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Keeping it Green: Is grass really that interesting?

PHOTO PROVIDED Rows of cool season grasses are ready to be evaluated.

By TOM BUTZLER

(Editors Note: This article is the ninth in a series exploring professional opportunities for Penn State Extension agricultural educators during the 2019 summer.)

I enjoy being around plants. And luckily, my job allows a lot of interaction with them, particularly vegetables and ornamentals. One grouping of plants that I don’t get extremely excited about are the grasses. I only view them as something to mow weekly during the summer months.

Needless to say, the first tour stops of Day 3 in the Willamette Valley didn’t raise my excitement level.

As I mentioned in a previous column, Jeff Fowler (Penn State Extension Educator in Venango County) organized the tour. But what I didn’t mention was his specialty; turfgrass. He eats and sleeps this stuff, all over Pennsylvania. As an example, he organizes a group of 30-40 volunteers to help prepare and maintain South Williamsport fields during the annual two week Little League World Series. No way was he going to let this tour proceed without exposing the rest of us educators to some turf stops. Ironically, the two stops on this day were the most educational of the tour for me.

PHOTO PROVIDED Cleaned seed is bagged and ready to ship out to customers.

We headed out to the DLF Pickseed research farm after breakfast. It’s a Danish company that has operations all over the world. This is just one of many national and international seed companies that have set up here. But why choose Oregon as one of their locations?

According to Oregon State University estimates; the state’s grass seed production was valued at $500 million in 2018. The Willamette Valley’s growing conditions, mild and moist winters with dry summers make for great seed production and harvesting conditions.

The research station’s goals are to develop turfgrass varieties that not only look good but hold up to pest pressure, drought conditions, and wear tolerance. One of the more interesting aspects of their operation is the incorporation of drones into the evaluation process.

Drones can cover more ground in the same amount of time but more importantly it eliminates any biases. These errors can occur as breeders look over a thousand plots (software doesn’t get tired). In addition, some traits are more easily observed with images and software. A breeder can only see within the visible light spectrum while the drone camera captures that and the invisible light in the near infrared. This invisible spectrum often shows when a plant is stressed by drought or diseases.

Once selections are made (potential varieties are also trialed all over the US, such as Penn State University) the proprietary seed is handed off to the growers to mass produce. And there is no shortage of growers as around 1,500 family farms utilize 400,000 acres for seed production.

These growers rank top in the country for fescue (93% of US) and ryegrass (91%). For some reason, I expected this to look a bit like a lawn. But instead, it looked like any Pennsylvania production field of a grain.

We happened to catch the harvesting process at the Koos Family Farm. The standing grass crop was already cut into windrows several days before our visit. This is a balancing act for growers as the cutting must occur at a certain seed moisture. Too high moisture leads to an immature seed while low percentage moisture causes seed heads to break open before harvest.

The field work we observed was the combining of the properly dried seed heads. The threshed product (removing seeds from the stem) was brought into a building where stems, dirt, and other foreign material was removed before bagging.

The next article will return to a bit of sanity as we continue the Day 3 tour with edibles and ornamentals.

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Tom Butzler is a horticulture educator with the Pennsylvania State University Cooperative Extension Service and may be reached at 570-726-0022.

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