Off to a good start

Features - Real Science

Aquatrols unveils its new seed enhancement technology that creates a microclimate that nurtures the establishment of each turf seed during its critical formative stage.

August 5, 2014

The quest to increase the number of viable seedlings produced from each pound of seed sown has led to new technology from Aquatrols Corporation of America. It’s being called “Aquatrols Seed Enhancement Technology,” and while it has potential for anyone growing anything from seed, it should have a niche with superintendents facing water quality and quantity issues or less than ideal growing conditions.

Germination and emergence are the two most important stages in a plant’s life cycle that determine the efficient use of nutrients and water. The first sign of germination is the absorption of lots of water, activating the metabolic functions required for germination and growth. After absorbing water, the embryo grows too large for the seed and bursts the outer shell; a small plant emerges. Several factors impact the availability of the right amount and quality of the moisture needed. For example, first and foremost, insufficient rainfall or inadequate irrigation. In addition, water restrictions may be in place, or the quality of the water may not conform to the needs of a particular seed. Likewise, the irrigation system may malfunction, or the soil may be hydrophobic – having a layer that repels water, restricts infiltration and increases runoff and erosion.

Wetting agents (surfactants) assist in making water more efficient. The seed enhancement technology developed by Aquatrols makes surfactants even more practical to enhancing seed germination and establishment.

The technology

It is process that makes the seed the actual carrier for the surfactant. A special coating containing the surfactant is applied over the seed. This allows the surfactant to be right where it is needed and eliminates the need for water to apply the surfactant. This technology enhances germination, emergence and establishment even under water-deficit conditions.

Water is still required to penetrate the coating and initiate the process, but once that water is applied – through rainfall or irrigation – it can be used most efficiently by the emerging seedling. The moisture releases the surfactant in the special coating. The surfactant then creates a protective hydrophilic conduit out and down from the seed. This conduit holds the moisture long enough for the seed to germinate and the seedling to establish. Think of a column down through the soil for the roots to grow into and the leaves to grow out of. Another way to look at it is that a microclimate is created around the seed to enhance germination and establishment.

The technology starts with Utah State University student Matthew Madsen who was focusing on soil science and was looking at the effects of soil water repellence on infiltration, runoff and erosion as related to woody evergreens.

Madsen went on to Brigham Young University to pursue his Ph.D. and was specifically looking at repellency on revegetation success after wildfires. The technical term is hydrophobic soil. The heat causes a crust to form and water does not effectively penetrate that crust. Federal agencies spend tens of millions of dollars annually on rangeland seeding, especially after fires, with only a 5 percent success rate.

Seizing the advantage

Aquatrols is working with some of the leading seed companies and commercial availability of seed treated with Aquatrols Seed Enhancement Technology is expected in early 2015. Consider the possibilities for Aquatrols Seed Enhancement Technology in a typical golf course scenarios.

  • Quicker, thicker greens establishment? What about fill-in from overseeding
  • Spot seeding in trouble areas — along the edges and ends of cart paths, or heavy traffic spots
  • Establishing slopes or bunker edges
  • Fairway areas where irrigation is limited
  • Seeding to establish and maintain grass cover areas in the landscape
  • Seed establishment during water restrictions or when budget factors limit water use.
  • Seeding hydrophobic soils or areas with high salt buildup, or high salinity in your water source.

Through his studies Madsen knew there had to be a way to increase that rate. “I was familiar with surfactants and postulated that they might provide an answer,” he says. “I had heard about Aquatrols’ work with surfactants on golf courses and other areas and contacted Dr. Stan Kostka, who is the director of technology and innovation at Aquatrols Corporation of America (ACA) in Paulsboro, N.J.”

They discussed Madsen’s ideas and Kostka forwarded some product to test the hypothesis. The lab trials looked promising. Water infiltrated better in the soils in pots treated with the surfactants. Those soils also held more water and yielded better plant establishment.

Practicality was the next question. The way surfactants are typically applied requires water as a carrier to allow it to get into the soil. This turned out to not be practical on thousands of acres of rangeland that didn’t have anywhere near the economic value of say, a high-end golf course.

Madsen developed the idea of using the seeds as the carrier for the surfactant. Kostka concurred that the idea had potential and encouraged him to explore the feasibility.

