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Trendsetters: Where the Grass is Greener

The next time you tee off, you may be standing on a new drought-resistant turf discovered by the “Turf Team” working at the University of Georgia’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences in Tifton. It’s called TifTuf™, the newly licensed bermudagrass cultivar that may soon be the grass of choice for athletic fields, golf courses and lawns throughout the South and in many countries around the world.

TifTuf was plucked from 27,000 new hybrids that were originally studied by renowned turf grass researcher, breeder and geneticist Wayne Hanna, Ph.D., who worked closely with UGA when he started his research in 1971 as a USDA agricultural research scientist.

Over the years, Hanna discovered many groundbreaking cultivars that became global top sellers. Among them are TifEagle; TifSport, planted in major soccer and football stadiums; and Tifway, a similar cultivar to TifTuf that was developed in the 1960s and remains an industry standard. In 2009 the University of Georgia Research Foundation Inc. (UGARF) released Hanna’s TifGrand™, a dark green, dense, shade-tolerant bermudagrass that is licensed to growers worldwide. Unlike other bermudas that demand all-day sun, it will thrive in only six hours of sun.

TifGrand and TifSport are being considered for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, Japan.

When Hanna decided to semi-retire, he stayed on as a UGA Department of Crop and Soil Sciences professor, collaborating with his replacement Brian Schwartz, Ph.D. After rigorous testing and screening, the field of 27,000 cultivators was narrowed down to 18 superior hybrids. Final drought trials conducted on seven farms at North Carolina State, University of Georgia, University of Florida, Oklahoma State University and Texas A&M proved that TifTuf uses 38 percent less water than Tifway. Besides drought resistance, TifTuf has the rooting qualities and performance – such as rapid recovery from stress and resistance to foot traffic – that make it worthy of commercialization.

“A large percentage of golf courses across the South are already covered with turfgrass developed in Tifton,” Hanna says. “And I predict in the next two years TifTuf will almost replace Tifway. It has a little more shade tolerance, too, but not as much as TifGrand.”

Schwartz agrees. Both he and Hanna feel the timing is right and that growers will pay a premium for a TifTuf license as water becomes a more precious commodity.

“Grasses weren’t patented back when Tifway was developed, and there were no royalties paid back then,” Schwartz says. “I’ve been told that about 88 percent of the grasses that are sold now are out of patent. Growers will have to take those extra fees into account if they want a superior product. But we are doing a lot of education, and with the drought last year TifTuf gained a lot of headway; and I hope it becomes a household word soon.”

UGARF owns the patents and other intellectual property developed at UGA and markets and sells licenses to grow its grass breeds through licensor New Concept Turf LLC. Its affiliate agent, The Turfgrass Group Inc., holds the exclusive license and rights to market TifTuf. So far, 35 growers are signed on with more than 2,000 acres in production, preparing to sell the hybrid bluegrass sod through 50 distribution outlets. According to Schwartz, Harmony Outdoor Brands, a Florida-based sod grower, has plans to provide companies such as Lowe’s and The Home Depot with the product.

A large part of Schwartz’ role involves outreach, and he frequently speaks at landscape and turf organization meetings and conferences to discuss the latest turf options. He finds these discussions more fun than talking about corn and cotton; those are the crops he experimented with on his grandfather’s farm and where he learned agriculture.

“Almost everyone has something to do with grass, whether it’s a lawn or a sports field or a golf course,” he says. “I can pick up very quickly if they play football or other field sport, and we can easily start a conversation.”

Both Schwarz and Hanna have high praise for UGA’s internationally acclaimed grass breeding program. Hanna and his wife Barbara recently started an endowment to strengthen grass research, with a $2 million goal.

Research focuses on grasses that are cold- and wear-tolerant, use less fertilizer and water and quickly recover from foot traffic. But it’s not always about grass. Hanna is also working on a new coneless pine tree.

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