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Commercial turf production

By | February 4, 2013 at 10:26 am | No comments | Provisioning

Turf farming is an intensive and highly specialised horticultural endeavour. Turf production may look deceptively like broad acre cropping; however, it has high management inputs and production costs, and product wastage is expensive for growers. Quality turf production requires well managed nutrient, pesticide and water inputs.

On this page:

  • Establishment
  • Species
  • Access to improved varieties
  • Certification
  • Knowledge requirements
  • Harvesting
  • Quality
  • Glossary

Establishment

Turf is normally established from sprigs and meticulous attention to weed control, pest and disease control, irrigation and nutrition is essential to grow the crop successfully. Occasionally naturalised stands of Queensland blue couch are managed to eradicate non-grass species and to encourage the development of harvestable (but low value) sod. Pests and diseases can severely affect all types of turf and some are very difficult to control.

To replenish the small amount of soil (1 cm) shaved away at harvest time, turf producers normally add organic matter, such as well composted chicken or feedlot litter or vermicompost, prior to planting and again after harvest as a topdressing to stimulate regrowth.

Irrigation is essential (see Commercial turf production – farm requirements).

Species

There are nine species of turf grass commonly grown in southern Queensland. These are:

  • green couch (Cynodon dactylon)
  • hybrid couch (Cynodon dactylon x Cynodon transvaalensis)
  • Queensland blue couch (Digitaria didactyla)
  • soft leaf buffalo grass (Stenotaphrum secundatum)
  • zoysia (Zoysia japonica and Z. matrella)
  • kikuyu (Pennisetum clandestinum)
  • sweet smother (Dactyloctenium australe)
  • seashore paspalum (Paspalum vaginatum)

Each of these species has differing cultural requirements and most of these species have numerous cultivars that may need particular management practices. Most turf producers specialise in a few cultivars that suit their own growing conditions and their client base. When a new cultivar comes onto the market, its performance characteristics may not be fully known for different environments (yours and your customers), making the decision to grow it or not more difficult.

Access to improved varieties

The Plant Breeders Rights (PBR) system has encouraged the importation and Australian breeding and selection of new turf grass varieties. Selection criteria include characteristics such as:

  • cold tolerance
  • shade tolerance
  • improved density
  • disease resistance.

PBR cultivars are often supported by marketing campaigns and attract premium market prices and profits. Smaller growers and new entrants to the industry may find the up-front licensing fees and the ongoing contractual obligations difficult to meet. This often forces new growers to use ‘commodity’ unlicensed cultivars. These are not as profitable because of their lower price.

Certification

Unlike many other horticultural industries, the Australian turf industry does not have an independent certification scheme for planting stock or seed. For PBR protected varieties, the Australian licensees take responsibility for ensuring that their stock is as described. Imported varieties are sourced from certified stock (usually from the USA). In Australia, PBR protected varieties are often delivered with certification documents. However, with repeated propagation, common ‘commodity’ cultivars with the same name can mutate into clearly different forms. For a new grower, this may mean that the farm is established with forms that are not true-to-type and that may perform differently to expectations.

Knowledge requirements

Turf farmers require not only skills and knowledge in growing and marketing the crop and running a business, but they are asked by clients to supply varieties to suit the specifications of particular sites.

Grassed areas are used for residential, commercial, school, sports and recreational activities. Turf farmers need to have a good understanding of turf varieties and the uses and conditions they are best suited for. Be prepared for customers who ask for advice before and after they buy. Expect to answer questions on:

  • specific varietal characteristics (density, texture and colour)
  • shade and sun tolerance
  • drought tolerance
  • wear resistance
  • soil type
  • cold weather tolerance
  • establishment advice
  • herbicide tolerance
  • long-term turf care (fertilising, weed control, watering and mowing).

Harvesting

Once harvested, most producers send the sod to market on the day it is cut to prevent the turf from drying out. It is common for turf producers to harvest on-demand for clients. For example, a client will ring in the morning and ask that five pallet-loads of turf be delivered that afternoon. For small operations, this responsiveness means that it is more difficult for the producer to leave the farm for any length of time.

Whilst harvesting can be highly automated, this machinery is very expensive (approximately $120,000) and is generally used on very large scale enterprises. With a small hand cutter, harvesting is usually a two person operation, with cut sod being stacked onto pallets for trucking. Rolling and stacking sod is physically demanding work, requiring a good level of fitness.

Harvesting is an acquired skill. The machinery needs to be driven in straight rows at the correct depth. Sod harvested too early or cut too shallow will break up. Rhizomatous species, such as green couch, are clear harvested, whereas stoloniferous forms, such as blue couch, are left with green ribbon strips to enable regrowth. Harvesting aims to retain as much soil on the property as possible whilst making provision for the rapid reestablishment of cut sod.

Once the sod is cut, it should be delivered and installed as soon as possible. The harvesting process shaves off the majority of the grasses root system and it immediately begins to dry out. An additional danger is that core temperatures can build up within the pallet load and the product can stew.

On average, each turf block would be harvested one and a half times per year. Grown-in rates vary with environmental conditions, the species used and cultivar. Slower growing species have a longer period of care prior to harvest and are generally more costly to grow (and purchase).

Quality

The turf grass industry is in the process of developing quality standards for cut sod and recommended installation practices. Premium quality turf should be the cultivar or variety specified, have no weeds present, be dense and green and have no evidence of disease or pest problems. For lower grade turf, offered at a price discount, some weed grasses are permissible (e.g. blue couch contaminating a green couch sward). In some instances, special turf grass sod blends are marketed. In these cases the presence of more than one specified species/cultivar would not prevent the turf from being of premium quality if all other quality attributes are present.

Glossary

Sod: grass and part of the soil held together by grass roots; harvested product from turf farms, seen as rolls or mats

Vermicompost: nutrient-rich compost consisting of earthworm castings

Further information

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References

These are only a small selection of the publications available.

Aldous, DE, Haydu, JJ and Satterthwaite, LN 2007, ‘Economic analysis of the Australian turfgrass industry’, Project TU06004, Horticulture Australia Limited.

Department of Employment, Economic Development and Innovation 2009, ‘Prospects for Queensland’s primary industries 2009-2010‘, Queensland Government, Brisbane.

Beard, JB 1973, ‘Turfgrass: Science and culture’, Prentice Hall, New Jersey, USA.

Handreck, KA and Black, ND 2002, ‘Growing media for ornamental plants and turf’, University of New South Wales Press, Sydney.

Spencer, J 2002, ‘The definitive guide to Australian turfgrass pesticide management’, Glenvale Publications, Melbourne.

Turgeon, AJ 2008, ‘Turfgrass management’, Pearson Prentice Hall, New Jersey, USA.

Other organisations

 

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