Madsen had some familiarity with seed coating and figured precipitation would release the surfactant right where it was needed allowing it to act as a hydrophilic conduit. The microclimate surrounding the seed would provide greater moisture holding capacity. In one study, the grass cover was 7.5 times greater in the surfactant seed coating (SSC) seeded pot in comparison to the non-coated seed. After additional research to find the appropriate carrier(s), optimum amount of surfactant and other details; and seeing what worked in the greenhouse, they were ready to look at some field trials.

In the meantime, Madsen earned his Ph.D. and took a job as Research Ecologist at the USDA Agriculture Research Service (ARS) in Burns, Ore. This allowed him to continue his research, especially as it applies to rangeland. While Madsen is concentrating on rangeland, Kostka is developing potential applications for golf courses, sports fields, home lawns or even seeds of agriculturally important crops.

“There are limiting factors on testing this technology on rangeland,” Madsen says. “With the rangeland, the usual planting time is the fall and seedlings come up in the spring. It takes a full year to get meaningful results.

“Turfgrass is much easier to research,” he adds. “You can test results in as little as five to 10 days.”

This thinking led to a cooperative research and development agreement (CRADA) between USDA’s ARS and Aquatrols.

Field research

Another key individual in the development of this technology was Mica McMillan, Aquatrols’ field development manager. She earned a Masters degree in agronomy and soils from Auburn University and is working on her Ph.D. with Dr. John Cisar at the University of Florida. Kostka gave her the green light to work with Madsen to start field trials on what was previously designated as the ASET project, now formally called “Aquatrols Seed Enhancement Technology.”

“It was genius on Matt’s part to put the surfactant on the seeds,” McMillan says. “We usually say ‘spray the surfactant on the soil’ when we talk to people about seeding. He put the two ideas together.”

Based in the Ft. Lauderdale area, McMillan has established both greenhouse and outdoor field trials to test SSC.

“In the greenhouses, the SSC produced a higher rate of survivability than the uncoated seed,” she says. “We are seeing heat tolerance as well as drought tolerance. We are seeing a higher percentage of cover than uncoated seeds in water repellent soils and even in completely hydrophilic sand soils. And, there is better seedling germination, emergence and cover under stressful environmental conditions and no fertility.”

McMillan is now exploring how the SSC does in outdoor research. “The field data we are getting from our New Mexico trials looks very promising,” she says.

Field trials are also being conducted in other areas of the U.S. and in Europe and they will be ongoing. McMillan adds they are researching multiple possibilities to address other agronomic concerns.

Key marketing decisions

The next key person in the equation is Aquatrols Pacific Northwest Territory Manager Dan Macias.

After years working in the grass seed industry, Macias was excited to learn about the seed enhancement project. Likewise, Aquatrols was excited about his seed business experience. Today, Macias is responsible not only for all products in his territory, but also for marketing Aquatrols Seed Enhancement Technology to the world.

The seed industry is always looking for different products to enhance germination, Macias says, and they have found some with limited effect, but this technology is different.

“When seedlings are just getting established, they are very tender and susceptible to heat and lack of water,” he says. “Any way that can help the access to water more quickly, helps substantially in establishment. The idea behind this technology started out looking for a way to enhance post-wildfire renovation. We are just starting to see so many more applications as we perfect the process and explore new things.”

Obviously, this technology is going to help establish turfgrass in drought conditions and on hydrophobic soils. According to Macias, numerous other applications could be very beneficial. For example, one situation would be the need to seed a golf course or sports field in non-optimum seeding times. Even if conditions are ideal for seeding, what happens in the event it doesn’t rain, or the irrigation system goes down just as the seed is germinating?

If the tender seedling doesn’t receive moisture at that critical time, it will not thrive. The Aquatrols Seed Enhancement Technology could provide just what is needed to assure a good stand and quicker establishment.

As water quality and quantity issues continue to become more of a factor, along with the need to keep dense grassed surfaces filled in, the need for this technology is going to increase.

Cost is always a consideration and there is a cost involved, but some of that is going to be offset with better establishment. And that in turn can cut down on the amount of seed you may need for a given area.

As far as water quality is concerned, Macias says Aquatrols is also researching a coating for seashore paspalum. Its popularity has grown because of its tolerance to high salts once well established. It takes potable, or non-salt water, to get it established.

“Our research indicates that you can establish the coated seed with high salt content water,” Macias says. “That greatly expands the potential use of this grass in golf course applications. That research is ongoing.”