Amid all the cotton, corn and soybeans, turfgrass often gets overlooked as a Mississippi crop. That’s because, technically, it isn’t one, says Dr. James McCurdy, associate professor and turfgrass Extension specialist at Mississippi State University (MSU).
“It’s not really a crop unless you’re a sod farmer,” he says. “Turfgrass is really cosmopolitan in that it’s maintained for the built environment or as a landscape throughout the United States. It’s an unusual ‘crop’ in that the rest of the world doesn’t quite treat turfgrass the same way.”
Most people equate turfgrass with lush lawns, golf courses and sports fields. But of the 2.5 million acres maintained in Mississippi, about 2 million grow on roadside rights-of-way, compared to between 300,000 and 500,000 acres around homes and commercial spaces. The state’s approximately 120 golf courses and 2,000-plus athletic fields are smaller – but are also the most high-maintenance.
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Sports Turf Superintendent Brandon Hardin oversees the MSU fields, including the award-winning Davis Wade Stadium at Scott Field, named the country’s top college football field by the Sports Turf Managers Association in 2015 and 2019 for effective use of budget, innovative solutions and other factors.
Fans love it, too.
“Look on any social media and the first thing you’re going to see in regard to Scott Field is, ‘It’s always beautiful,’” Hardin says. “I take it as a compliment, but ultimately that is not what we’re going for. We go for safety, then playability and then aesthetics, in that order.”
The crowd-pleasing surface sports a bermudagrass base overseeded with perennial ryegrass to maintain the vivid green hue after the first frost. Hardin switched to a newer, more aggressive variety three years ago when the university’s Dudy Noble baseball field was constructed at Polk-Dement Stadium.
“It’s just a lot more cold-hardy,” he says.
Five full-time workers maintain the turfgrass, watering Scott Field several times a week and mowing daily when football season kicks off to keep the turfgrass low and tight. One reason is to improve footing and safety for players; another is to crowd out the weeds, which are hand-plucked as they appear. Sustainable practices are preferred whenever possible.
Because Scott Field is increasingly being used to recruit football players, the upkeep has become even more critical.
“They want it dolled up and pretty for these kids to come in and see where they’re going to be playing and hope that it helps them decide on our university,” Hardin says. “It is important that we have somebody over there every day making sure that it is ready to go.”
Mississippi’s subtropical climate and high summertime temperatures are perfect for warm-season turfgrasses. The most popular species are bermudagrass, zoysiagrass, St. Augustinegrass, centipedegrass and carpetgrass.
“What makes these grasses prolific here is that they are easily produced and easily established,” McCurdy says.
Still, it’s important to choose the right one. Bermudagrass requires more frequent mowing and sunlight but is the most tolerant to traffic, including pets, and the cheapest to produce. St. Augustinegrass is the most shade-tolerant but prefers a higher soil pH.
“The biggest issue we face here in the Southeast is tied to expectations: What do you expect from your lawn?” McCurdy says. “If you’re expecting it to look like the Augusta National (Golf Club), then you’re probably going to plant bermudagrass, but you’re going to be mowing and fertilizing twice as much as if you had established zoysiagrass.”
While the benefits of turfgrass are numerous – erosion control, reduced leaching of nutrients and aesthetics, to name a few – it may not be for everyone, especially those with large lawns, McCurdy adds.
“In those instances, I try to coach stakeholders to take a different approach,” he says. “Pastures, rangeland or forest might be better than maintained turf.”
McCurdy and other experts help homeowners learn how to maintain their lawns, assist sports field managers to reduce athletic injuries and work with golf course operators to boost tourism.
Career opportunities in the turfgrass industry are diverse and growing. Home to the state’s only turfgrass program, MSU is also responsible for unearthing sustainable, disease-tolerant options that require fewer nutrients and less moisture. MSU’s Golf and Sports Turf Management program has turned out more than 500 graduates who work at several prestigious golf courses, while other alumni are employed at universities around the Southeast.
“The SEC schools are emblematic of where those guys go to manage professional-grade sports fields,” McCurdy says.