Turf: Tough times for the turf sector

The UK's increasingly erratic weather is giving turf producers and managers some unexpected challenges, writes Gavin McEwan.

The Vale of York has long been a centre for UK turf production due to its moderate climate and free-draining, sandy soil. But the area was among those hit by torrential rain in June this year, leaving much of the area under water for days or even weeks.

"This is probably the most difficult year we've had in 20 years," says Lindum Turf managing director Stephen Fell.

"The rain in summer was heavier than any winter. Water was standing for several weeks and we did lose areas of turf. Even after that, the fields were still saturated, and we couldn't mow or feed them even when they were growing."

Flooding is an even bigger headache than drought, he reckons. "At least if it's dry, you can irrigate," he say. "But if your drainage systems, the dykes and the rivers are all full of water, it just sits there and there's not much you can do."

Perhaps fortunately, Lindum's customers couldn't do much for the period either, he adds. "You can't lay turf when the ground's soaking. But the lovely weather in October has allowed people to catch up on jobs."

Nearby turf grower Rolawn experienced similar problems. Senior products manager Jonathan Hill says: "Some of our fields flooded in June, but our production team has done a fantastic job to ensure zero impact on the availability of high-quality turf."

But Inturf, which divides its production between Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, has suffered less, according to joint chief executive Stephen Edwards.

"We were more affected by the drought the summer before," he says. "This year we've been less affected than some, though we've still had access problems with artics and machinery."

Edwards ascribes Inturf's smaller losses to investment in prevention. "We've spent thousands of pounds putting in proper land drainage, and also run a mole plough in three directions across the field before ploughing, to break up the pans underneath," he says.

"We also rotate turf with other crops, such as carrots and potatoes. Turf often leaves the soil compacted, whereas root crops break up the soil."

But Edwards has other worries. "The turf sale price has hit rock bottom," he says.

"Yet as well as two years of poor weather, we also have disproportionate price rises - in land, fuel and wages.

"We've sold more turf this year, but for less. The problem is, there's a lot of turf out there. Hopefully the weather we've had might lead to there being less turf on the market next year, which would mean a turnaround in prices." Fell agrees that "conditions will affect the quality of turf available next year".

However, he has fewer concerns on pricing. "We've increased prices this year," he says. "Poor-quality turf is being sold off cheap, though not by us."

The future of turf growing means adapting to the extremes of weather," he concludes. "The patterns have changed - a 'normal year' doesn't exist any more."

Turf consultant and former Institute of Groundsmanship (IoG) president Derek Walder agrees that adaptability is now the watchword.

"The overall problem for the turf industry is there doesn't seem to be any seasons any more," he says. "In the past you worked from the textbooks and from the calendar, but now you can't use those - you just have to look at the weather forecast. A lot of what you learned at college, you now have to rethink.

"Last summer, for example, a lot of clubs were drilling boreholes to cope with the drought. That was never in the books or in the training we received 40 years ago."

Nor was the length of the season during which groundsmen had to remain vigilant, he adds. "You used to finish mowing in October and that would be that till April, but not any more.

"Meanwhile, football grounds are hardly using their under-soil heating. You just have to work with what Mother Nature throws at you." The IoG is doing its part to help members cope with changing times, he adds. A local weather forecast is among the services it now provides via its website.

There is a limit to the preventative measures that groundsmen can take, he believes. "Drainage systems are more sophisticated and efficient than they were, but they're designed to take a certain amount of rainwater, but not to cope with flooding."

So when the floods do come, there is little that can be done to save the turf. "You're left with a layer or muck and silt on the turf which you have to take away," he says. "And the turf itself has been in an anaerobic state which has probably killed it off. So there's no remedy, you just have to start again by re-laying, which can cost thousands."

One victim of last year's floods was Worcestershire County Cricket Club, which found itself under nearly 4m of water at one point.

Two floods in succession left Worcestershire County Cricket Club's New Road ground unusable for most of the 2007 season. Head groundsman Tim Packwood puts the loss in revenue to the club at over £750,000. "It will take us five years to make back the loss," he says. "The pitch regularly floods in winter, which we can cope with. But the last time it flooded in summer was 36 years ago.

"If it only floods every 36 years, we can cope. But if it's every two or three years, the club will have to look at moving ground."

The STRI's guidelines on coping with flooding point out that there is more to flood water than water. They state: "If floodwater has been contaminated then there are health concerns in handling affected soil and turf. Take advice from the relevant agencies and get the deposits tested for any potential health and safety risks. You need to know what you are dealing with to be able protect yourself and your staff properly."

The guidelines suggest taking samples of the soil profile to test for toxicity, and also for the presence of salts and heavy metals, both of which will affect future growth. Scraping, jetting, brushing and scarification are means of removing contamination, but such soil must then be disposed of "appropriately".

DISEASE DANGER

Unusually warm spring and autumn weather has extended not just the mowing season, but also the incidence of turf pests and diseases.

"There's been a definite increase in red thread this year," concurs Turf Disease Centre consultant Dr Kate Entwistle. "It can look quite devastating, but it's a foliar disease so you can treat it by removing clippings and adding fertiliser to increase nutrition and help the turf grow away from infestation. Fungicides also help."

Fusarium and dollar spot have also been more of a problem in the extended periods of warmer weather, says Derek Walder - and it provides opportunities for pests too. "By now you would usually have had a frost which would have stopped damage from grubs and leatherjackets, but over much of the country we just don't get hard frosts any more," he says.

The connection between diseases and our increasingly unpredictable weather highlights the value of prediction systems such as GreenCast, says developer Syngenta's technical manager Simon Barnaby. The web-based application assists turf managers' decision making by relating forecast local weather patterns to predicted disease outbreaks and so to appropriate fungicidal treatments.

After a three-year trial with STRI, the system can now predict outbreaks with 97 per cent accuracy, says Barnaby.

"Because the weather's now so strange, it's better to know how it affects the turf, and react accordingly."

Rolawn's Jonathan Hill says: "We have had small bursts of enquiries from turf managers for assistance with seasonal pests and diseases, all relating to weather patterns."

But Stephen Edwards of Inturf says growers themselves have less to worry about. "Pests and diseases have not been a particular worry but then we're constantly spraying to avoid those problems anyway."


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