Soil Scout - It's a long way from testing the ground with a screwdriver!

By Dr John Dempsey Independent researcher in turf grass disease and physiology

So, over the past few decades, I’ve transitioned from a young trainee greenkeeper, who’s first jobs included collecting the organic matter output from the rear ends of sheep to golf course superintendent and somehow ended up as turf grass pathologist. For most of that time, which stretches back to the 1980’s, the idea that you could sit back in your office or in your comfortable armchair at home or even by the poolside in a far-off holiday resort and be able to check on your pride and joy of a golf course to see what the moisture levels, soil temperatures and salt levels were, would have seemed like something from Star Trek!

Superintendent’s hat

Speaking with my superintendent’s hat on, the Soil Scout system has numerous benefits and if I’d had them back then, would have saved me an awful lot of worry. I’m sure most turf grass managers will identify with me when I say a long hot summer is not something we can enjoy. One of the problems we face is drought stress, our surfaces drying out and, usually by the time we visually identified problems, such as dry spots and wilt, the damage had been done! We were then faced with an uphill battle, not only to alleviate the problem, but also having to try and encourage recovery. Being able to constantly monitor Volumetric Water Content (VWC) allows us to take early preventative action, i.e. targeted surfactants, or hand watering…. prevention is always the better option!

At the other extreme, as I noted during this winter’s cold spell, we can also record low soil temperatures, and if your sensor depths are staggered, temperatures at a range of centimetres below your surfaces. This is a handy option if you need to assess the effect of extended periods of cold weather. Also you’ll have irrefutable data if you want to enlighten golfers or committee members to the dangers of frost play and effects, such as root shear, and show them that while the surfaces may look frost clear, the soil below is still gripped by winter!

Numerous studies

Speaking now with my turf grass pathologist’s hat on (it’s like the superintendent’s hat but fancier) being able to continuously and remotely assess, and gather data on soil moisture, temperatures and salinity levels is an invaluable tool. Over the past number of years, I have carried out numerous studies, in areas of disease control, turf grass physiology and surfactant efficacy. One thing that can be noted, and when you think about it its self-evident, is that stressed turf grass is always significantly more susceptible to disease, pest damage and injury from extreme environment factors.

Prevention and pre-emptive practices are always better than playing catch up with abiotically or biotically damaged turf grass.

Here’s some examples of a biotic stress and how, by utilising Soil Scout sensors, it’s possible to detect them earlier than traditional means and head them off at the pass (my cowboy hat on now).

Areas prone to excess water/flooding: traditionally observed by brown turf grass following the outline of flooded areas; scalded appearance. Sensors can help identify any areas inclined to retaining higher than average VWC and allow for remedial action.

Drought: foot printing, leaf rolling, browning of turf grass; tissue becomes brittle. Sensors will show the VWC dropping towards dangerous levels and allow for pre-emptive action.

High temperatures: turf grass with water-soaked and brown appearance. Sensors again will confirm excessive levels and allow, for example, syringing of canopy to cool.

Low temperature, frost injury: Straw-brown colour, bleached turf grass appearance, crown hydration, root shear. Sensors again can be used to confirm depth and levels of soil freezing.

Greenkeeping 101

Regarding biotic stress, one of the major pathogens we face in Ireland and the UK is Anthracnose, and this is very much a stress related disease, so any means of reducing stress will contribute to less disease - pretty much Greenkeeping 101. Providing optimum moisture and adequate nutrition are key factors in preventing it, so being able to monitor the VWC, and salt levels are very helpful in preventing this problem.

Likewise, with Microdochium infection, turf grass struggling with deficient moisture and nutrient levels are more prone to infection. Keeping on top of what’s going on in your root zones is crucial in the battle for healthy turf!

I have used the Soil Scout sensors in my researcher role for the past 18 months and they have provided me with some excellent, up to the minute data during my trials. They were especially useful during surfactant research I carried out, giving me regular updates, allowing me to easily assess what effect and interaction the various treatments, irrigation and nutrient inputs had on trial plot root zones. And of course, moisture management in sports turf is much more than providing water to the plant. Ensuring correct infiltration and consistent water distribution also has significant effects on soil microbial populations, nutrient uptake, turf grass health and playing quality.

I’ve also used them in some greenhouse work I did, assessing root zone physical amendments, sensors placed in growth vessels provided me with interesting and novel data.

As superintendent, I would have loved to have had the Soil Scout system installed during my time, it would have saved me a lot of stressing, but also it would have allowed me to produced better and healthier playing surfaces, by allowing me to specifically target resources to areas prior to problems becoming problems!

As a researcher I find the ability to access data instantly from any location very exciting (turf nerd here) and extremely useful.

Overall, I can see the integration of Soil Scout sensor technology with drone usage and irrigation controls to becoming standard operational procedure.

A long way from testing the ground with a screwdriver!

Follow John on X (formerly known as Twitter)- @J_J_Dempsey

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James Baylis

Head of Creative Content at Soil Scout. With over 20 years experience in the design, media and photographic industries, James has a passion for promoting the Soil Scout solution through creative content and marketing.