Noel Mackenzie: The eco benefits from spraying

Alistair Dunsmuir
By Alistair Dunsmuir October 30, 2011 14:38

Noel Mackenzie: The eco benefits from spraying

Spraying has long been considered a dirty word outside of greenkeeping circles, and sometimes within it. Why? Well, to the uninitiated, the sight of a machine spraying the ground with something evokes the ‘man is killing the planet’ in all of us. I would be a liar if I told you that I didn’t wind my windows shut on my car and turn the aircon to recycle mode when seeing a farmer spraying his field – paranoid yes … and honest with you too!

Is this a rational thought? Probably not! It was brought home to me how much our attitudes have shifted in some quarters by a long-standing greenkeeper friend recently during an advisory visit. He professed: “Over 10 years I have switched from viewing the sprayer as my enemy to it now being my friend”. What did he mean by this? Nothing more than that he was using his sprayer to apply low doses of fertiliser ‘spoon feeding’ to his greens and tees. Sure, he will apply fungicide when he has to, but his experience has told him that a spring attack of fusarium can be watched for becoming overly severe (which would justify the tank being filled with systemic fungicide) and that very often such attacks fizzle out and require no treatment whatsoever.

The sprayer has become more than the deliverer of death to disease and pest. No longer is the arrival of the brightly-coloured sprayer on the course the sign that the pest’s Grim Reaper has come to take it to the afterlife. The sprayer is much more diverse and capable than has historically been given credit for. The application of nutrient in very low levels on a frequent basis, (spoon feeding), has been around with us at least a decade, probably two, though it is still used relatively infrequently on our golf courses overall. The advantage is that the greenkeeper maintains control of the nutrient regime on his course. Typically the application of nutrient would be in the mini-granular / powder fertiliser but the accuracy of application with a sprayer is greater and more precise than using this traditional approach.

So the sprayer is a tool that can be used to reduce wastage on the course and pollution. Precise application of fertiliser is a means of reducing wastage and optimising turf condition on the course. It is a means of constantly, little and often, topping up the nutrient requirements of the grass that more closely follows the loss of nutrients from mowing, that is, it is a high-frequency activity. By adding a little, and often, there is less chance of a surge in growth from fertiliser source ingredient breakdown and therefore reduced risk or run-off of nutrients into the water courses and aquifers.

Anyone who knows me will understand that I wouldn’t advocate the sprayer as the only tool in the armory of a greenkeeper, to rely solely on such technology would be foolhardy. Sometimes a sprayer laden with water is just too heavy to move over a green or even around the course without causing too much damage. And we must not forget that the range and type of liquid fertiliser treatments is less diverse than that of mini-granular feeds. So we must bear in mind that the right tool for the conditions is the golden rule, but there is no denying that the sprayer is a valuable tool in many circumstances of golf course management.

When it comes to the traditional role of sprayers such as the Grim Reaper to control pest and disease outbreaks we must relax back into our accepted view of the sprayer – it is the means by which we apply treatments (usually chemical) to effect control of a nuisance that will, left unchecked, damage our playing surfaces. The sprayer carries a volume of water within which is a diluted chemical agent to effect (normally kill) the pest. Here is not the place to detail the manner in which pressure, nozzle shape and droplet size all play a role in determining the effectiveness of treatment. These factors have been known about for well over 30 years but in the last decade another factor affecting efficacy of treatments has been established in mainstream greenkeeping – that is the effect of water pH (acidity / alkalinity) on the chemicals being applied. Alkaline conditions are prone to reduce the effectiveness of the chemical in their tanks with ‘half-life’ values of 20 minutes in some circumstances, that is the effectiveness of the chemical in the spray tank is reduced by half in 20 minutes, and another half in another 20 minutes, and so on! Acidifiers / tank mixing agents can assist greatly in overcoming such problems, especially in hard water areas, and so ensure efficacy of treatment is maintained from green to green around the course.

