The coldest month in 25 years has added to the concerns of a turf care sector already starting to suffer from local authority spending cuts and declining investment in the private sector.
Last year proved that the weather can be relied on to be unreliable, with snow, flooding and drought hitting the UK with varying severity. All of these factors will put turf under greater stress and if surfaces are to be at all playable, they need to be prepared for such harsh conditions.
According to Campey Turf Care Systems managing director Richard Campey: "A playing surface that is regularly aerated, scarified and top dressed will undoubtedly cope with adverse conditions better and recover far more quickly than pitches that have not had the investment of a good maintenance programme throughout the season."
But Wiedenmann UK sales manager Chas Ayres points out that the danger is, in the current climate, that such work will be scaled back. "We will see big drop-offs in council spending, so there will be fewer hands to do the job and kit won't be replaced," he says.
Fine turf consultant Laurence Pithie expects "more weeds, more worm casts, more bare patches" on local authority sports pitches in the future and adds that the popularity of golf "has dipped recently, having peaked five or six years ago".
Can more efficient machinery bring savings on labour?
Two-thirds of a typical golf course's expenditure is labour, so this should be the first area to consider when making savings, says Pithie. "There is always new and more efficient machinery coming on to the market," he explains. "Golf courses should be investing 10-15 per cent of the value of their fleet in that. If you stick with older machinery, you won't be as efficient as you should be."
He describes aeration and top dressing as "fundamental", saying: "Especially on sand-based surfaces, failing to aerate leads to a build-up of thatch. It's like us eating and not taking exercise."
Ayres agrees: "People tell me the one procedure they'd like to do more of is aeration. The trouble is, it takes so long and you often have only limited windows of opportunity in which to do it. But Wiedenmann's Terra Spike range makes the job faster and more economical. The machines are also getting wider and lighter. You can cover 500sq m in 15 minutes rather than 45."
Campey's Raycam Triplex brush also offers labour savings. "This one-man machine brushes morning dew and cuts greens in one pass," says director Richard Campey. He adds that a Dakota top dresser for finer applications requires no brushing in, which saves even more on time. "It allows you to apply the necessary feeds and fertilisers quickly and efficiently with little waste."
Ensure your mower is set up correctly
Recent trials by mower blade specialist Bernhard & Company have revealed that setting a mower to no-contact between the reel and bedknife can have a significant effect on overall fuel consumption.
According to technical manager Ben Taylor: "We discovered long ago the benefits of zero-contact cutting in terms of fuel efficiency and undertook several studies to prove it. We wanted to show where money could be saved." Trials at Leicestershire's Brooksby Melton College compared the performance of two Jackson Eclipse pedestrian mowers, one set to contact (described as "slightly heavier than a whisper") and one left at no-contact.
The no-contact mower ran for 14 minutes on 100ml of fuel, compared with just over 12 minutes for the control. As the Eclipse takes 2.5 litres of fuel, this gives 50 minutes extra running time per tank - enough to mow two extra greens, Taylor suggests.
Understand irrigation requirements
British Turf & Landscape Irrigation Association (BTLIA) secretary Martyn Jones says another ready saving is to hand. "There is a lot of wastage because people don't understand their irrigation systems. They tend to apply water for so many minutes and often that gives an excessive amount. I have come across systems that provide an incredible flow, totally out of proportion to what can be absorbed."
Instead, he advises staff to get better acquainted with the needs of their turf. "You need to know the infiltration rate of your surface and that depends on the gradient, the level of compaction and what remedial measures have been taken, the grass species mix and the depth of rooting," he says. "This is something BTLIA can provide training on. Automatic irrigation systems help but there's still a role for hand-watering."
Consider controlled-release fertilisers
Turf managers can save time and money while improving the health of their turf by using controlled-release fertilisers, says Scotts international technical manager Stuart Staples.
"Conventional fertilisers can release all of their nutrients immediately, producing a quick response in colour and growth, but this results in nutrients being lost through increased clippings removal, surface run-off, leaching and gaseous losses," he says, adding that a steady supply of nutrients has been proven to improve turf health and resilience over the "feast or famine" inherent in conventional fertiliser application.
"Controlled-release fertilisers such as Scotts' Sierrablen range deliver their nutrients over a certain period in a consistent and reliable way, so losses are minimised and nutrient-use efficiency is greatly improved," he says.
"While the price per kilogram is greater than more conventional fertilisers, the long-lasting effects of the product, reduced nutrient losses and the saving in labour costs means that multiple savings can be made over the course of a season."
British Seed Houses (BSH) amenity field sales manager Richard Brown echoes this, saying: "We see tenders for the same things such as compound fertilisers year after year. But 60 per cent of the nitrogen is volatilised or lost in run-off. With a good slow-release fertiliser there is virtually no leaching or volatilisation, so it's both more efficient and safer for the environment."
With the Floranid range, which BSH supplies, nitrogen is partly stored within a compound called IBDU, which requires both warmth and moisture to unlock. "You can put it on early in the season when there isn't much else to do and it will just sit there until it's needed," says Brown.
"You can put down 30g per square metre, rather than the 50-70g per square metre for conventional 7:7:7 fertiliser, as it's more concentrated. And rather than every four weeks, you only need to do it every 12 weeks. It may cost three times as much per bag, but it doesn't create a glut of growth. It spreads more evenly and the result is a stronger sward."
Consider low-maintenance seed mixes
While such chemical treatments can slow turf growth, this quality can be bred into the grass variety. Brown adds: "BSH has bred AberSprite, a perennial ryegrass that has the lowest regrowth rate according to Sports Turf Research Institute listings - 8.1 compared to a more typical 6.5. That enables you to reduce mowing by a third."
AberSprite makes up 60 per cent of BSH's A22 amenity mix, suitable for use in areas such as parks and roadside verges. "Ryegrass is useful for municipal areas because it's hard-wearing," he adds. "The trouble is it ordinarily grows fast so needs a lot of cutting. This variety lets you have your cake and eat it too."
However, he adds that the way local authorities procure supplies hinders the uptake of products such as the A22 mix. "Council tenders are all price-based so it all comes down to the price of a bag of seed," he says. "They are trying to be fair but it makes it hard to sell them on this sort of efficiency. It would take someone knowledgeable enough to weigh up all of the other options overall before putting out the tenders and deciding on supplies."
PROBING MORE DEEPLY
The snow has melted but problems may lie out of sight underground and cause problems further down the line, says Terrain Aeration co-owner Lynda Green. "Melting snow on frozen ground still produces waterlogging on the surface as the water cannot drain through frozen ground beneath."
The solution, she suggests, is to decompact and aerate the surface as soon as it can be walked on. "This will produce oxygen around the roots and get them breathing again," she adds. "Open, aerated soil provides stronger root growth, which means a healthier sward without expensive herbicides and pesticides."
Unlike conventional surface aeration, the 3cm-diameter probes on Terrain's Terralift system reach down to a depth of 1m, allowing surface water to percolate quickly from the surface. Dried seaweed can be injected at this depth, keeping the fractures and fissures open longer.
"It addresses the problem of flooding, quickly, efficiently and with minimum surface disruption," says Green. "The sooner clubs have playable surfaces again, the sooner they can bring in income."
The Imants Shockwave takes a different approach to poor drainage and decompaction, cutting slits to depths of 12-25cm. According to Campey director Richard Campey: "It works up to 40 per cent faster than a standard Verti Drain and requires little operational maintenance. You can achieve long-lasting effects that give added protection against flooding and improved drainage during winter."