University Scientists Grow Water Savings with Drought-Tolerant Turfgrass

Researcher kneeling on to look at grass

Editor’s note: COVID-19 restrictions have dramatically impacted research activities.  See our update at the end of the story on how researchers are adapting to current social distancing requirements.

Which half of your landscape water use is wasted?  Experts estimate that more than 50% of our outdoor irrigation goes to waste – even more in dry years and dry climates.  Our landscape watering habits are the primary culprit in this overflow. It’s a big issue. The typical suburban homeowner irrigates an estimated 10,000 gallons of water each year, primarily aimed at their lawn. Conserving our freshwater supply is essential for long term sustainability.  

Saving Water & Turf’s Benefits

Irrigation head spraying water on lawn
Residential sprinkler system in Cary.

Turfgrasses occupy over 30 million acres in the U.S. It’s tempting to assume that eliminating our outdoor grass carpeting could solve the water demand problem.  But it’s not so simple. Turf provides substantial environmental and economic benefits in our landscape.  It mitigates heat around our homes, stabilizes soil against erosion, provides safe play space, and reduces noise, glare, and pollution.  Eliminating turf would create a whole new set of environmental challenges.

A network of turfgrass researchers from six major universities, including NC State, is solving this dilemma by developing turfgrasses that are attractive and healthy with minimal water.

NC State Leads New Research

The National Institute of Food and Agriculture recently approved a specialty crops grant to continue the multi-university group’s work producing drought-tolerant warm-season turfgrasses.  The team (32 scientists strong) has collaborated for nine years with a rotating leadership structure.  NC State’s Susana Milla-Lewis will be at the helm in their new phase of study. “Our 2010 and 2015 projects were crucial in the development of drought-tolerant turfgrass cultivars. The levels of improvement of these grasses are promising and validate the need to promote adoption, continue cultivar research, and develop tools that facilitate the breeding process,” Milla-Lewis said.

Scientists standing on and looking at grass test plots
Milla Lewis’s team reviews test plots in 2019

Early Season Success

Woman hand pollinating turfgrass samples
MS Student Greta Rockstad makes turfgrass crosses in the greenhouse

The team of turf researchers’ work has focused on selecting and testing drought-tolerant cultivars of four of the most economically important warm-season turfgrass species in the southern US.  By exchanging plant materials and data among university breeders, turf varieties are tested under many climatic conditions, and the results accumulate quickly.  

“The collaboration among breeders across such different environments is priceless,” Milla-Lewis said. “It helps us select better lines with more performance stability because they have been tested against a wide range of weather conditions like drought and cold as well as an array of pests and diseases.” 

The team has already released six new drought-tolerant varieties from previous project phases including two bermudagrasses (‘TifTuf’ and ‘Tahoma 31’), two St. Augustine grasses (‘TamStar’ and ‘CitraBlue’), and two forthcoming zoysiagrass varieties.

Growing Tough

‘TifTuf’, a University of Georgia release, alone has achieved massive success.  The team’s research demonstrated a 40% water savings over the leading bermudagrass, without loss of turf quality.  This convincing research data has led to the rapid acceptance of TifTuf within the sod industry – representing a six-fold return in gross earnings compared to the grant investment.

Yellow Super Sod tractor trailer on grassWith tangible success already, what will the next research phase include? More trials with new avenues to share and test them. Plant breeding is a long-range game, 10-15 years in most cases.  The group has already evaluated over 2,500 potential varieties in their nine years together. Now Milla-Lewis and team are intent on warping this speed with new technology.  


Tackling Turf Technology

aerial drone resting on green grass
UAV on turfgrass

The group’s next phase of research will integrate tech specialists using drones and remote sensing devices to provide real-time feedback on plant stress – a plant breeder’s dream.  But how does a robot sense plant stress? 

Drones equipped with specialized sensors will be programmed to fly missions over the test plots to detect changes in turf color, ideally even before visible to the human eye.  By measuring color change over time resulting from turf stress, researchers can rank the highest performers and concentrate on those showing the greatest genetic potential.

