Sports and amenity turf managers are under increasing pressure to get the best out of fertiliser products after dramatic price rises last year.
The quality of the products and proven results have helped in decision-making, while a cautious approach to spending in the current economic climate has led turf managers to be more aware of product variety. Two wet summers followed by a cold winter have also put the focus on choosing products with slow-release properties to build grass strength as spring approaches.
"Particularly in golf, greens will be slow to recover as warmth is needed for the uptake of nutrients," says commercial director Richard Aitken of Aitkens Sportsturf, which has bases in Glasgow and Yorkshire.
"Organics are being used more and more across a range of sports, including rugby and football, as it is becoming essential for the health of the soil and strength of grass.
"We are used to cold springs now so greenkeepers and groundsmen are choosing products very carefully for their slow-release properties," Aitken adds.
Rigby Taylor fertiliser product manager John Holt says people should get beyond the hype and look at the actual composition of fertilisers. "The important thing for turf managers to remember when choosing fertilisers is that no two products are identical," he tells HW.
"Some are going for economy at the moment and step down to the next level of price in a particular range of NPK fertilisers. But the majority are still very aware that the different blends and combinations have been chosen for specific results," Holt adds.
"We are trying to educate turf managers to ask questions about how the products they are using are made up and what ingredients are used to achieve the final results."
Two wet summers have given turf managers a number of problems, including an increase in moss in many areas. In addition, the withdrawal of dichlorophen as a moss-killer has led to an increase in the amount of iron sulphate used as a moss suppressant. Organic turf products have also shown an increase of around 15 per cent, according to Aitkens Sportsturf.
DJ Turfcare managing director David Jenkins has seen a big increase in the sales of Viano organic turf fertilisers from Belgium, including MO Bacter - a slow-release turf fertiliser that also destroys moss by secondary action.
"Things are tight for turf managers at the moment and they will be cautious over the coming months," says Jenkins. "Fertilisers will be very much under the microscope and products that perform several functions and act in a slow-release manner will be the key to fertiliser programmes."
Avoncrop Amenity Products business development manager Chris Briggs says: "There has been a major loss of nutrients from the soil this winter and we are saying that turf managers must look at low-nitrogen products with high phosphate and potassium content in the early stages to build up the strength of turf.
"Potassium will strengthen the cell walls of grass and this is going to be vital after a cold start to the year."
Briggs believes that a rise in the cost of fertilisers of more than 40 per cent since this time last year has led to turf managers becoming cautious in their buying habits. "People will stick with the products they know and with the suppliers who give them the best technical back-up and advice," he says.
"Cost is becoming a factor and people are not accepting the first quote they get. It is quality and value-for-money in fertilisers as well as reliability of results over a period of time that they are looking for."
Scotts Professional marketing manager Dave Steward says these are tough times for everyone. "Turf managers are under the same pressures as everyone when it comes to budgets," he says. "But they won't gamble with trying new fertiliser products if they have had good results with particular brands and suppliers.
"They will be looking at quality products that give the best performance over a reasonable period of time. Slow- or controlled-release products will be the preferred choice in many cases, particularly in the amenity and sport sectors.
"We have found that turf managers are looking at value for money in everything they currently buy.
"If they can get several months out of a slow-release fertiliser compared to a product that gives six weeks of release they will do the sums and work out what they want to achieve.
Steward adds: "Some turf managers stockpiled fertilisers when they saw that prices were going to increase last year, but in general they buy as and when the products are needed. Storage is always a problem."
Weather has been an issue for turf managers, but Steward says that fertiliser programmes have not been affected.
"We are all prepared for changes in the British weather and the cold snap has not made that much difference," he says. "But we are hoping for a warmer spring so that fertiliser nutrients can reach the grass plants as the soil warms up.
"The effects of our weather in the past two years has meant that turf managers have been looking at the best tools in their armoury for turf recovery and that means choosing the right fertiliser products for the job."
Scotts introduced Sierrablen Plus last year, a controlled-release fertiliser that comes in small granules, which can cover a wider area when spreading.
Another new Scotts product is Effect Iron, a liquid-iron product that can be used throughout the autumn and early spring. The effects are immediate (under an hour) in greening up sports turf and last for up to four weeks. Turf is also hardened up to withstand harsh weather conditions.
Fertiliser prices rose dramatically last year because of limited supplies of raw ingredients from China and India. Fuel prices also played a big part - particularly the cost of gas, which is used in the processing of fertilisers into granules. In addition, China imposed a 35 per cent export tax on fertiliser products.
The biggest issues for turf managers, apart from costs, says Holt, is trying to reduce the amount of nitrogen input and increasing the use of phosphates and potassium to strengthen grass and improve soil conditions.
"A quick fix is not always the answer," says Holt. "You have to look at the types of nitrogen products in your fertilisers. It is important for turf managers to know just what type of nitrogen ingredients are in their fertilisers, how they work and over what period."
Vitax sales and marketing manager Joe Crawley says: "A lot more turf managers, particularly in golf clubs, are shopping around. In local authorities they have always done that because of the culture of putting out to tender.
"Before costs went up the trend was towards putting on large amounts of nitrogen for quality finer grasses. Now the trend is towards slower-action products - we are recommending amino acids and seaweed-based products to improve soil and turf conditions.
"There has also been a trend towards growth regulators to reduce the amount of grass-cutting that has to be done during the spring and summer."
Headland Amenity sales and marketing director Andy Russell says turf managers are looking more closely at what their fertilisers contain and have lots of options.
"If they can do more than one job in one pass, they will," he says. "Some soluble fertilisers can be mixed with weed-control products, thus reducing the cost of a job.
"The end-user is much keener to know what they are paying for and whether they are getting value for money."
Institute of Groundsmanship and England & Wales Cricket Board fine-turf manager Martin Ford has also been a senior local government officer in Somerset, responsible for parks, gardens and sports surfaces.
"Fertilisers are always the first thing that's cut back in small sports clubs and local authorities," he says. "We have all seen local authority parks, gardens and sports pitches that have suffered because of a lack of nutrients.
"The wet weather over the past two summers has leached out many nutrients and these have not always been replaced because costs of fertilisers show high on grounds-maintenance budgets.
"My advice to the clubs I visit is to have proper soil tests so that you can plan a programme of nutrition based on the needs of your conditions.
"Stick to regular routines, listen to the reps from fertiliser companies - who offer free soil and turf analyses - and recognise that it is a false economy to cut back on fertilisers just because of the cost."
Ford says the trend is towards slow-release products that give value for money over a period of time.
"Turf managers should have a programme in place for spring and summer fertilisers. They need to know the products they will be using and should be testing the market for product prices and know exactly what they are going to buy," Ford points out.
"Most managers have a relationship with their supplier and will stick with that relationship if they are getting a good service. Fertiliser company reps are trained people, often former groundsmen and greenkeepers, and will have good practical advice to offer."
Scotts Professional 08712 205353
Rigby Taylor 01204 677777 (North), 01483 446900 (South)
Headland Amenity 01323 769902
Vitax 01530 510060
Avoncrop Amenity Products 01934 820868
Aitkens Sportsturf 01977 681155
DJ Turfcare 01483 200976