by Janet I. Rodekohr
To say that they changed the world would not be an overstatement.
The combined efforts of turf grass scientists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service and UGA's Coastal Plain Experiment Station have touched every corner of the globe, bringing new crops and pastures to millions.
These advances began humbly. Glenn Burton, now nearly 90 years old, began scientific research in Tifton, Ga., in 1936 to develop better pasture grasses for cattle. Burton took a stubborn weed and developed from it hybrid Bermuda grass in 1943. It now covers 10 million acres in the South, helping Southern beef producers better compete in the marketplace.
In 1946, the U.S. Golf Association granted Burton - then a USDA researcher, now a UGA faculty member - $500 a year to promote research on grasses for golf courses. He responded in the 1950s with Tiffgreen, an ultrashort grass now used on putting greens throughout the South.
Arguably the widest-reaching of Burton's research probably turned back hunger and starvation for millions. In the 1950s, Burton began work on pearl millet, developing a male sterile line that could be used to produce hybrids. When a Rockefeller Foundation scientist took Burton's millet and made hybrids for India, that nation's crop production skyrocketed from 3.5 million tons in 1965 to 8 million tons in just five years.
Burton's breakthrough grasses put an international spotlight on Tifton, and other researchers have extended the area's reputation for research on forages and turf. For instance, the 1993 release of Tifton 85 promised higher nutrient quality and greater yield for both pastures and animals than Coastal Bermuda grass, a hybrid Burton had developed 50 years before.
"Georgia farmers have been relying on Coastal Bermuda in their pastures since 1943 to raise calves and keep cows healthy," said Gary Hill, an animal and dairy scientist at the Coastal Plain Experiment Station. "It's certainly one of the most reliable hay grasses.
But Hill's tests proved cow-calf pairs would perform as well or better on Tifton 85 than on Coastal Bermuda grass. In addition, during the two-year study, Tifton 85 stood up to year-round grazing as well as Coastal Bermuda, reassuring cattle growers they could have plenty of high-quality grazing when other forages wilt under the Georgia sun.
Tifton 85 also has moved beyond the Southeast. In 1998, Tifton 85 covered more than one million acres across Brazil, Hill said. Brazilian farmers raise 75 million more cattle than U.S. farmers. They rely heavily on grazing and forages to support their cows from birth to slaughter and for milk production. Research found that farms planted with Tifton 85 showed higher weight gains in catde and higher dollar returns than farms planted with older varieties.
Today, the turf work in Tifton centers on efficiency, not just production.
"The new grasses are all being developed with the goal of maintaining turf quality with less input of water, pesticides and, to some degree, fertilizer," said Wayne Hanna, a USDA turf grass breeder.
Hanna helped usher in some of the most successful new Bermuda grasses and centipede grasses in recent years, taking Burton's work into a new era.
Two of Hanna's Bermuda grasses already on the market include TifEagle and TifSport. TifEagle is a super dwarf Bermuda grass for golf course greens. Parts of more than 300 golf courses throughout the South planted TifEagle in 1999. TifSport is a more cold-hardy grass for sports fields and was in testing for eight years before it was released. TifEagle took 11 years.
"Most of our screening and breeding is conducted under conditions of minimum fertility," Hanna said. "We genetically incorporate the genes that will give resistance to the major pests and drought, and maintain acceptable turf grass quality under less water.
"We need quality turf with less fertilizer. We need grasses that more efficiently use the nutrients," he said. "We need to learn how to use less water and less pesticides in the future. It's not just whether we want to, it's that we will have to."
The Tifton researchers in forage and turf pay close attention
to real-world requirements for their grasses. Whether it's hardy
hybrids, higher yields, nutrient levels for livestock or great
playing surfaces for golfers, the scientists listen carefully
to the farmers and others who use the fruits of their research
Janet Rodekohr is a news editor for UGA's College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. She also works with educational marketing and coordinates communication needs for the Cooperative Extension Service.