Fertilisers with staying power

Horse racetracks are a unique turf type in the sports turf world and they require a specialist approach, especially when it comes to nutrition.

September 19, 2020
4 mins
Emma Kilby, ICL Equestrian Specialist

If we are to create safe and uniform turf that is able to survive under the huge forces placed upon it then we need to use specialist materials that are designed for the job.

Controlled Release Fertilisers (or CRFs) are ideally suited for use on horse racetracks.  They are specifically designed to release their nutrient at an optimal rate for healthy turf growth for up to 6 months and they are durable enough to remain intact and releasing even under the thunder of hooves. Because CRF’s are by far the most efficient type of fertiliser they are becoming ever more relevant with the increase in racing fixtures and with more horses running than ever.  Horse racetrack turf needs to be able to stand up to huge forces and relentless wear and tear and to achieve this we need to utilise the efficient nutrition release that CRF’s provide.

Each racecourse has its own characteristics, some will be flatter whilst others contain undulations and a stiff climb to the finish. One of the key requirements of the racing surface is to provide a safe and fair racing ground which needs to be as uniform as possible.  A great deal of the maintenance programme is involved with creating uniformity and this may involve aeration, nutrition, water management, soil amendment and even reconstruction.

The action of the horses galloping and jumping can exert extreme downward and lateral forces especially in the take-off and landing areas of the fences and so the surface needs to be resilient AND deeply rooted to remain stable under these immense forces. To achieve resilience and rooting we need to integrate mechanical aeration, water management and good nutrition.   Quick turf recovery, the maintenance of a dense sward with hard-wearing resilient grass types is paramount, and this is where your choice of nutrition is so important.

So why apply a CRF instead of standard fertilisers?

Controlled release fertilisers contain coated granules that encapsulate the nutrient and gradually release it over time.  Their release pattern and longevity can be tailored to exactly meet the requirements of the turf. Their release period can range from 3 months up to 6 months depending on your requirements. The coatings used to regulate the release are also tough and so do not break under the intense impact forces the occur on racetracks. CRFs are designed to release at the right rate that maintains turf health without creating unnecessary flushes of top growth. Too much top growth not only means endless mowing, but it usually results in poor rooting.  The rate and level of nutrient release is paramount for race course turf and CRFs are ideally designed for the job.

The timing and type of nutrition will need to vary throughout the year to support the different seasonal demands of the turf. Nutrition levels should be tailored to the soil type to provide sufficient nutrient to promote the development of a healthy and dense sward. The application of a CRF in the autumn and winter will need to provide Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium to the turf during mild periods when active growth is taking place to aid recovery during this part of the year. The aim is to produce a gentle and sustained release to minimise the risk of excessive flushes of growth. Excessive nitrogen levels will cause soft growth which can cause the turf to become slippery and reduce the horses grip.  A slightly higher cutting height in the winter months will help to encourage the grass plant to fill out and cushion the stride of the horse.

In the spring when the soil temperatures increase above 7oC the turf will begin to grow and nutrient release will be required again. The application of a carefully chosen CRF will help the turf recover going through the spring and promote balanced turf growth, density and root development. An application of either a 3 month or 4-5-month CRF in the spring will aid this process. A conventional fertiliser should be avoided because too much N will provoke the production of weak and soft growth and will discourage much needed root development

In terms of specific recommendations for the spring, we would advise to apply either Sportsmaster Turf 25-5-10 +TE (3months) or a SierrablenPlus “Spring & Summer CalMag” 23-0-5 +2CaO +2MgO (4-5months) but this is dependent on the ground conditions. If you have experienced a very cold and wet winter and your racing fixtures start early spring, then Sportsmaster Turf should be applied. This is a blended fertiliser containing 30% coated N and you can expect an initial growth boost then a consistent nitrogen release that sustains turf health for up to 3 months. This cost-effective formulation can be applied at low application rates (25 – 35 g/m2) and will deliver balanced nutrition to all soil types. However, if you are looking for a long-lasting nutrient release pattern then SierrablenPlus “Spring & Summer CalMag” (73% coated N) would be our recommendation. The product contains the specialist mineral polyhalite for added calcium and magnesium and Poly-S and resin coated PACE technology with conventional nitrogen sources will provide the best long-term nutrient release pattern.

Ever greater challenges.

It is more challenging that ever to provide perfect racing surfaces as the weather conditions and the number and volume of fixtures have an ever-greater impact on the turf health and the soil conditions. Controlled release fertilisers contain specialist technologies that are ideally suited for use on racecourse turf. They release nutrition at an ideal rate for healthy and dense growth and root development and will not break under the pressure caused by the racing. ICL have a number of different ranges and analyses that can be used to optimise the turf performance under these challenging conditions and if applied at the right time and the right rate they will create healthy, hard wearing and consistent turf. CRF’s should be an integral ingredient of your overall maintenance plan if you want to optimise the performance of your turf.