More chemical companies – and superintendents – are embracing the technology . because it works

Quietly, the golf course maintenance industry made major news in January when Bayer CropScience‘s Environmental Science division began offering the biofungicide Rhapsody to superintendents. Basic chemical manufacturers aren’t supposed to sell such liberal products to manage turf disease, are they? And don’t golf course superintendents require a fungicide akin to a sledgehammer to turn back turf disease?

Yes and no. Superintendents still need active ingredients (AI) like chlorothalonil to halt turf diseases such as dollar spot. But more superintendents are open to trying environmentally friendly technology, such as biofungicides, which help prevent or minimize a fungal attack, as well as assist turfgrass in staving off stress, which could turn to disease.

Indeed, the times are a-changin’ in golf course maintenance.

Research Triangle Park, N.C.-based Bayer CropScience received Rhapsody in its 2012 acquisition of AgraQuest, a producer of biologics. Bayer recently completed the AgraQuest transition and is now offering Rhapsody to its distributors, according to Mike Hirvela, fungicide product manager for Bayer’s professional turf and ornamentals business. Rhapsody is a preventive, liquid formulation-based biofungicide with theBacillus subtilis strain QST 713 as its AI. The beneficial bacteria produces natural lipopeptides to stop existing plant disease infections, while creating a protective barrier on plant surfaces simultaneously to prevent new pathogens. Rhapsody is labeled for dollar spot, brown patch, anthracnose and other diseases.

While the product has established somewhat of a name in the marketplace, Bayer aims to create more brand recognition with the product through research and marketing, Hirvela says.

So why did Bayer decide to purchase AgraQuest to get in the biofungicide business?

“We want to provide solutions on many fronts,” says Hirvela, noting that Rhapsody fits well with the company’s plant health strategy and its mission for fostering products for a healthy environment. “We have solid plans for biologics. We see a lot of potential in their ability to change the market, and we’re putting a tremendous amount of effort into making sure that biologics can potentially be the next industry-changing solution.”

Rhapsody isn’t the only biofungicide on the market, though. Cary, N.C.-based Arysta LifeScience offers ENDORSE, which it acquired from Cleary Chemical a few years ago. ENDORSE is a wettable powder biofungicide that contains polyoxin D, an AI derived from an actinomycete that is effective against brown patch and fairy ring in turf, says Doug Houseworth, Arysta LifeScience’s turf and ornamental technical manager.

Prescott, Ariz.-based Engage Agro USA launched Regalia PTO about a year ago. It’s an extract from Reynoutria sachalinensis, a giant knotweed. The AI inhibits the pathogen through induced systemic resistance, and controls dollar spot, anthracnose and bermudagrass decline, among other diseases.

Atlanta-based United Turf Alliance (UTA) introduced ArmorTech Sonnet in 2011. The biofungicide, a wettable-powder formulation, also uses Bacillus subtilis strain QST 713 as its AI. Tim Zech, president of UTA, says the AI has been the No. 1 biofungicide in agriculture for the past 10 years.

Research Triangle Park, N.C.-based BASF doesn’t have a biofungicide on the market, but that doesn’t mean the company isn’t considering one. With its acquisition of Becker Underwood in 2012, BASF received some of the company’s biological technology. BASF has also been researching that technology.

“There probably will be a nice intersection in the not-too-distant future where we’ll see products that meet the need for a more biological approach to control and plant health,” says Joe Lara, BASF’s senior product manager for turf and ornamentals. “I can’t say what those technologies are, but they are in our stable and we will continue to work and develop them to bring them to the marketplace.”

Mark LaFleur, Syngenta’s communication lead for turf and landscapes, says the Greensboro, N.C.-based company has developed biological fungicides for its agricultural division, but the technology hasn’t filtered down to its turf and ornamental business yet.

“Syngenta, at its core, is a research and development organization,” LaFleur says. “We’re really committed to technology and not committed to any single technology. The main thing we look at is developing products that help our customers.”

But do they work?

In the past, superintendents have snubbed biologics because they didn’t believe they worked. But that is changing.

Trevor Thorley, president of Engage Agro USA, has a history in the turf and ornamental business, once leading Bayer’s turf and ornamental business, as well as working as president of Valent U.S.A. Thorley is excited about Engage Agro marketing and selling Regalia PTO, but admits he never would’ve considered the biofungicide for his company’s portfolio if it didn’t work.

“It’s all about results,” he says.

Thorley cites renowned turf researchers, including Joe Vargas, Ph.D., from Michigan State University, and Bruce Clarke, Ph.D., from Rutgers University, who have conducted studies showing that biofungicides have a role in preventing disease.