Technology also brings objectivity to plant breeding.  Instead of researchers assigning a visual grade of 1-9 on turfgrass color, the drone sensors capture a binary “stress/no stress” assessment.  It’s black or white – or brown or green in this case.  Removing human bias will result in standardized scoring – important when measurements are taken across hundreds of plots at each of the six universities.  Because who’s to say someone’s turf score of a 6 in Raleigh is the same 6 as someone’s in Texas?  

Using autonomous data collection, breeders can measure more traits, evaluate more trials – and even more varieties at a time. Increasing the volume of data generated in a short timeframe speeds the plant breeding process by weeding out low performing options. Researchers call it ‘high throughput phenotyping” and it promises to deliver fast feedback for a streamlined selection funnel.  Greater testing volume into the research pipeline means better outcomes with the most resilient samples.  

overhead view of many turfgrass test plot sites

Consumer Education      

close up of man's legs in a hammockDespite the team’s field research success, Milla-Lewis’s group recognized that improved varieties can’t deliver their inherent benefits if end users don’t adapt their lawn care.  So the project’s phase III incorporates a significant extension and consumer outreach plan spearheaded by Jason Peake at the University of Georgia.

The nationwide campaign will include broadcast media, a consumer decision tool website and printed marketing pieces all aimed at educating consumers on why they should choose a drought-tolerant grass and, importantly, how to properly manage it to reap all the benefits.  After all, a new lawn doesn’t come with a care tag.

Industry Involvement 

This new wave of consumer outreach will complement traditional extension activities such as field days and demonstration turf plots at public locations like municipal buildings (including NC State’s forthcoming N.C. Plant Sciences Initiative building).  

Artist rendering of NC State Plant Sciences buildingThese opportunities will reach industry professionals like landscapers, contractors, and sod-producers who are often the decision-makers in turfgrass variety selection. NC State turfgrass extension specialist Grady Miller says it’s not enough just to put new varieties out. “Like the old saying goes ‘Those near the cutting edge may get cut’.  Our efforts can convince the industry to adopt and produce, but the consumer needs to be able to properly manage the turfgrasses if we want these new varieties to be successful.” 

“We’ve learned in our investigations that the average consumer is concerned about their grass’s environmental tolerance – to shade, drought, and winter-kill  They are looking for low-maintenance landscapes,” Milla-Lewis noted.  

Convincing homeowners to adopt these drought-tolerant grasses would deliver on both accounts. “We have a young consumer audience with very different landscape needs.  For some, lawn maintenance is at best a hobby, and at worst a nuisance. They are looking for lawns requiring fewer inputs, even if it is more expensive,” concluded Miller.

Student Opportunity

Woman holds up research plant in an NC State greenhousePlant breeders and consumers aren’t the only winners in this specialty crops grant.  The project will fund graduate assistantships and student internships too. “Turf majors will have the opportunity to go beyond classroom content – learn what we do and how we generate new knowledge and products for the industry,” Milla-Lewis commented.  

Each university in the project will likely require several undergraduate and graduate students to complete their work.  “In the midst of our research, we’re also training the next generation of plant scientists,” Milla-Lewis noted.

New Conditions

Plant breeding didn’t end in the project’s phase II.  It’s the heart of the project, but there’s always room to improve selections and methodology. “Some team members are working to understand what makes a grass more drought-tolerant.  Others use that information to identify which genes might be responsible for the improved performance. All this information can be used to quickly identify plant materials worth field testing saving breeders time and resources,”  Milla-Lewis said.    

The group is looking not only to refine the varieties but to quantify best management practice guidelines for the new turfgrass varieties. This will involve testing under multiple conditions: restricted rainfall, reclaimed water irrigation, salty-spray exposure, shade, sod strength for cutting, and other production aspects.  Surviving these endurance tests will produce turfgrass uniquely adapted for low maintenance production and management.

