MSU TURFGRASS PROGRAMS A CUT ABOVE
From the coast of Mississippi to the coast of Japan, the roots of Mississippi State’s turfgrass program reach far and wide.
Housed under the agronomy major in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, the golf and sports turf management concentration has been around for more than 50 years. In that time, it has become nationally known for its rigorous curriculum and innovative research, which has produced unique varieties of turf used on lawns and athletic fields across America.
Established in 1965, the degree program includes 10 turf courses and requires three semesters of cooperative education. Assistant professor Jay McCurdy said this comprehensive education makes Mississippi State alumni highly sought after in the field. He estimates there are nearly 500 Bulldogs working in the industry around the world.
“Our graduates are diverse in background and experience,” McCurdy said. “The opportunities in turf management go far beyond golf courses. We have alumni working in areas like municipal turf, lawn care operation and sports field management. Our motto is ‘stay in the game.’ While many high school athletes will not have the opportunity to play at the collegiate or professional level, this concentration allows them to still be involved in sports by managing the field of play.”
BULLDOGS TAKE ON TURF
It took 21 hours for Andrew McDaniel to get to his final turfgrass internship. Though he’d never flown before, he didn’t let the distance keep him from a semester-long stint at a golf course in Japan, more than 7,000 miles away from Mississippi State University.
The 2001 Mississippi State graduate is now celebrating 17 years in Japan, where he is superintendent of Keya Golf Club and begins each day walking the 18-hole course with his dog, a Rhodesian Ridgeback named King.
“When I accepted the full-time job after I graduated, I never dreamed I’d be in Japan as long as I have,” explained McDaniel, who hails from Alabama. “But once you pick up the language, life gets easier, things change, other opportunities arise and, next thing you know, it’s been 17 years.”
McDaniel has been with Keya for six years. The 54-year-old family-owned enterprise in Fukuoka City hugs the coastline of the Itoshima Peninsula and is best known for its zoysiagrass greens.
“Japanese greens were traditionally zoysia because it’s a native species. Over time, however, superintendents started switching to bentgrass and bermudagrass greens, which tend to have a better ball roll,” McDaniel explained. “We kept it classic. Now, when people think of Keya, they think of zoysia grass greens. They like the challenge, and we’ve built a reputation on keeping the tradition.”
Keya is a stop on the Japan Golf Tour, and McDaniel said the unique turf gets him time in the spotlight.
“When the tournament rolls around, I get to talk about turf on national television,” McDaniel said. “It’s good for the industry because it helps the general public see golf course maintenance from a different perspective.”
McDaniel has even been featured as a character in a local golf-themed manga—a Japanese comic book. He said he’d like to get more young people engaged with turfgrass in Japan, which he says doesn’t have programs like the one found at MSU.
“I hope to collaborate with one of my mentors to create a turf academy at Keya to train the younger Japanese generation on turf management,” McDaniel said.
As superintendent turf manager of the Gulfport Sportsplex, Keair Edwards says he’s always on call.
Thanks to internships at the facility and insight from his predecessor—who also happens to be his dad—he had some understanding of the job’s demands. Still, he said there was an adjustment period when he took the reins in 2017.
“My first day on the job, my dad handed me the cellphone and the next thing I knew it was constantly ringing. I thought, ‘Wow, what have I gotten myself into?’” Edwards recalled with a smile.
The 2016 Mississippi State graduate grew up watching his father Ken manage turf at the 250-acre Gulfport Sportsplex and nearby 15-acre Goldin Sportsplex. But Edwards said he didn’t realize it was something he could study until he was in high school.
“My dad was on the board for the Mississippi Turfgrass Association with a lot of Mississippi State alumni,” Edwards recalled. “That kind of set things in motion for me to follow in his footsteps. Now, I’m actually on the board, too.”
All told, Edwards oversees nearly 30 fields, each hosting an estimated 880 games annually at the sportsplex alone. He is also the head groundskeeper for high school and college sporting events at Biloxi’s MGM Park.
Edwards said he looks forward to carrying on the work his father put into the facilities, which earned a certification from the Sports Turf Manager Association for environmentally responsible management. The same organization honored the father-son duo for their efforts with the award for Softball Field of the Year in the Schools and Parks Division.
“My dad built this facility, so his were pretty big shoes to fill,” Edwards said. “But we figured it out.”
Melodee Fraser grew up on a golf course and thought she’d be a golf superintendent like her dad. Instead, this former Bulldog golfer went from reading greens to breeding them.
Fraser came to MSU in part because she wanted to play golf year-round. She graduated as the first woman in the turfgrass program in 1985, then stayed to study turf breeding as she earned a master’s. She said her plan was to manage a golf course, but graduate school showed her a different path.
“I felt that I could do more for golf courses if I was developing new varieties of turf,” Fraser recalled. “That’s what turf breeders do—we look for improved traits in different species and cultivars.”
After earning a doctorate in turfgrass breeding from Rutgers in 1991, Fraser joined Pure Seed, a global seed-breeding company headquartered in Oregon. She was hired to lead the company’s brand-new eastern testing facility—a 25-acre research farm in Rolesville, North Carolina.
More than 25 years later, she’s helped lead the development of over 120 varieties of turfgrass. Her focus is on improving the summer performance of cool-season grass and breeding warm-season grasses, including tall fescues with improved summer performance.
“It’s very rewarding to talk to people who have used the varieties you’ve developed and been successful with them,” Fraser explained. “When a variety has a long life, has traits that make it successful and that people like, that’s rewarding to see.”
