Editor's Notebook: High hopes for low inputs

Editor's Notebook: High hopes for low inputs

Mountain View Seeds field day at Rutgers University highlights efforts to bring low-input turfgrass varieties and blends into the marketplace.

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August 3, 2015

Separate coasts. Same objective.

Oregon-based Mountain View Seeds is using the research facilities at New Jersey-based Rutgers University to test its current and future offerings. The company and university showcased their work during a field day July 15 at a pair of research farms.

Attendees dodged raindrops, observed wear and divot simulating machines, and examined a slew of bentgrass, bluegrass, ryegrass and fescue trials. They also repeatedly heard a phrase frequently entering industry vernacular: low-input turf.

Focused efforts to develop seed requiring less of every imaginable resource started around 2008, according to Steve Johnson, a breeder for Peak Plant Genetics, the research affiliate of Mountain View Seeds. Johnson has worked closely with Rutgers researchers since 1996, and Dr. William Meyer and Dr. Stacy Bonos are among the researchers who participated in the field day.

So, why did a Pacific Northwest company forge a relationship with an East Coast school?

“We don’t have the important diseases,” Johnson says of his region. “We don’t have the real heat stress. Even this year, we don’t have humidity, so we don’t get disease pressure. Even during the string of 90-degree weather, it was getting down to the high-50s, low-60s at night.”

Meyer, who arrived at Rutgers in 1996, simply says, "We have all the possible problems you could have on cool-season grasses.” Bonos started leading the push to introduce more research on low-input turf at Rutgers in 2008, and Meyer estimates one-third of the university’s plots now include low-input varieties. 

Plots change as the marketplace shifts. A combination of the recent economic downturn and lingering drought in multiple regions has increased the demand for varieties that require fewer inputs. During the field day, Bonos explained the intriguing trials being performed on fairways using a fine fescue/colonial bentgrass blend. Divot recovery and wear tolerance are major concerns involving fescue fairways, and the next step for Bonos and her team involves using a divot simulator constructed by Glenwood (N.J.) Country Club assistant superintendent Mario Gagliardi to examine recovery rates.

Mountain View and Rutgers are among the key participants in an organized movement to bring attention to low-input offerings. The Alliance For Low-Input Sustainable Turf (A-LIST) launched in 2013 and is increasing its visibility in the industry. A-LIST represents an industry initiative created by seed companies and university partners to identify and market sustainable turf varieties. University cooperators include Meyer, North Carolina State’s Dr. Grady Miller, Purdue’s Dr. Cale Bigelow and UC-Riverside’s Dr. James Baird. Mountain View Seeds, Lebanon Seeds, Seed Research of Oregon, DLF and Pickseed are the alliance’s industry partners. 

Seed varieties and blends meeting water and fertility guidelines established by cooperators are eligible to receive the newly created A-LIST approved designation. Nine varieties are positioned to receive A-LIST approval. Final decisions on initial approvals will be made this fall, and superintendents should begin noticing the designation when placing seed orders for next spring. Data will be incorporated with National Turfgrass Evaluation Program results to ensure approved varieties don’t look like “garbage,” says A-LIST executive director Jeremy Husen.

“You can have a variety that does really, really well in drought tolerance, heat tolerance and pest resistance, but it might look terrible,” Husen says. “You would never want to put that on a golf course. We are working with NTEP data to actually come up with the final list that will not only involve these reduced input factors, but also rank highly in turf quality.”

Husen says awareness of the A-LIST approval has started to build among superintendents living near participating universities. The four research sites are allowing the A-LIST to develop national guidelines based on conditions in four distinct regions. “Getting quantifiable data is the key,” Husen says. “That’s the end result. It’s more than just a story. I want hard facts, I want numbers.”

Husen and others involved in the low-input movement are ready to wait for the data. Seed development (and now certification), after all, represents a methodical process. 

“Once upon a time, I was a biochemist and an experiment would take three months and it was, ‘Oh, when are we going to see results,’” Johnson says. “Now when you see results in three years, you are moving right along. I have had to adjust my horizons.”

Guy Cipriano is GCI’s assistant editor.