Grady Miller shares some goals of grass researchers

We just had our annual turfgrass field day [at North Carolina State] that showcased some of our ongoing field research. This event was a great chance for nearly 800 people with turfgrass interests (e.g., sports turf managers, turf product salespeople, golf course superintendents, landscape managers, homeowners) to see the latest turfgrass research. We rotate groups through “field stops” every 30 minutes for half a day. I hear several new questions from each group. I thought I would address a question that I found particularly interesting from one attendee. It came from a person standing on the NTEP bermudagrass trial, and he asked, “When you are conducting research, what are you looking for?”

For those not familiar with NTEP (National Turfgrass Evaluation Program) trials, there are studies that are designed to gather data on new germplasm compared to industry standards. Trials are often duplicated in 10 to 15 places across the US. (Editor’s note: A more complete explanation of NTEP can be found in the recent interview with the executive director of the NTEP program that is on page 12 of the August issue.)

A second point I would like to make is that research usually starts with a question. It may be as simple as, which turfgrass handles wear the best? In order to try and find an answer to a question, a study is designed to test a concept (e.g., relative wear tolerance). During the research planning phase, funding often must be secured to do the research. A study is then implemented to gather data. The data usually consists of visual ratings and objective measurements. Data are then analyzed using proper statistical techniques. From these data, conclusions and recommendations may be made based on the scientists’ knowledge. In most circumstances, summarized data are disseminated through conference talks, publications, field days, etc.

The question asked by the field day attendee could be applied to each and every study. Determining the appropriate data to collect is very important. Often the type of data collected is specified by the sponsor of the research. In the case of NTEP trials, there is a requirement that each researcher collect specific standard data using consistent methods. In addition to standard data, some NTEP sites are designated to conduct ancillary trials to gather additional data. For instance, turf quality, color, texture, density, disease incidence is considered standard data, whereas wear tolerance would be an additional test.

It should also be recognized that research data will not have the same level of importance for everyone. For instance, in our bermudagrass trials a sports turf manager can appreciate the wear tolerance data whereas a homeowner or landscape contractor may prefer to know how a turfgrass will handle shade. Even within those management groups there will be differences based on perceived needs. If one sports field manager has an unirrigated field, drought tolerance may be a primary interest, whereas a field manager that has an irrigation system may put less value in those data.

So as researchers, we try to develop a list of traits or performance characteristics that we should and can test considering our research budget limitations. Some tests (within a study) require specialized structures, equipment, expertise, or labor that make them cost prohibitive. I think most researchers try to answer as many questions as they can afford to research.

When I have asked turfgrass breeders what is the most important trait for a new turfgrass, several have told me the number one trait they breed for is rapid growth. Their explanation is if a plant “grows fast” then it can often overcome insect pressure, recover from disease, have fewer weeds, and handle/recover from wear better than slower-growing turfgrass. Add in increased density at lower mowing heights and a dark green color and the grass is almost sure to be a winner. But there may need to be more. For some a turfgrass must also be able to withstand some level of freezing temperatures or they will be replacing grass after average winters. In other cases, the turfgrass will need to maintain density under stresses such as shade and drought.

We also look at traits related to the production side of the business. The grass must be affordable to produce in order to be successful. Most new turfgrasses are tested for at least 10 years before they are ever released. Along the way we try to figure out a grass’s limitations, although often the full extent is not known until it has been under management in a multitude of environments for several more years. With today’s capacity for research, I do not expect there will be another grass that can stay on top like Tifway bermudagrass did for so many years. In this modern age, grasses will likely be popular only until a better grass comes along. So attendees at our field day were looking at a grass they may be planting a few years from now.