genes have specific characteristics and exploit them. This gives you different -varieties that can cope with different stresses and are suited to different areas. While climate change may mean drier conditions in some areas, you may get more flooding elsewhere. It makes sense to breed for that."

Thorogood adds that while genetic modification goes on in grass seed breeding, varieties produced this way cannot be commercialised under current regulations.

Much of IGER’s commercial development work is done for British Seed Houses (BSH), based in Lincoln and Bristol.

BSH amenity seed manager Richard Brown explains the emphasis on breeding for stress-tolerance: "These are attributes that professional and retail customers are increasingly looking for.

"On other criteria, such as wear tolerance and blade fineness, we think we have gone as far as we can."

He adds: "Unfortunately, the BSPB/STRI Turfgrass Seed listings don’t take into account disease resistance and climate tolerance right now, but the parameters are laid down by the industry and I think they will decide to look at other parameters in future."

Increasing restrictions on pesticide use have prompted the move towards grasses that can look after themselves, he says. And while a wet May has diverted concerns from water shortages, Brown reckons that a dry summer will mean browning lawns by August. "People will look to us for grass that’s green all the time."

He doesn’t see alternatives to grass as a threat. "People will always want grass. It has no natural alternatives.
"If you have a young family you don’t want decking everywhere," he adds.

Danish seed breeder DLF Trifolium has veered away from grass to some extent with its Microclover mix, which also offers drought tolerance, yet whose Trifolium repens leaves are fine enough to give the impression of a conventional sward.

Meanwhile, the grass element in the mix benefits from the nitrogenised soil.

Golf goes sustainable

Golf has not always been noted for its green credentials, but now the R&A, the sport’s governing body, is pushing golf in a more sustainable direction — not just in the UK but worldwide.

Assistant director of golf course management Steve Isaac explains: "If you want governments to listen to you, you have to use the word ‘sustainability’. It’s like a ladder with unsustainable practices at the bottom and full sustainability at the top, and we encourage golf courses to move up the ladder."

So far, around 1,900 golf courses from 100 countries are on the R&A’s best practice website, which has received two million hits since its launch in February 2004.

Greenkeepers can rate themselves via a checklist, which encourages golf clubs to:

•    Minimise or avoid chemical use, particularly fungicides and insecticides, in favour of cultural and mechanical turf management.
•    Have an effective water management programme that minimises water waste and avoids contaminated run-off.
•    Identify where fuel and energy savings can be made around the course, for example, through more careful upkeep of machinery.
•    Identify locally important species on the course and find out how to protect and encourage them.
•    Take the landscape and cultural heritage of the area into account when selecting building materials, planting and presentational style.
Isaac admits there has been resistance to the scheme from some courses and players. "Some golfers want the bright green fairways and ultra-fast greens they have seen on TV," he says.

Suppliers to the trade are also concerned at the R&A’s "minimum use" rhetoric for fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides.

"People won’t stop using them, but we encourage them to use them as responsibly as possible," Isaac adds.

The STRI’s Gordon McKillop says that although he supports the R&A’s initiative, "we feel that there are a number of areas where there are gaps in our knowledge and where further research is needed. We are in discussion with the R&A on how best to fill these knowledge gaps".


On the horizon: technological development

•    STRI is currently testing GreenCast, a web-based decision-making support system developed in the US by Syngenta Crop Protection, which uses meteorological data to predict the likelihood of pest and disease outbreaks. STRI hopes to launch the system early next year.
•    IGER has developed a new "stay-green" hybrid strain by introducing a mutant gene from Festuca pratensis into Lolium perenne by conventional crossing. The hybrid still needs testing and must first meet EU statutory standards.
•    Several senior football clubs are looking at using lighting rigs to promote winter turf growth, while new stadia such as the rebuilt Wembley include turf-friendly features such as retractable roofs to allow fresh air and sunlight on to the turf.

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