A shortage of skilled labour and the continued loss of chemicals for use on turf are just two of the issues facing turf managers as we enter 2017. But solutions to both may be nearer than we think.
Without the volume of trained operatives coming up through parks apprenticeships, the grounds care industry has looked to Europe to find the workforce needed to maintain pitches, courts, courses, lawns and other grassed areas. With concerns over immigration limits in the future, some in the industry are wondering who will drive the mowers and tractors needed to maintain sports and amenity turf.
The answer is likely to be nobody. That does not mean the grass will simply be left to grow. In the future we could see mowers and tractors leaving the shed and doing a day's work with fuelling up being the only human intervention. Make them electric and even the fuelling stage is eliminated. We are not talking about the small randomly mowing mini-robotic mowers that work within a boundary set by a buried cable. We are talking fairway and municipal mowers.
It may seem far-fetched, but already Fendt has demonstrated the driverless tractor for spraying in orchards and in the grounds care sector we have Rigby Taylor's Intelligent One robotic line marker. Turflynx and Precision Makers, part of Dutch Power Company, are two companies developing autonomous mowing and programmes for other turfcare operations. Advantages are clear - 24/7 working, straight lines every time, minimal overlap and no labour costs.
Richard Campey, managing director at Richard Campey Turfcare Systems, has already witnessed autonomous mowing. "The technology is there," he says. "Every employer has the same problems - finding staff, training staff and then health and safety rules and regulations. I can see a time when people simply will not do manual type-work, especially outdoors in all weather. Mowing without an operative has to come."
When it comes to plant health much has been said over the past decade or so about the holistic approach to maintaining a healthy sward. Eliminating compaction, dealing with thatch, managing water and appropriate feeding go a long way to giving strong plants that can stand up to threats from pests and diseases. But using suitable grasses is the starting point. Recently we saw a major advance with the development of tetraploid perennial ryegrasses. These benefit from having double the number of chromosomes compared with diploids, ensuring fast germination to fit short renovation windows, and are tolerant to stresses and some diseases including microdonchium patch, leaf spot, red threads and rusts.
Plant nutrition has taken on an important focus in regards to innovative granulation technology and Rigby Taylor's Microlite range has given groundsmen a super micro-size granule that achieves a high level of size consistency across the turf surface.
To address concerns over the sulphur content in some fertiliser ranges lowering pH levels in certain soils, a number of low-sulphur analyses have been added to the company's Microfine range. Attention is now given to products with a high organic base, low salt index and the incorporation of Polyhalite - a naturally occurring source of potassium, magnesium and calcium.
Chemical withdrawals continue to affect turf health, as well as the income of manufacturers who want to invest in research and development. The last product for effective control of casting earthworms will go this year. Rigby Taylor director Richard Fry says: "The sword of Damocles is hanging over some industry 'standard' fungicides, selectives and glyphosate, while few alternatives are being made available."
With many chemical developers reluctant to incur the cost of adding an amenity to a label, more emphasis will have to be put on cultural control and seed breeding for stress relief and disease resistance. But watch this space. There could be new chemistry appearing at BTME.
- Read more on turf