Part of securing Mississippi State graduates’ spot at the top of the field is ensuring they leave Starkville with a well-rounded education and a focus on the future of the turfgrass industry, according to associate professor Barry Stewart.
A 20-year veteran of the department who teaches numerous courses, including an online athletic management class for students from Mississippi State, LSU, Oklahoma State University and Arkansas, Stewart said the unique education offered to MSU turf students prepares them to weather shifts in the industry.
“MSU’s undergraduate turf program is one of the strongest in the nation,” Stewart said. “All majors take the golf course operations and athletic field management course, so they can work in either area.”
The Department of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, Entomology and Plant Pathology also contributes to the turfgrass curriculum. Research professor Maria Tomaso-Peterson, a three-time MSU alumna, said she is thrilled to pass turf knowledge on to the next generation of MSU students.
“Working with undergraduate and graduate students brings out my true passion for learning and being a mentor,” Tomaso-Peterson said.
As a scientist with the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station, Tomaso-Peterson works to identify pathogens that affect the health and longevity of turf today. Her peers, meanwhile, are breeding better, stronger and more resilient turf for tomorrow.
SOMETHING TO CELEBRATE
Bulldog fans look forward to celebrating wins achieved on the football field. However, MAFES researchers and Mississippi State sports turf managers are focused on the Celebration that is the field.
A type of bermudagrass, Celebration is widely used across the Southeast as licensed by Sod Solutions. The company is now working with MSU to come up with a new Celebration variety that would capitalize on the university’s track record of developing sports-friendly turf.
MAFES breeders have crossed Celebration with successful MSU-developed breeds including Bullseye—a Bermuda grass that has been installed on athletic fields such as the Rose Bowl, Chase Field, the Home Depot Center, Kauffman Stadium and PetCo Park, as well as several golf courses around the country.
Eric Reasor, a MAFES scientist and assistant professor, works with Brandon Hardin, Mississippi State’s sports turf superintendent and an alumnus of the program, testing the new Celebration cultivars on the Bulldogs’ football practice field.
“Once Brandon sees which cultivars he likes best in terms of aesthetics and traffic tolerance, we will narrow the turf playing field and go from there,” Reasor explained.
Hardin isn’t the only SEC sports turf superintendent who earned his degree at MSU. Fields at the University of Florida and Ole Miss, including the highly trafficked Grove, are managed by Bulldog turfgrass alumni. MSU also helps high school coaches. Turfgrass Extension efforts include a clinic to help local coaches manage their fields.
A NEW ST. AUGUSTINE GRASSS OPTIONS FOR MISSISSIPPI HOMEOWNERS
While research for athletic fields and golf courses is a priority, the MSU breeding program also helps homeowners. The first planting in the new MAFES Turfgrass Breeding Nursery at the R.R. Foil Plant Science Research Center, commonly known as North Farm, is geared toward sod farmers who ultimately serve individuals looking to sod their lawns.
The breeding nursery is the first step in the turfgrass certification process. Ideally, the grasses developed there will be sent on to sod producers who will use it to establish foundation or certified fields.
Reasor said the nursery encompasses 6 acres that have never been planted in turf.
“It’s far away from established turf, so we can keep the material clean and pure,” Reasor said. “Hopefully, we can send this grass to sod producers, so they can then grow it and sell it as clean material.”
The breeding team planted 1,170 plugs of MSA 2-3-98 St. Augustinegrass, which MSU marketing students in the College of Business tentatively named Silk St. Augustinegrass. The grass was patented for MSU in the early 2000s by Wayne Philley. The senior research associate has been a part of the turfgrass breeding program for nearly 40 years.
“Currently, there is no St. Augustinegrass grown by local producers,” Philley explained. “The St. Augustinegrass you purchase at a local retailer is likely grown in southern Alabama or North Florida and isn’t completely adapted for the North Mississippi climate.”
Philley said St. Augustinegrass, which is shade tolerant, is a good alternative to bermudagrass for shaded yards.
“This is a warm-season, shade-tolerant variety adapted for Mississippi,” Philley explained. “This gives local producers the chance to provide a product well-suited for homeowners here.”
Breeding program researchers have plans to plant two of the nursery’s 6 acres by spring 2019. Currently, the team is evaluating 110 to 120 grasses for athletic fields, golf courses and home lawns. MSU is also a testing site for the National Turfgrass Evaluation Program, one of the most well-known turfgrass research programs in the world, encompassing the evaluation of 17 turfgrass species across 40 states and six Canadian provinces.
Throughout its history, the MAFES turfgrass research program has garnered national attention for Mississippi State. The patented grasses have generated revenue for the university as one of the most lucrative licensed technologies. And the future looks bright for the program, with new grasses being developed that will one day grace golf courses, sports facilities and home lawns everywhere.
For new homeowners, it’s important to choose the best grass type for the property. MSU researchers recommend these options for Mississippi lawns.
Pros: excellent durability, heat-tolerant, easy to grow, dark green color, many different cultivars available as seed, sod or sprigs
Cons: no shade tolerance, requires routine mowing and maintenance
Pros: good durability, fairly low maintenance, modest shade tolerance
Cons: can be somewhat slow to establish, prone to thatch buildup if not properly managed, very few seeded cultivars
Pros: the most shade tolerant warm season lawn grass of the Southeast, fairly drought tolerant
Cons: cold intolerant, vulnerable to pests and disease, no seeded cultivars
Pros: low maintenance, requires very little fertilization, seeded varieties widely available
Cons: tricky to establish from seed without irrigation, not shade tolerant, limited tolerance to common herbicides