Turf management - pesticides, soil and species health

While greenkeepers and groundsmen await EU decisions on pesticide use, they are focusing on soil and species health, says Hannah Jordan.

Fungicide use is seen as a last resort but is a vital tool in keeping fairways weed-free - image: Carnoustie Golf Links
Fungicide use is seen as a last resort but is a vital tool in keeping fairways weed-free - image: Carnoustie Golf Links

The sports turf industry, along with many others involved with pesticide use in the UK, is collectively beginning to tear its hair out. The unsung heroes of our world-class golf courses, football pitches and race tracks - the greenkeepers and groundsmen - are waiting for clarification on a series of legislative changes that will ultimately determine which pesticides they can and cannot use in future and how they are able to use them. But clarity remains elusive.

The EU Thematic Strategy for Pesticides consists of four pieces of legislation designed to bring UK practice in line with the EU - a regulation to replace the pesticide authorisation directive, a Sustainable Use Directive (SUD), a new statistics regulation and an amendment to the existing machinery directive.

Major questions surround the first two, published in 2009 and set to come into force this year. The new authorisation regulation, which involves the revision of approved active ingredients in pesticides currently in use throughout the UK, did in fact become effective from June.

Safety check

This phased assessment process is due to be carried out over a number of years with a new system being fully implemented by 2014 and will ultimately see any products considered unsafe or potentially harmful withdrawn from the market. Rumours abound across the sector about the possibility of an all-out pesticide ban, although most say this is highly unlikely.

The SUD, which will provide a standard for a sustainable approach to pesticide use, has missed its 2011 deadline. The Government was due to transpose the EU legislation into UK law by 26 November but this has come and gone with no announcements. Ministers are still considering concerns, raised across the land-based industries, that a direct transposition from EU law would remove current UK requirements that those who work with pesticides carry relevant qualifications.

The industry awaits in the dark in the hope that the Government will not allow this backward step and that the new legislations will provide them with a clear, best practice approach to integrated pest management (IPM) without a resulting loss of turf standards.

Amenity sector consultant John Allbutt says the IPM approach, which uses a combination of techniques to manage pests with the least possible harm to humans and the environment, is an excellent and necessary principle but needs formal clarification. "With a steady loss of pesticides to use as part of an integrated part of pest management it is difficult to see how we are going to be able to cope with traditional problems such as worms and leatherjackets," he adds.

Allbutt says many greenkeepers and groundsmen are already embracing IPM approaches but clear guidance is needed for them to move forward as legislation changes. "We know there are new regulations coming in but we need to know what they state. We need IPM blueprints that can be given to guys on the ground so they know what they are doing and the Government must be prepared to help us by giving us a timetable for the introduction of the SUD and then explaining how and who they are going to help."

He strongly advocates "the acid theory" as part of an IPM approach, involving increased pH levels in the turf and a reduction in pesticide use. But he says maintaining world-class sports grounds does require some pesticide when all else fails.

For Carnoustie Golf Links superintendent John Philp, keeping acidic roots and surfaces is a fundamental part of an integrated turf management approach. "We do this in conjunction with keeping healthy plants and dry, free-draining surfaces," he explains. But Philp says fungicides, although used as a last resort, are a vital tool for maintaining highquality turf.

"It is nigh impossible to maintain turf weed-free on these types of areas if you don't have some chemical treatments. We just don't have an alternative to weedkillers - hand weeding is just not an option on fairways," he maintains.

Potential losses

Philp is matter-of-fact about the future in terms of potential product losses. "What we lose, we lose," he says. If fungicides were to be phased out altogether, Philp says he would continue to promote fine grasses, look to more intensive methods of surface drying and air-flow promotion and invest in seed varieties with higher disease resistance.

Cannington Golf Course head greenkeeper Hugh Murray says with the future availability of effective pesticides in question, focus has shifted to improving cultural practices that promote strong, healthy growth.

"We manage the greens using the sustainability and minimal disturbance principles where soil health and grass species are key. That is, we use minimum amounts of fertilisers, pesticides and water given the conditions, apply seaweed, compost teas and organic feeds when possible and plenty of aeration for deep rooting," he explains. He says his integrated approach will, over time, develop a naturally dense, resilient, fine fescue sward with minimal need for feed, water or fungicide.

Greenkeepers Training Committee director David Golding says it advocates developing low-maintenance grasses as part of a long-term sustainable management approach, but it can make life difficult for greenkeepers. "They can't have five years of their courses possibly not being in top condition while they change their programmes because the golfers will be off down the road to another course," he states. "They need to try to take the customers with them."

Proper approach

Sports Turf Research Institute soil scientist Christian Spring acknowledges that people will go elsewhere if standards drop but he maintains that by implementing a proper IPM approach better surfaces will result. "Inevitably chemical controls are going to be more regulated and restricted so we need to do everything we can, culturally and biologically, to minimise the need for chemicals in the first place," he insists.

One of the biggest issues facing greenkeeping is organic matter build-up on the playing surface, which encourages turfgrass diseases. Spring says a proper IPM approach to control means stimulating micro-flora and fauna in the soil to break down the matter more quickly. It is about preventing the need for fungicide application rather than cure, he adds.

"We want people to manage not only the turf but the soil beneath. If they manage it holistically we can reduce the amount of chemicals we put in and ultimately we'll end up with more sustainable surfaces," Spring maintains.

What the suppliers say

Simon Watson, turf and landscape technical manager, Europe Africa Middle East region, Syngenta

"Our chemicals have to get through ever higher assessments but we don't foresee any problems with our portfolio. We can't guarantee that, of course, and we look at new chemistries and modes of action all the time.

"The big changes will be in the record keeping. Gone are the days when you could simply say you were doing it in the right way - you now have to prove it. Greenkeepers will have to show what they are using, why, how much and how often as part of an integrated programme. It's about ensuring best practice and getting the best from the product.

"I hope it doesn't get to the point of a total ban but I think this sector can put the tools in place to enable greenkeepers and groundsmen and to do the right thing and promote ourselves as a best practice industry.

"Fungicides are just a tool in the box - there are many other techniques involved in integrated management. They should look at application techniques, drift reduction, make sure feeding regimes are right and use aeration and top dressing."

Stuart Staples, international technical manager, Everris

"The legislation looks at plugging the gap on lost products and reducing our dependency on plant protection products.

"A total pesticides ban is unlikely in the near future but we should still be managing the turf in the best way possible to minimise disease coming in. If we use the right programmes we can get more from the products.

"We have done a number of trials and by selecting the correct nutrition using appropriate wetting agents and grass cultivars we have been able to demonstrate that we can reduce disease pressure so we can minimise any impact of any lost products going forward.

"If greenkeepers are relying very much on chemical fungicide approach they need to change their practices. They can't just treat the symptoms, they have to take a more integrated approach and look at what's causing the problem and at creating a healthier plant that is more resistant to stresses.

"The Sustainable Use Directive will require a fully integrated approach but how it will be policed is unclear. There may be difficulties about how it's carried out in practice."

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