Close up of turf grass bloom isolated in a bag for breeding

Testing the Technology

Part of the team’s challenge isn’t just testing turfgrasses, but technology itself.  Most UAV technology wasn’t developed for crop production. Part of the group’s forthcoming research will be devoted to figuring out the best ways to use technology in plant breeding and developing protocols to standardize use.  Rob Austin is a GIS specialist at NC State, “We’re trying to figure out what works best for this application. Some experiments on drone use in plant breeding have been done, but large scale research is scarce.”  

The group plans to collaborate on shared protocols that standardize drone data collection activities and data analysis techniques. Rob Austin will oversee the Raleigh group’s data strategy.  He sees opportunity in automating the workflow. “We don’t want to simply trade time in the field for time behind a computer screen,” Austin said, “We need standards and processes to translate the data into meaningful results.”   

aerial view of turfgrass test plots

The Power of Teams

“The success of this project to date is because of teamwork.  It just goes to show how much you can get done with a collaborative team – with no room for hierarchy,” Grady Miller noted.  The multi-university team is guided by an industry advisory board providing feedback and input to direct the research for environmental and economic benefit.  

Milla-Lewis’s leadership stint will extend the project for an additional four years.  “The strength of this group resides not only in the wide range of expertise of the research and extension scientists involved in the project and how well we work together but also in how closely we interact with our industry partners. They are our compass, making sure our deliverables fulfill real industry needs,” Milla-Lewis concluded. 

A group of researchers sit around a large table in a meeting

Specializing in Specialty Crops

Milla-Lewis’s specialty crop grant is one of two awarded to NC State recently, making it the leading university for NIFA funding in 2019.  Massimo Iorizzo of NC State’s horticulture department is leading another industry-driven plant breeding project to improve the flavor and shelf life of blueberries and cranberries.   

“With more than 90 commodities, North Carolina is a specialty crops state,” Steve Lommel, associate dean of NC State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, said. “The university has and will continue to invest in faculty and programs to serve this important ag sector.  Our continued success with the NIFA SCRI program is a validation of our top-notch faculty and students as well as our commitment to NC’s specialty crops growers.”      

NC State logo on Turf Day

And Now?

COVID0-19 safety measures and social distancing have changed research ability and protocol.  Susana Milla-Lewis provided an update on how they are keeping the work alive.  “All our collaborators are currently working under severe restrictions. Lab work has completely stopped and greenhouse operations are only allowed to maintain plants alive. Most of our collaborators were able to propagate materials to be planted this summer ahead of the restrictions, but the maintenance takes a lot of work, and eventually, they will need to go to the field to be able to keep things under control. Normally plant materials would have been exchanged in late May and planting would have started in early June. At this time we are hoping for just a one month delay, but we’re unsure what’s going to happen.

Are you able to grow/monitor test plots? “The window for planting turf is wide as compared to other species, so we are hoping we will be able to establish all field trials. However, in order to maintain social distancing requirements, we might need a reduced crew which would increase the time and work that those trials will take to plant.  Also, a couple of collaborators had not finished propagating materials ahead of the pandemic. If they’re not able to have materials ready, we might need to significantly delay planting for some of the species.

How have multi-university team meetings been handled? “We have been communicating regularly. We’re holding a full team teleconference the second week in May to hear what challenges and concerns everyone has. For example, for breeders, propagation of materials and planting are main concerns. For genomics teams, their labs are closed and they’re not able to generate new data. For the outreach team, cancellation of field days might have an impact on what activities they’ll be able to carry out this summer. Hearing everybody’s concerns will help us come up with contingency plans or evaluate the need for an extension request.

Want More Results?

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If you are a student interested in turfgrass or precision agriculture (or know someone who is), learn about our multiple degree programs, explore our turfgrass degree ebook, or sign up for an email exploration of our department’s undergraduate studies. We are growing the future.