To the layperson, grass, turf and sod are interchangeable. To those in the industry, they hold different meanings.
University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor of agronomy and horticulture William Kreuser explains it this way: Grass is a species of plant; turf is a system of those plants that forms a contiguous community that can tolerate regular traffic and defoliation; sod is generally meant to be grass that has been harvested for transplant.
Dr. Kreuser and his colleagues at the Eastern Nebraska Research and Extension Center near Mead, Nebraska, are evaluating different grass species. Their goal is to find varieties that work best in specific weather and can withstand particular wear conditions.
“There are 108 turfgrass research plots on East Campus and another several dozen at ENREC,” he said. “There are about a dozen different grass species and many more different varieties.”
Turfgrass species/variety evaluations are just a small part of the research, however, he said. Much of the active research is focused on management practices.
The Nebraska Turfgrass Association allocates funds to facilitate this research, NTA executive director Wendy Morrissey said. Furthermore, the NTA funds education for professional turfgrass managers.
“The Nebraska Turfgrass Association’s mission is to provide better turf for the industry,” Morrissey said. “That would include athletic fields, cemeteries and golf courses, as well as lawns and parks.”
Robert Meisinger has worked in the turf and sod portion of the industry for nearly 50 years. Meisinger, owner of Fast Grass in Plattsmouth, Nebraska, is a second-generation sod farmer. He inherited the operation from his father. Prior to entering the sod business, his father had been a row crop farmer.
“In 1950, a couple of men approached my dad and asked if they could buy some of his pasture grass,” Meisinger explains. “That’s how we got started.”
Over time, the operation expanded and evolved by purchasing specific turfgrass seeds. Morrissey said that research has shown the primary turfgrass species recommended for the Northern Great Plains region are the cool-season grasses Kentucky bluegrass or tall fescue and the warm-season buffalograss. Meisinger confirms that.
“We used Kentucky bluegrass, as that is what was the best available for a long time,” he said. “But, for this temperature zone, we use a fescue/bluegrass mix now. It takes less water and lasts 10-12 years.”
Meisinger farms 600 acres of grass. He rotates the plots with soybeans. He tried corn, but that didn’t alternate very well. One of the keys to growing turfgrass efficiently is keeping the ground as smooth as possible, he said, and stubble prevents easy harvesting.
The farm has used the same fields for the last 50 years. A major misconception about sod farming is that it exhausts the soil, he said.
“We’re not depleting or mining soil off the field,” Meisinger said. “Grass creates soil.”
Fast Grass is a wholesale operation. He supplies sod contractors and his sod is cut fresh daily.
To do this, he needs an inventory that is ready to harvest spring, summer or fall. So, he rotates fields.
This takes diligent management since spring and fall are the only times he can seed. The best times to harvest sod is April to June in the spring and September to November in fall, he said.
“We sell sod all year round,” Meisinger said. “New construction is where the majority of sod goes.”
Another misconception about turf and sod is when to put it down. Most people think that spring and summer are the best times, he said.
“The best time to put sod down is the weekend after Thanksgiving,” Meisinger said. “It will be able to get roots down better.”
In the middle of summer is the worst time, he said. The turf will take much more management. But having a nice green lawn makes new homeowners happy, he said.
“It’s a crop that goes with the building industry,” Meisinger said. “If it’s good — it’s very good; if it’s bad — it’s very bad.”
The vagaries of the building industry notwithstanding, one of the largest challenges in the turfgrass industry is a shrinking labor pool, said Kreuser.
“This has caused managers to try and work more efficiently and with the help of technology,” he said.
Overall, from an agronomic perspective, water management looms large for all of the turfgrass industry, Kreuser said.