Turfgrass Program Highlights: Texas A&M University

From time to time, Toro Grounds for Success talks to turf schools around the country to get a snapshot of current research and how it could shape tomorrow’s practices. In this issue, we talked with Ben Wherley, Ph.D., of Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas. Wherley is an associate professor of turfgrass science and ecology in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences.

Hands-On Experience Is Key
According to Wherley, hands-on experience outside the classroom is a big part of the turf program at Texas A&M. One opportunity is the Aggie Turf Club, which allows students to interact with industry professionals and guest speakers, go on site visits and connect with internships.

The turf program also has a strong relationship with the university’s campus athletic department. Students who are interested in sports turf careers can work closely with athletic field manager Craig Potts and assistant athletic field maintenance manager Nick McKenna.

In addition, Texas A&M is in a prime location to take advantage of volunteer opportunities at PGA tournaments and other events. Last year alone, groups of students volunteered at the AT&T Byron Nelson Tournament in the Dallas area, the Dell Match Play event in Austin and the Shell Houston Open.

The university even hires several undergraduate student researchers each year. These students help collect data and oversee research trials, which opens their eyes to future opportunities in graduate school and the turf industry.

Beyond work experience, Texas A&M strives to provide students with other ways to gain exposure to the turf industry. Students attend the Sports Turf Managers Association (STMA) conference each year, as well as the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA) show. Wherley also credits a strong Texas A&M alumni base for providing valuable networking connections.

New Course Includes Building a Real Sports Field
The hands-on learning doesn’t stop inside the classroom, either. Wherley and soil physics professor Dr. Kevin McInnes co-teach a new course called Sports Field Construction, in which students build an actual sports field. Right now, Wherley’s students are building a 5,000 sq. ft. USGA putting green, doing everything from surveying the site to installing drainage and irrigation to planting grass.

The course also has a lab component in which students run physical soil testing to understand how various types of sand will perform in an athletic field or putting green — not only in terms of water management, but also in terms of playability. It’s intended to give students a fundamental grasp of soil physics in sand-based root systems.

Another high-impact learning experience is the Turf Management Systems course, in which students are given a facility case study and must develop a management plan that includes both agronomic and budgetary considerations.

Regardless of the course, there is strong faculty involvement with students both in and out of the classroom. It all adds up to a solid agronomic knowledge base in soil fertility and physics, as well as plant physiology and water usage.

Research Highlights
On the research side, Wherley notes that Texas A&M has a multidisciplinary turf program, meaning that there’s a lot of collaboration among various disciplines. Researchers on turf pathology, turfgrass breeding, water quality and environmental quality issues all work together to solve turf problems.

Staff recently moved into a new 12,000 sq. ft. research facility, called the Scotts Miracle-Gro Facility for Lawn and Garden Research. Texas A&M works with Scotts on developing sustainable nutrient management programs for southern landscapes.

University researchers also work closely with the United States Golf Association (USGA). In fact, they are currently working on a three-year project for the USGA to develop construction specifications for the depth and composition of sand-capped fairway systems. In this method, a layer of sand is placed over existing native soil prior to establishment, allowing turf managers to better manage salts and create more playable conditions after heavy rain events.

Texas A&M is also working with the USGA on a multi-year shade study for determining minimal light requirements for zoysiagrass and bermudagrass cultivars in fairway and rough situations. Plus, the university is part of the Specialty Crop Research Initiative (SCRI), a multi-state collaborative project with four other universities. This initiative is sponsored by the USDA with the goal of developing new warm-season grass cultivars that can tolerate prolonged drought and salinity.

An Innovation in Runoff Management
One of the projects Wherley is most excited about is a partnership with Texas A&M’s engineering department to develop a new technology for conserving water in the landscape.

Urban landscape irrigation runoff is a growing problem, not only wasting potable water but also potentially causing water quality issues by carrying bacteria, excess fertilizer nutrients, sediment and more into local bodies of water.

For the last two years, a team co-led by Wherley and Dr. Jorge Alvarado, associate professor in Texas A&M’s Department of Engineering Technology and Industrial Distribution, have been working on a solution. The result is the patent-pending Landscape Irrigation Runoff Mitigation System (LIRMS).

LIRMS is built from two main components: a sensor that can detect when runoff is happening, and a connection to either the main sprinkler system controller or individual sprinklers so that irrigation can be temporarily paused or stopped when runoff occurs.

This non-invasive system can be installed into a curb, where it senses runoff and pauses landscape irrigation for a given amount of time. As a result, irrigation is applied in shorter, intermittent pulses, which allows a more efficient and complete soaking of the soil to take place.

The current focus for this three-year project is testing and perfecting LIRMS to be even more efficient. But so far, the results have been extremely positive. Tests show the system has the potential to save 50 to 75 percent of runoff, dramatically improving soil moisture per gallon of water that’s applied through irrigation systems. The system is expected to be available to the public within the next few years.

These examples are just a taste of the promising work going on at Texas A&M University. For more information about other research projects and the school’s overall turf program, please visit soilcrop.tamu.edu.