by Laura Skillman
Watching the grass grow sounds like an excuse to lie back in a hammock and take the afternoon off. But for the UK College of Agriculture's turf team, growing grass is anything but a lazy afternoon distraction. That's because, while turfgrass may not sound like a crop to many folks in Kentucky, it is an agricultural industry, and one of the top ones in the state at that.
Chris Ecton '01, sports turf manager for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
A survey conducted by the Kentucky Turfgrass Council more than a decade ago showed that Kentucky at that time had about 1 million acres of turf and nearly $350 million was being spent on its production and maintenance. Those figures now have gone up an estimated 25 percent.
UKCA agronomists David Williams and A.J. Powell Jr. carry out research, prepare students to work in the turfgrass industry, and educate everyone from homeowners to golf course superintendents about how to grow turf.
Entomologist Dan Potter conducts research on insect pests and teaches undergraduate and graduate students about insects that can damage the grasses.
Also on the team is plant pathologist Paul Vincelli, who conducts research and teaches Kentuckians about diseases that can adversely affect the turfgrass industry.
Most of Kentucky's turf is in lawns--homes and businesses--and on highway right-of-ways. Golf courses and athletic fields make up less acres, but managing them takes more time and money.
"It's hard to measure the intangibles that turfgrass brings to a community," Williams said. "But if you try to imagine Lexington without turfgrass, it would be a very unpleasant place to live."
Teaching starts, but doesn't end, in the classroom
Most of the agronomy department's students are studying turfgrass, which is a testament to the importance of the industry.
"The big reason students are interested in the turf industry is because there are jobs," Powell said. "We never have any trouble finding jobs for our students."
Williams, Potter, and Vincelli have all received the Master Teacher Award from Gamma Sigma Delta, an honor society for agriculture.
|The specialists reach homeowners
mainly through county extension agents.
UK also has a turf field day at Spindletop
Farm in Lexington every summer, where
homeowners and golf superintendents
can see the latest research. The event
generally attracts about 250 people.
Powell's 2003 turfgrass short course
held in Louisville attracted more
than 1,000 people over five days.
For those who work at golf courses
and on athletic fields, the College's
turfgrass specialists provide information
on the cost and environmental impact
of products and practices.
divide extension from research and teaching," Powell
said. "We are all one. I may do
more extension, and the others may do
more research and teaching, but we all
know what's happening."
Potter of Entomology works with students
Callie Prater and Reid Maier.
Making grass grow
The majority of research conducted by UK turfgrass specialists is applied research.
Powell and Williams and their support staff maintain about 30 acres of turfgrass research plots at Spindletop, and research is also conducted at other locations in the state, including golf courses and athletic fields.
UK is also affiliated with the National Turfgrass Evaluation Program, through which new cultivars are tested. It's the way homeowners and turf managers in Kentucky find out how well those cultivars do in this area.
"Tall fescue is our major lawn product in Kentucky, and there are probably 50 new varieties released every year," Powell said. "If you don't evaluate them, there is no new information."
Some of the College's most recent research work is with warm-season grasses, including bermuda and zoysia grasses, which can be seeded instead of sprigged or sodded.
|A.J. Powell Jr.
The College of Agriculture developed Quickstand bermudagrass, which has become the major bermudagrass grown in the country's transitional climatic zone--the zone that includes Kentucky.
UK researchers are collaborating with plant breeders to evaluate cold-tolerant varieties and germ plasms, the genetic material of plants that can be used by plant breeders to develop new cultivars. The researchers are also evaluating Roundup Ready bentgrass, which can be treated with the herbicide Roundup to kill weeds (but not the grass). Herbicide trials are conducted annually.
"We like to think that the research we do at the farm relates just as much to the home lawn at it does to golf courses and other areas," Powell said.
Williams said the support staff is the backbone of the research program.
"We wouldn't be able to do nearly the research that we do if we had to be out there mowing grass and doing statistical analysis," he said.
Battling pests and diseases
In the 1990s, when gray leaf spot, a fungus that damages perennial ryegrass, reared its head and desiccated many golf courses and athletic fields in Kentucky and beyond, Paul Vincelli and fellow UK plant pathologists took up the challenge to find a solution.
"We knew next to nothing about this disease, but within a few years, UK conducted research and had sound management programs in place," Vincelli said.
Paul Vincelli )Vincelli and other UK researchers were also first in the nation to document that gray leaf spot developed a resistance to strobilurin fungicides, a group of fungicides that has proved quite useful in managing turfgrass.