Crucial to the control of pests is to correctly identify the problem on the surface. This might sound obvious, but it is amazing just how often someone has told me that they have just sprayed for fusarium disease when it is anthracnose, ‘Dollar Spot’, you name it! Even weeds can catch out the unwary, especially some of the smaller, more unusual ones. Agronomists can be of help in such situations and so can laboratory support services, for example the Turf Disease Centre, ADAS, STRI and so on.

Having identified the pest / disease it is then necessary to determine the most effective remedial action. Often this might involve a pesticide application because it is an emergency – without treatment the surface may be severely damaged. At this point it is important to bear in mind that COSHH regulations require identification of a causative agent. I perceive that in the greenkeeping community it is common practice to identify with causative conditions and this is seen as justification to spray in advance of visible symptoms because it is known that the grass is already under severe threat from fungal attack.

Whilst a speedy and effective treatment of an amenity turf-approved pesticide can be important it is also essential that the ‘quick fix’ does not overshadow the need to assess what caused that pest to become a pest. A perennial problem with worms, moss or certain weeds or diseases usually suggests a management problem from failing to perceive an inadequacy (from the grasses’ perspective) of the environment in which it is growing. It is not acceptable to continually bombard an area of ground with chemicals on either the environmental cost or fiscal cost for failure to identify the importance of an integrated pest and disease management (IPM) approach. Minimising the use of chemicals is sensible to reduce costs and impacts on non-target species, particularly the grass we want to play on!

Keeping equipment properly maintained is essential if pesticides or fertilisers are to be applied correctly. Training is the key to this and employers should not overlook the value of repeat training (continuous professional development – CPD) to ensure skill levels are maintained via the City and Guilds / NPTC training programs (see: www.nptc.org.uk/). However, in-house training / refresher work between more experienced staff coaching less experienced staff is also very valuable. And it never hurts to have the calculations of dilution and application rates checked does it – two brains being better than one and all that!

It is important that records are kept of pesticide applications (see: Complete Code of Practice for Using Plant Protection Products www.pesticides.gov.uk/safe_use) so that employers fulfil their obligations and that employees and the environment are protected. Spraying of pesticides should also be included in course maintenance diaries too so as to allow comparison and reflection of whether there is cause and effect. An example of this might be that fertiliser application in September or the last top dressing seemed to coincide with a fusarium outbreak on the greens days later. Does this pattern repeat? A look at previous years records may reveal that it does so changing management practices makes more sense than having to spray all the greens at a cost of £600 to £800 per treatment!

Furthermore, keeping records allows you to determine if the treatment was successful – if it wasn’t your diary / maintenance log would show two or three applications of pesticide in relatively short order – and what would that tell you? Well, it could indicate that pest identification wasn’t correct, that dilution or application were at fault, you applied material at a poor time, for example before a frost or rain, that the half-life of the chemical was short and so on – all areas to reflect and investigate on. What is suggested is that if you notice repeated applications of a pesticide it is a sign that something in the maintenance programme needs a little more consideration.

And even if you’re not applying pesticides but using fertiliser or some kind of treatment, for example seaweed feed, soil conditioner, wetting agent and so on, the importance of keeping records cannot be overstated. Correct information about how much fertiliser was applied and its longevity are important. Should you leave, become ill or some fate befall you it is important that your greenkeeping team and your club can see what has been put on the greens, how much of it was used and when you did it. Failure to keep records disempowers yourself and your peers.

In summary, the sprayer has moved from the delivery of pesticides to a much more versatile role over the last 10 to 15 years. It has become a tool for precise and finely-tuned application of fertiliser and other agents useful in the maintenance of the golf course. To use spraying technology effectively requires skills in pest identification to be well honed and, where necessary, the use of outside help from agronomists and / or specialists in their field, that is laboratory support.

Sprayers must be well maintained, stored and kept in peak operational condition for them to be useful and reliable and regular scheduled maintenance and refresher courses in their use and maintenance are an essential part of the process. It is important that maintenance and training should be recorded just as much as the materials that go through the machine. All employees and employers should be aware of their legal responsibilities in these areas.

Alistair Dunsmuir
By Alistair Dunsmuir October 30, 2011 14:38
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