University of Georgia establishes turfgrass breeding endowment

Lawns, golf courses, football fields and athletic grounds around the world use University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences turfgrass. Two of those varieties – TifGrand and TifSport – are being considered for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, Japan.

Georgia-based turf companies Super-Sod, of Lakeland, and Georgia Seed Development, of Athens, see the value in UGA’s success. Both organizations made financial contributions to the University of Georgia Tifton Campus Warm-Season Turfgrass Breeding Endowment started by retired UGA turfgrass breeder Wayne Hanna and his wife, Barbara.

The endowment is meant to ensure the strength of the turf-breeding program in Tifton continues with current UGA turf breeder Brian Schwartz.

“The UGA turf breeding program has developed grasses that have been integral to our success and we want to give back to it,” said Ben Copeland, Sr., president of Super-Sod. “Our contribution is meant to help ensure UGA’s preeminence in developing warm-season turfgrasses for the next generation.”

Roger Boerma, executive director of Georgia Seed Development, said their contribution acknowledges Hanna’s impact and hopes it will allow his legacy to continue.

“The many contributions of Dr. Hanna’s fundamental research and his highly productive breeding program have been major drivers for the turfgrass industry,” Boerma said. “His varieties have become the standards on golf courses, sports fields and home lawns in the United States and around the world.”

Schwartz hopes the turf industry will continue to support the program and to help reach a goal of $2 million for the endowment. A little more than 50 percent of the goal has been given already.

“An endowment like this allows us to concentrate on the breeding of turfgrasses for the long haul. We can now test for a decade or 15 years and look after the qualities that matter, whether it’s drought tolerance or wear tolerance,” Schwartz said. “With this endowment, we won’t worry about our funding from year to year or how we are going to pay for this project or this person in the event we lose ‘short-term’ grant money in two years.”

UGA turf experts stress the importance of devoting 10 to 20 years to research to breed a turfgrass that homeowners and sports enthusiasts crave. Schwartz released the new DT1 variety in 2015. Out of 27,000 hybrids, DT1 – created by Hanna in 1992 – survived more than 20 years of testing and screening.

“When this program comes out with a new cultivar, a lot of thinking way back years ago went into what the industry was going to need. The hot topic right now is less water. I think DT1 is going to do great. It fits the need right now. It’s going to be a tremendous grass,” Hanna said.

Schwartz expects DT1 to be popular because it is more drought tolerant and uses substantially less water than varieties released previously.

While DT1 is improved and represents qualities that homeowners and golf course superintendents want, it isn’t perfect. Schwartz believes improvements can still be made, which is why more research is needed and why the endowment fund is vital.

“There is no perfect grass, so there’s always an improvement that can be made. Although I believe DT1 is better, there are already new hybrids that we’ve made in the last couple of years that I believe will be even better, but they need 15 years of research. Having this long-term (funding) will keep us from worrying about buying fertilizer or hiring another student. It’s going to be essential to the continued success of the program,” Schwartz said.