The Turf Zone: Welcome to The Turf Zone. This episode continues our series on the USDA-funded ResistPoa Project. In this episode we’re talking to Jim Brosnan, Professor at the University of Tennessee and Director of the UT Weed Diagnostic Center. Jim, thanks for joining us.
JB: Thanks for having me on.
TTZ: Let’s dive into this project that you are a participant with many other researchers. Most turfgrass scientists have had, for lack of better words, a professional relationship with annual bluegrass for their entire career. What’s your poa story?
JB: My poa story… Wow, I’ve never been asked that before. You know, it’s funny, I’ll contend it’s the most amazing plant out there, at least that affects the turf world. It’s a weed in certain situations and it’s a desirable in other situations, and the adaptability piece of it is off the charts high. I mean, we have poa documented on every continent, including Antarctica. Which when you wrap your mind around that, it’s kinda nuts. For me as a weed scientist, as resistance issues have worsened, I think my first resistance interaction with poa came in the late 2000s, early 2010-ish. I was on an extension visit in West Tennessee about a drainage issue and putting greens and we were looking at putting greens and taking root zone profiles and talking about layering within the root zone and surface drainage versus internal drainage and building a plan for how to combat that at this golf course. And as we were going back to my truck in the parking lot, the superintendent told me, “Have you ever seen Roundup not kill annual bluegrass?” I said, “Well, I’ve never seen it, I’ve heard about it in row crop situations, but I’ve never seen it in turf.” He said, “Well, I’ve got fairways of it. Why don’t you hop in the cart and we’ll go have a look?” And that’s kind of where it all started for me, and then it became one of those scenarios where the more that I would give presentations and talk about this, the more individuals in the audience would come up to me afterwards and say, “Hey, I think I’ve got an issue, can you come visit me and have a look?” And it kind of grew from there to be the number one weed that my program here at the University of Tennessee works on. The students and staff that work for me joke that it’s poa 365 around here. 365 days a year it’s part of the conversation.
TTZ: Sounds like a pretty serious origin story of your relationship. So how does annual bluegrass rank in the list of weeds in Tennessee?
JB: That’s a hard question to answer because it all depends on what those rankings are based on. Are the rankings based on what’s the hardest to control, are the rankings based on what’s the most prevalent? Is the ranking based on what’s most widespread? I think regardless of how you define the parameters, poa would be on the list. We’re in a climate in Tennessee where it’s almost kind of a perfect storm in the transition zone, where warm season grasses are going to go dormant for extended periods and really offer no competition against poa invasion. We also have climatic conditions that can favor poa growth for extended periods. Not only in the winter, but sometimes even into the late spring. As we’re recording this now, in June, there are areas on golf courses where you can find healthy, mature poa plants. That’s one of the things I think we need to do more research on is to understand the environments that maybe facilitate that survival because that complicated management. The paradigm is that this is a true annual, and in most cases that paradigm is correct. There certainly could be environments out there where maybe we can get persistence that looks more like a perennial than an annual.
TTZ: Coming back to the scope of the ResistPoa Project, what objectives are you pursuing as part of that project, and as a side note, what other interests pertaining to annual bluegrass are you studying separately?
JB: It’s a fascinating project and really thrilling to be involved in because it’s the largest national turfgrass project that I’m aware of – not only in funding level from the USDA, but just size and scope. I think we have 15 different institutions that are participating which is really awesome and we’re all involved in these objectives to varying degrees. My program here has been involved in the survey and screening objective from the jump, we had some experience with that going into it. We were lucky enough to receive a grant from the GCSAA to look at poa resistance on golf courses within our state, so it was a natural transition into the USDA project to look at poa resistance in more than golf. Golf is included, but we also touch on sports turf, sod production and lawncare.
So we’ve been involved in that objective, my program here has been leading the fraise mowing objective, which many of the listeners may be familiar, if you’re on Twitter, it’s not really hard to find fraise mowing videos out there. That’s been really cool because it’s new and it’s kind of a non-chemical approach to tackle this weed. We’ve seen really promising results with summer fraise mowing leading to reduced annual bluegrass in the winter time, in Bermuda grass in particular. We have a lot more to learn about how that varies geographically and with depth and across cultivars, but certainly it’s been an interesting finding from this USDA effort in totality. We’ve been collaborating, the lead on the genetic part of this, trying to understand the genetics of resistance and mutations within the DNA that can cause resistance has been my colleague, Dr. Scott McElroy at Auburn. We’ve been collaborating with that group, sending plant material that has come through screening here to his lab so that they can see the genetic analysis to understand potential mutations.
Probably one of the things that’s the most different in terms of being a new area of research for me has been working in collaboration with David Ervin and George Frisvold. David Ervin at Portland State and George Frisvold at Arizona, on the human dimensions piece of this. Their work is to better understand the human element to resistance management. How do people approach decisions about poa control? What are the factors that they consider when they learn about a new technology and weigh the pros and cons of implementing that new technology? That’s been really eye-opening because as a researcher, you can develop the most innovative solution that’s based on the best biology and best chemistry that’s available, but if the practitioner is not going to use it, then it all falls flat. This is the first time that I’ve been involved in an effort that is really trying to get at the sociological piece, the human element or decision-making piece of what we do and my hope is that by trying to understand those dynamics, it’s going to make the solutions that come from the research easier to adapt and more part of the turfgrass industry.
TTZ: The behavioral element is super interesting and I know in Tennessee, where you are, our turfgrass managers are always looking cultural practices that they can implement and I understand that there’s a balance of budget and time and manpower. Besides chemical weed control, are there other strategies to control annual bluegrass? What are the most important strategies – you mentioned fraise mowing – anything else that can be implemented to reduce annual bluegrass in turf?
