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Forget green, grass is better when it’s orange and black

Monday, April 25, 2016

Sports enthusiasts may not realize it but they are seeing a Cowboy connection when they watch home games of Major League Baseball’s Kansas City Royals and the National Football League’s Kansas City Chiefs and Washington Redskins, even if it is literally being trampled underfoot.

“We didn’t start our bermudagrass development program with the intention of specifically turning out high-end turf for major sports, the resulting products have just been what a number of professional and amateur organizations have needed,” said Dennis Martin, Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension turfgrass specialist and one of five OSU Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources researchers credited with developing the bermudagrass variety used at the sports complexes above, Latitude 36.

Latitude 36 also is the turf of choice for the practice fields of the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles and Baltimore Ravens, and as the football, baseball and track turfs at the University of Virginia. Another OSU-developed variety, Patriot, is on the practice fields of the Indianapolis Colts, the Purdue University football and soccer fields and the Chesapeake Energy Roof Sports Field in Oklahoma City.

And that is not counting the “home-grown advantage” Patriot and yet another variety, Riviera, have been providing Cowboy nation. Patriot bermudagrass is on the university’s Hedge practice field complex and on the two natural grass practice football fields east and southeast of the Sherman Smith indoor facility. Riviera is on the outfield at OSU’s Allie P. Reynolds Stadium and also was used on two baseball fields at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China.

There is even an orange and black connection at the University of Oklahoma, where the Sooners renovated from TifSport to Latitude 36 bermudagrass on Owen Field last year.

“Start talking about golf courses and the list expands almost exponentially,” Martin said. “It’s fitting, in a way, as it was a series of grants from the United States Golf Association beginning in 1986 and continuing through the 1990s and 2000s that really helped usher in the modern era of OSU bermudagrass development.”

OSU professors Charles Taliaferro and Mike Kenna of DASNR’s department of agronomy were the principal investigators associated with the 1986 USGA grant, building upon national research and the work of Wayne Huffine, an OSU professor and researcher of forages and pastures from the 1950s into the 1980s. Huffine and his cohorts developed Oaklawn centipede and played a major role in the development of Sunturf bermudagrass. OSU released Guymon in 1982, the first seed-propagated variety better adapted to more northern latitudes than bermudagrass produced in Arizona and California.

“Our successes today would not have happened without the work of Charles, who retired in 2005; Mike, who is now the USGA director of research; and Doug Breede, my predecessor at OSU and now director of research with Jacklin-Simplot Seed,” Martin said, “not to mention the patience of DASNR administration through the years because none of this happened overnight.”

The 1990s were a time of trial and tribulation, with no final product to show for the efforts of the OSU Bermudagrass Development Team.

“It takes about 10 years to work through necessary steps such as germplasm selection, hybridization and evaluation at the local, regional and national levels,” said Yanqi Wu, holder of OSU’s Meibergen Family Endowed Professorship in Plant Breeding. “But by the early 2000s we were releasing Yukon, Rivera and Patriot, and then in about 2010 we released Latitude 36 and NorthBridge.”

Part of what makes OSU’s bermudagrass development efforts unique is the size and multidisciplinary make-up of the research team.

“While people expect us to draw upon the expertise of researchers in the plant and soil sciences, our ultimate goal of giving industry and consumers a high-quality product has led us to draw upon DASNR resources in agricultural economics, horticulture, landscape architecture and more,” Wu said. “Jeff Anderson retired and we still call on him.”

Anderson, longtime OSU horticulture professor of plant stress physiology, provided key expertise on freeze tolerance, working closely with the leading plant breeders, Taliaferro and then his successor Wu.

“Improved cold tolerance is one of the major aspects our bermudagrass varieties are known for nationally,” Wu said. “Bermudagrass is a southern grass, traditionally susceptible to winter kill, but our varieties are allowing for its expansion into and use in more northerly climes.”

Bermudagrass is a popular turf choice not only as a sports grass but on lawns as well, thanks to its sod-forming growth habit, long-lived perennial nature, ability to rebound from heavy traffic and resistance to many environmental stresses such as heat and drought. It is also exceptionally tolerant to frequent low mowing, a boon to golf course managers and homeowners alike.

Latitude 36 was intensively tested at OSU for seven years before researchers at other land-grant institutions in the southern United States and the central transition zone working through the National Turf Evaluation Program examined the grass. At the conclusion of the 2007-2012 NTEP trials, Latitude 36 claimed overall top honors as the nation’s best bermudagrass variety.

Other OSU-developed bermudagrasses such as Patriot and Riviera lay claim to a similar notable heritage of research-proven quality and performance.

“While the sports connection is eye-opening, it’s at the local level that our OSU-developed turfgrasses may be having the greatest benefit, as lawns, in parks and other venues that directly affect a significant number of people and the communities in which they live,” Martin said. “We’ve also been adding to both basic and applied research that will lead to further advances and improved varieties.”

OSU faculty from the division’s departments of plant and soil sciences, horticulture and landscape architecture and agricultural economics participated in a multistate, 5-year U.S. Department of Agriculture – National Institute of Food and Agriculture grant that was recently concluded.

“The NIFA – Specialty Crop Research Initiative Turfgrass Breeding grant supported or partially supported research published in 17 journal articles and 13 conference abstracts; the training of 20 graduate students, 14 undergraduate researchers and three post-docs; four consumer surveys; two cultivars and more than 60 workshops, seminars and Extension activities,” Martin said. “That is science in action.”

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