AUBURN – At Auburn University’s Turfgrass Research Unit just south of campus, plant scientist Scott McElroy is putting five bermudagrass sports turf cultivars through the wringer to generate data that should help high-school, college and pro athletic field managers determine which of the many hybrid varieties available will perform best on their fields.
Bermudgrasses have a number of desirable attributes – their fine texture, density, drought tolerance, vigorous growth and color retention – that make them the turfgrasses of choice on sports fields in the South. But at the top of the best-traits list are excellent wear tolerance and quick recovery from injury.
“We’re evaluating several of the different characteristics in this project, but our main focus is on how well each one stands up against heavy traffic and how quickly it bounces back from the damage,” McElroy said.
McElroy, associate professor in the Department of Agronomy and Soils, and graduate research assistant Philipe Aldahir launched the study in the spring, laying side-by-side plots of the five varieties that include Tifway 419, a classic cultivar that has been covering athletic fields for more than four decades, along with newer sports turf varieties: TifSport, TifGrand, Celebration and Patriot.
At Jordan-Hare Stadium this season, the Auburn Tigers are playing their home games on Tifway, but Eric Kleypas, manager of all varsity sports fields on campus, said that while Tifway is the standard-setter in sports turf, the research McElroy is conducting will help him determine whether there’s something better out there.
“Traffic tolerance and recuperative ability are my major concerns, and one of these other varieties may prove to outperform Tifway in those and other characteristics,” Kleypas said. “But installing sports turf is very expensive, more than $2 a square foot, so obviously I can’t put some newer variety down just to see if it works.
“This study to simulate play on a football field on a small scale will give us solid information to make that kind of decision,” he said. The project is actually a research collaboration between the College of Agriculture and the Athletics Department.
In the project, McElroy and Aldahir are replicating the abuse that a football field endures during a three-hour battle between two teams of 250- and 300-pound athletes with an “athlete traffic simulator,” a souped-up version of a walk-behind machine used on golf courses as a greens aerator. The researchers say that, with their modifications, the traffic mimicker simulates both the pounding and the shearing of a cleated athletic shoe and puts down the same number of cleat marks that would occur between the hash marks in a single NFL game.
“With the traffic simulator, one pass across and back over the research plot is the equivalent of one NFL game,” Aldahir said. “We have a control section that the machine hasn’t touched and a section each at one, three and five games a week.”
The multiple-game trials are important because, though Auburn and other college and university and pro teams play at home once a week at most, the research applies to all levels of athletics, from the NFL down to high schools and municipalities.
“On a high school field, you’re going to have the varsity, junior varsity and younger football teams playing on it, the marching band both during the game and in practice and whatever else comes along,” McElroy said. “Those field managers can use the data we collect here this year and over the next two to three years to decide which cultivars are most wear-tolerant and best suited to their locations.”
In addition to wear and tear, McElroy and Aldahir are evaluating the five cultivars on traits such as color intensity, heat tolerance, how quickly they green up, how long they stay green and how well they handle both overseeding with ryegrass as the weather turns cooler and, come spring, the methods used to kill the ryegrass. They also are looking at shade tolerance, McElroy said, because bermudagrasses typically require six to eight hours of direct sunlight a day, but the designs of many college and professional stadiums leave large portions of the fields in shade.
Aldahir, a native of Brazil, said his Ph.D. research will be invaluable in his home country, where bermudagrass cultivars are commonly used on athletic fields.
“Brazil will host the World Cup in 2014 and the International Olympics in 2016,” he said. “We will want the best.”
A video segment and photographs are available on the Auburn University Office of Communications and Marketing website, http://ocm.auburn.edu/featured_story/turfgrass.html.