BIOFUNGICIDES AVAILABLE IN GOLF COURSE MAINTENANCE

  • Bayer CropScience’s Rhapsody. Bayer began offering Rhapsody in January. It acquired the biofungicide in its 2012 acquisition of AgraQuest, a producer of biopesticides. Rhapsody is a preventive, liquid formulation-based biofungicide with the Bacillus subtilis strain QST 713 as its AI.
  • Engage Agro USA’s Regalia PTO. The biofungicide debuted about a year ago. It’s an extract from Reynoutria sachalinensis, a giant knotweed.
  • Arysta LifeScience’s ENDORSE. Arysta acquired ENDORSE from Cleary Chemical a few years ago. Endorse is a wettable powder biofungicide that contains polyoxin D, an AI derived from an actinomycete.
  • United Turf Alliance’s ArmorTech Sonnet. UTA released the biofungicide in 2011. The wettable-powder formulation also uses Bacillus subtilis strain QST 713 as its AI.

Lara is impressed with the biofungicides on the market, noting the research and data behind them.

“You have to look at where they work well based on the data that’s done in independent research,” Lara says. “You have to look at how a particular application fits your program on the types of disease pressures present on the course. We have superintendents today who are more open to trying these products on their courses, depending on the specific situations they are trying to address. There is a place for them.”

Hirvela, a former superintendent, says superintendents are more ready today for biologics than they’ve ever been. They’ve become more acceptable of biologics in general after seeing other environmentally friendly and low-risk products work.

“I also think superintendents are thinking more outside the box than they were before, and are looking for that balance between environmental impact and control,” Hirvela adds.

It would be easy to just market Regalia PTO as “green” and “biorational,” Thorley says. But Engage Agro chooses to market Regalia PTO first and foremost as a product that performs, in addition to its environmental attributes.

“We’re pleased with the product’s reception,” Thorley says. “We’re excited about a lot of the questions we’re getting.”

The learning curve

In order to trust that they work, superintendents need to understand how biofungicides work.

“[A biofungicide] isn’t a stand-alone product that will solve all your problems,” Hirvela says. “Yes, they work, but I don’t think the industry fully understands how well or to what degree they work.”

The biofungicides won’t cure turf disease on their own, but they will help control disease preventively when used in rotation with synthetic fungicides, experts say.

“Generally, biofungicides are multisite inhibitors that fit well into resistance management programs,” Houseworth says.

Biofungicides fit golf course maintenance for several reasons, including use in environmentally sensitive areas, Zech says. Biofungicides also enable superintendents to reduce the rate of synthetic pesticides, he adds.

For instance, using biofungicides allows superintendents to reduce rates of synthetic fungicides when the two are used together in a tank mix, Zech explains.

And, according to Hirvela, they can also help other traditional products such as DMI-based (demethylation inhibitor) fungicides control disease and provide turf health in a program approach.

An important message to convey to superintendents is that biofungicides can’t control disease like synthetic fungicides, Hirvela says. Superintendents should realize that a true curative fungicide – something that can knock down disease in a hurry – is something they will always need in their maintenance toolboxes, he adds.

Marketing prowess

With competition for golfers increasing among golf courses, Thorley expects more courses to market their environmental prowess to attract more golfers.

“I think we’re seeing a little of that now, but in five years we’re going to see a lot more of it,” Thorley says. “It’s not just going to be about how big the clubhouse is.”

There’s definitely a “feel-good advantage” to using synthetic fungicides, Houseworth adds.

“By using these products, superintendents can pitch to their greens committees and golfers that they use natural products that are safer to the environment and that promote sustainable turf management,” he says.

Hirvela believes there are areas such as Long Island, N.Y., and California, that will be more accepting of such biologics in the near term because of environmental mindsets already in place. But he says such environmental marketing could go macro, much like the positive perception of organic fruits and vegetables nationally.

What does the future hold?

Chemical companies have answered the call for safer products by introducing pesticides with lower use rates. Assuming chemical companies keep improving on this, why is there a need for biofungicides?

Having safer pesticides on the market, fungicides in this matter, is a wonderful thing, Lara says. But, he asks, “Does environmentally better supplant a need or desire to still continue to use some kind of organic or biological form? That comes down to an individual decision by each superintendent as they balance the agronomic and financial demands of their businesses.”

More biofungicides are coming, provided they work, Thorley says.

“There’s a greener movement going on, but it’s about using traditional chemistry in combination with softer chemistry and biological,” he adds.

Hirvela says a biological chemistry could be combined with a synthetic chemistry to create a fungicide that could have strong efficacy but at a lower rate. He expects government regulations will get tighter.

“Biofungicides are just another tool in the toolbox to help superintendents get the job done,” he adds.

Houseworth predicts more biofungicides will be on the market in the next five years.

“If you look at the business side of providing products to the turf market, money is made with new products,” he says. “With fungicides, the market is well served with numerous product options. … Biopesticides and natural products offer alternatives; they can be brought to market at a much lower cost, and thus can be sustained in the marketplace with a much lower return on investment.”