"I consider it important to provide management programs that are environmentally sound," said
Vincelli, who now uses a computer simulation model to study environmental
aspects of turfgrass management.
Environmentally sound practices are also an underlying principle for Potter. Since he has been at UK, Potter has spent a lot of time researching biology and control of white grubs, a major insect pest affecting turfgrass.
Potter said reducing some of the more toxic chemical inputs is "an overriding theme." He said that can be done "by providing alternative approaches based on understanding of pest biology and technology that works and is practical and not just a pipe dream."
He and graduate students under his charge are researching the use of parasitic wasps and other beneficial insects to suppress pest insect populations without using chemicals.
Potter said the team approach UK specialists use in their daily routine extends to the local turf industry.
"We are not just laboratory scientists. I think each of us tries to interact regularly with the clientele in the state to try and get a better feel for what their problems are and what we can do to help," he said.
"There's a lot of discussion about UK achieving top 20 status, and there's no question our turfgrass program is there," Potter said. "It's certainly in the top 10, and in some areas, it is the national leader."
A Turf Job?
These Alums are up to it
When Chris Ecton '01 left his family farm in Carlisle for the University of Kentucky, he had no idea that the journey would lead him to Pittsburgh and a career with the National Football League.
For Lexington's Scott Bender '00, there was no doubt that he intended for UK to take him back to the golf courses on which he had grown up. And that's just where Bender is today.
Both men earned degrees from the UK College of Agriculture in plant and soil science with an emphasis in turfgrass management.
Ecton's athletic field work really began in 1998 at UK with a part-time job for the athletics department.
Today, Ecton's job as sports turf manager for the Pittsburgh Steelers is to take care of Heinz Field, home of the Steelers, as well as all surrounding landscaping. In addition, he's responsible for two Steelers' practice fields, two University of Pittsburgh practice fields, as well as some field maintenance at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa., home of the Steelers' summer camp. Ecton supervises three full-time employees as well as additional seasonal and game day workers.
After receiving his degree, Ecton headed to Pittsburgh, first as a turfgrass crew member at Heinz Field, then as manager.
"I'm only 26 years old," he said. "I'm the youngest sports turf manager in the NFL or major league baseball."
Bender (Photo) Bender now spends his days on the golf course,
just as he had dreamed of when he was younger. After graduation,
he spent two years at a Louisville golf course as assistant superintendent.
Now, as superintendent of the golf course at the Marriott Griffin
Gate Resort & Golf Club in Lexington, he takes care of the course
as well as all the landscaping around the hotel.
He supervises a staff of 17: eight full-time and nine part-time employees. Two of the full-time employees are UK College of Ag alums. They are Derek Benningfield '04, assistant superintendent of the golf course, and Kyle Davenport.
Griffin Gate and UK have a strong relationship, Bender said. His summer internship program regularly uses UK students. David Williams, UK turfgrass professor, brings his class to the golf course on field trips and Paul Vincelli, UK extension plant pathologist, has a research program at the course on gray leaf spot, a disease that has caused major damage to turf on Kentucky golf courses and beyond.
Donnie Mefford Pays It Forward
As sports turf manager for the UK Athletics Department, Donnie Mefford '96 is always looking for ways to help students who are following in his footsteps.
Mefford, himself a product of the UK College of Agriculture's turfgrass program and a former student worker for UK athletics, regularly hires students for part-time jobs and internships.
"We are a feeder program for a lot of people looking for jobs in turfgrass," Mefford said. "I feel like it's a way to give back to the UK College of Agriculture."
Mefford remembers what an influence his student job had on him.
"It was one of the best classrooms I had," he said.
Mefford has headed the sports turf effort at UK for four years, following stints at a golf course, Georgetown College, and the University of Arkansas. Initially an education major, he switched to turfgrass after he landed a job with the athletics department and found that taking care of the turf caught his interest. Colleagues in the athletics department sent him to see A.J. Powell Jr., UK extension turf specialist, and he came away convinced turfgrass was the right field for him.
Mefford said research projects by agricultural specialists are always under way on one University sports field or another.
"We try to work with the ag specialists as much as possible without destroying the fields," he said. "The advantage to me is I can see something for myself without having to leave my facility."
Mefford said working with College of Agriculture professionals and students is a worthwhile experience.
"It's like one big family," he said. "The guys who were my mentors and helped me, I'm working with now."