Nebraska sod farm researches buffalograss for the high plains area

Niobrara Sod Farm, owned by Ted and Jane Grant, in Hay Springs, Neb., is in the arid climate of the high plains, so conserving water is a major concern. Agriculture and municipal water users depend mostly on underground aquifers. Niobrara Sod grows buffalograss and participates in a Natural Resource District project to replace existing lawns with less thirsty buffalograss in one of the many efforts directed toward conserving water.

Chuck Butterfield discusses the buffalograss installation project with Shelley Miller.

Located close to both South Dakota and Wyoming, Niobrara Sod is across the country from Grant’s current primary employment. He is an American Airlines pilot based out of LaGuardia airport in New York City. Extensive travel to and from New York doesn’t deter the native Nebraskan from pursuing his sod farm business and working to assure that his customers receive the best possible information to establish good lawns from Niobrara Sod buffalograss. His quest to provide that information has led to a significant research project initiating an entry into turfgrass study at Chadron State College.

Grant said, “My father-in-law, Vic Nissen, had a sod farm here many years ago. A few years ago, we had an opportunity to get the farm back into the family.” Grant re-established sod on the farm about five years ago and has 20 acres of sod currently planted, half of which is Bowie buffalograss. “We tried a buffalograss-blue gramma blend,” Grant said. “The buffalograss just didn’t do well for us with the blue gramma.”

Seed is obtained from Milborn Seed, Brookings in S.D., and sod is installed in about a 150-mile radius in Nebraska, South Dakota and Wyoming. Niobrara Sod has installed buffalograss sod on government, business and residential sites.

“The sod farm is doing well, and if it continues, I see it as a retirement project,” he said. “We work with landscapers and building contractors, as well as businesses and homeowners. We’re very sparsely populated, and there’s very much a do-it-yourself mentality out here.” Few lawn care companies are in business in the sparsely populated area.

In working to assure that Niobrara Sod produces the best possible lawns while using as little water as possible, Grant has partnered with his alma mater, Chadron State College. Niobrara Sod is funding research to identify information on how to best grow buffalograss in the high plains area, where weather extremes of both summer heat and winter cold exist.

“It’s not unusual for us to have temperatures over 100 degrees with 30 to 40-mile-an-hour winds for several days,” Grant said. The hot, windy weather can quickly dry out turfgrass, especially newly laid sod. Conversely, winters are harsh, with minus 35 degrees not unusual, and winter winds are the norm.

Niobrara Sod summer employees are drawn exclusively from Chadron State College. “I remember getting out of college and entering the U.S. Air Force where I was expected to start making decisions, and that hadn’t been a part of what I’d learned. We have five college students who work full time through the summer. I train them, and when I’m on the road, the students run the sod farm, making whatever decisions are required, giving them some experience in the decision-making process,” Grant said.

Developing watering recommendations

Grant turned to Chadron rangeland ecology professor Dr. Charles Butterfield to help develop a watering protocol for newly laid turfgrass in the particular weather conditions present in northwestern Nebraska and surrounding locations. Butterfield was with the University of Nebraska for 12 years before moving to Chadron.

Niobrara Sod is providing the sod and other materials for a research project to determine watering methods that will produce the strongest root system in the extreme conditions of the high plains location. Shelley Miller, a junior at Chadron who studies with Butterfield, developed a strong interest in horticulture following an internship at Chadron’s Mari Sandoz High Plains Heritage Center where she cared for native high plains plants. Butterfield is directing her research project focused on turfgrass and designed to determine specific recommendations for watering installed buffalograss to best establish the turf under local weather conditions.

“We have extremes in temperatures in both summer and winter, and we have fluctuations in temperatures throughout the year that affect the turf,” Miller said.

The study is being conducted on 36 3-by-3-foot plots on campus. Three repetitions will receive different amounts of irrigation water after establishment, and one control section will receive no irrigation water. A water line directly from the municipal water storage unit brings water to campus, and a special line was installed off the main line that carries water to the plots for irrigation use.

Ted Grant, right, works with the summer crew harvesting sod.

The sod will be watered well until it begins growing, which is expected to take about three weeks. “There’s an initial shock period for the buffalograss. It will turn brown before beginning to green up after it’s installed,” Miller said. When the sod begins to green up, the four watering regimens will begin. The control turfgrass will receive no further irrigation, with only natural rainfall providing water to the grass. Other watering levels will be .25, .5 and .75 inch during the growing season.

Newly installed buffalograss sod exhibits weak browning during shock stage in Chadron.
Established buffalograss on the same lawn grows well.
Shelley Miller installs a growing tube into a buffalograss plot.

Growing tubes are installed on each of the 36 plots. The tubes can be pulled up to view the roots to determine their depth. Tubes were made by cutting 6-inch white PVC pipes in half and applying Plexiglas to the cut side to allow viewing of the roots. The tubes are 1.5 feet long and extend about 1.5 inches above the ground with the sod recessed into the tube.

“We’ll pull the tubes up in the spring when the grass starts growing again to see what the different root depths are,” Miller said. Root progress will be tracked monthly. In fall 2010, the tubes will be removed and the roots placed in a plant dryer, after which they will be weighed to further determine the effects of the different watering methods on the root mass.

A preemergent was applied to plots containing nine growing tubes. Next spring, weed infestation will be compared between the plots that received the preemergent application and those with no preemergent.

A follow-up project is planned, with sod to be installed in spring 2010 with a similar watering regimen. “We can take advantage of the same irrigation system,” Miller said. In late spring 2011, the fall and spring installed sod will be compared to look for differences in the root development.

Cash for Grass

During the past year, Niobrara Sod installed buffalograss sod on 20 lawns located within the Upper Niobrara White Natural Resource District as part of UNWRD’s Cash for Grass program. UNWRD is one of 23 Nebraska Natural Resource Districts and includes areas in four northwestern counties. The Cash for Grass program just completed its second year of reimbursing homeowners a portion of their sod replacement costs through a primarily state-funded grant.

Stephanie Rust, UNWRD GIS and information coordinator, said, “We are on the edge of the Ogallala Aquifer. Most of our water for both municipal water supplies and center pivot agricultural irrigation is drawn from that aquifer, as well as a few others. In this arid climate, we are all affected by water issues. Buffalograss not only requires less water to keep it green, but also requires fewer inputs of chemicals.”

All sod for the program has been obtained from Niobrara Sod. “We know that Niobrara’s buffalograss sod grows well in our area.” Rust said.

Nancy Riggs is a freelance writer and has been covering the green industry for Turf for almost 20 years. She resides in Mt. Zion, Ill.