JB: That’s one of the things that we’re trying to better understand with this project and one of the things I think we’re all appreciative of as researchers is now having funding available to answer those types of questions. Those fundamental things like, how does irrigation affect annual bluegrass infestation? How does nutrient programming affect annual bluegrass infestation? How does mowing frequency, whether it’s height, regime or both, affect annual bluegrass infestation? These are kind of basic questions that there’s been small scale studies, single locations that have tried to make inferences and that’s been helpful, but it’s really cool now that we’re going to be able to try to look at that at scale across a wide geographic range.
For me I think that stuff is going to become more important, not only as we have increased scrutiny on the chemical tools that we have available for weed management in general, poa and beyond, but also moving into the COVID era, if you will, where we’ve been lucky in Tennessee in the majority of our turfgrass operations were deemed essential and can continue operations during the pandemic. We are definitely going to see budget cuts, whether it’s staffing budget cuts or resource budget cuts moving forward for turfgrass operations across the board. One of the things I think turfgrass managers need to start doing is looking at their operations and defining what’s essential to them, what are their high priority areas because we’re probably not going to be able to manage wall to wall in the capacity that we had in the pre-COVID era, if you will, as long as these budget restrictions will be in place.
TTZ: Right. So we have budget limitations, like you said, in this unusual time of managing turfgrass and another thing that has been affected is events. I know that turfgrass managers love their conferences and their education and recertification events, and that’s been limited to a degree as well. We’re working with Jay McCurdy and trying to get this data and information out from the ResistPoa project. I know that as far as USDA-funded portion, you’re about at the halfway mark. Are you able to get the information out in practical ways without those in-person events, and how should people be looking for the information that you’re gathering from this project?
JB: I think we have been successful so far. Obviously this COVID situation is ever-evolving and we need to evolve along with it. We had a national webinar I believe in March of 2020 that we had really good attendance. I think we had well over 350 people join us for kind of a poa update that featured a lot of the work that is going on here. In Tennessee, we obviously can’t have our normal, in-person events as you noted. The University acted pretty quickly and we developed kind of a digital learning series for the summer that we’re calling Tennessee Turf Tuesdays where turfgrass managers can join us on the first Tuesday of every month from May – October and we have a one-hour webinar on a turfgrass topic of interest. We’ve got a diversity of things that we will cover over the summer season and into the fall. The final webinar of that series will be hosted by me in October where we’ll talk at length about poa control and try to prepare turfgrass managers for poa control going into the upcoming poa season, if you will. That’s been a part of it.
I know that my colleagues at other institutions are moving towards virtual fields days and trying to showcase their work in that manner. That’s all good. The group at Tennessee here, we started several years ago having a Poa Day event online. So a streamed, live digital field day on poa control. COVID threw a wrench in that in 2020. We hope to be back doing that in 2021, so that will be another area to feature ResistPoa work. I’d encourage those that do not follow it already to follow the Twitter handle, which is @ResistPoa, and visit the website, ResistPoa.org. Those are obviously ways to get information that’s coming out of the project. Most everybody involved has a fairly active Twitter account and shares information that way. I know Turf Twitter is kind of a thing and that’s where turfgrass managers go for info, so that’s another area where you can find information.
TTZ: That’s great information. Jim, I understand there is an element about the importance of awareness of turfgrass for the general public and for legislators as there have certainly been some challenges with legislation and limitation on herbicides. You have had an opportunity to speak to that audience, a Congressional audience. Can you tell us a little bit about that and how it ties in with the ResistPoa Project?
JB: It was in October of 2019 I had the opportunity to travel to DC and participate in a congressional briefing as a representative of Crop Science Society of America and their involvement in NCFAR, which I believe is the National Coalition of Food and Agricultural Research. The impetus for that was to talk about the importance of turfgrass, the economic benefits that turfgrass has in our country, the environmental benefits that turfgrass has in our country, the societal benefits that maintained turfgrass has in our country and to the citizens of our country and I tried to drive home that turfgrass is in every congressional district and everybody that was in the room that day interacted with turfgrass that day, whether it was from their walk out of their apartment to an Uber, or whatnot, walking into the building on Capitol Hill. We also in that presentation, Crop Science asked me to kind of highlight, not only why turfgrass is important, but why it’s a commodity that it worthy of more funding. We used the ResistPoa Project kind of as a backdrop for that to talk about what can be done when resources are available to better understand some of these basic questions about a turfgrass pest issue that affects so many in bringing together researchers on a national scale across multiple states, the impact that could have and all of the positive deliverables that could come from that. It was a real honor to represent the turfgrass industry and all my colleagues in the ResistPoa Project in DC and speak about our work.
TTZ: Jim, thank you again for taking the time to talk to us today, and we’ll look forward to following your results on Twitter and on the ResistPoa.org website.
JB: I appreciate the opportunity to come on and please don’t hesitate if there’s anyone listening who has questions about what we’re doing or just poa control in general. I think that everybody involved in the ResistPoa Project really values the land grant mission and the role that land grant universities, like the University of Tennessee, have in serving stakeholders across the state. We are here to be a resource for those in the turfgrass industry and if you have questions about poa control and ways we can assist with poa control, please don’t hesitate to reach out. I think we’re all, in today’s world, ultimately available whether it’s email, phone call, Twitter direct message, what have you.
TTZ: For all resources regarding the ResistPoa Project, visit our show notes. And don’t miss an episode of ResistPoa or TheTurfZone. You can subscribe at Apple podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also visit us at TheTurfZone.com.
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