The Keevens make sod a household word

The name Keeven has been associated with the green industry in the St. Louis area for more than a half century. Frank Keeven began cutting bluegrass pasture sod in the 1950s and soon began growing his own sod. One of his major projects in the 1950s was laying sod for Interstate 70 construction, a highway that helped facilitate travel from east of the Mississippi River to the intermountain region of the West. The Keeven family business has evolved from cutting sod to leading the region in producing and installing sod along with providing hydroseeding, specialty landscaping and wetlands and creek bank mitigation.

Today, the Keeven Brothers Sod Company produces sod, and Missouri Turf, Inc. installs sod primarily within a 100-mile radius of St. Louis. Both are headquartered in O’Fallon, Mo. Frank’s sons Glen and Jerry are president and vice president of Keeven Brothers Sod, respectively. Sons Mark and Greg started Missouri Turf, where Mark works as president. Greg recently retired from the business and Mark’s son Jeff joined Missouri Turf as vice president. Keeven Brothers Sod and Missouri Turf have worked on many high-profile residential, commercial and golf course sites throughout the area.

Missouri Turf installs sod at the Bellerive Country Club for the 2008 Western Open.

Producing sod

St. Louis lies in the transition zone where growing cool-season grass requires attention. Problems can surface with these grasses during summer heat and high humidity, but the Midwestern location means an undesirably long dormant season for warm-season grass. Keeven Brothers grows about 600 acres of sod with about 200 acres of cool-season bluegrass, 300 acres of cool-season, turf-type fescue and 120 acres of warm-season zoysia.

Jerry (left) and Glen Keeven are vice president and president of Keeven Brothers Sod Company, respectively.
Photos courtesy of Keeven Brothers/Missouri Turf.

Keeven Brothers depends heavily on NTEP trials for variety selections. Bluegrass seed is from O.M. Scott Company, and fescue comes from Lebanon Turf. Within the last 15 years, fescue has become the grass of choice in the transition zone for its ability to withstand the hot summers, often replacing Kentucky bluegrass on many home lawns and athletic fields. The fescue is more drought resistant and withstands the Midwestern heat better, and the Winning Colors fescue retains much of the appearance of bluegrass. “Fescue sod actually contains about 10 percent bluegrass,” Glen noted. “The fescue roots penetrate deeper and the bluegrass will follow. The bluegrass will fill in and repair any loss more quickly.” While the initial cost of fescue is higher than bluegrass, long-term maintenance costs are lower, often offsetting the higher investment.

“Builders tend to go with bluegrass because of the lower initial cost of the lawns,” Glen said. “Custom homes in the high-end range often will have fescue.” Because Keeven Brothers has established a niche market in large projects and high-end homes, the company has not been affected by the declining building market as much as some sod producers. “Our demand is down, but not as much in these high-end custom homes as in the quick turnaround building market.” About 75 percent of Keeven Brothers’ sales are wholesale and 25 percent are retail.

A number of area golf courses have switched from the warm-season bermuda formerly found on fairways to warm-season zoysiagrass. Keeven maintains nurseries from which the zoysiagrass is replanted as plugs, and bluegrass and fescue normally is reseeded. “If we cut after September 15, sometimes we have to replant,” Glen said. “Our zoysiagrass sod prices increase after September 15 and again after September 30.”

Keeven Brothers installs sod mostly at higher-end custom homes and large projects.

About 90 percent of the sod is grown on silty loam on Mississippi River bottom or creek bottomland, and the remaining 10 percent on nonirrigated hill land. Soil testing is done extensively with fertility applied based on soil test results. Equipment used in irrigation includes three center pivots, one lateral roll and five hard hose reels. Both wells and creeks provide water for the irrigation systems.

Glen noted that improvements in equipment over the years have contributed greatly to the company’s efficient operations. “The Trebro AutoStack has been great. We have one Trebro, three Magnum big roll harvesters and four Brouwer 18-inch harvesters,” he said. “Progressive mowers in both 36 and 22-inch widths are used along with a 34-foot, 15-gang electric reel mower and several five-gang fairway mowers.”

His newest piece of equipment, an automated tarp, serves a dual purpose. “It’s much easier to put on, and it’s like a rolling billboard,” Glen explained.

Mark and Jeff Keeven are in charge of Missouri Turf, a spin-off company of Keeven Brothers Sod Company, which installs the sod that Keeven Brothers grows.
The Trebro Autostack is a major asset in harvesting sod at Keeven Brothers.

Installation

Mark said, “I realized very early that the secret to a successful business is relationship building. In the turf business, that means combining the best possible turfgrass with the absolute best finish grading, installation and timely delivery. The key to accomplishing this is retaining key employees who take pride in their work.”

Missouri Turf focuses on large projects. “It’s a very competitive business,” Mark said. “We focus on the large projects where there’s less competition.” When Bellerive Country Club completed a $10 million golf course renovation, Missouri Turf laid the sod, and Missouri Turf laid the sod in new construction for St. Albans Golf Course in Wildwood, Mo., and Boone Valley Golf Course in Augusta, Mo. The company also installed the sod on Ozzie Smith Field, a city-owned baseball field in O’Fallon, Mo., as well as on the lawn at Harrah’s Casino in Maryland Heights, Mo.

A key element is the use of floatation equipment for the finish grading and installation, keeping compaction to a minimum. “We use customized floatation tires on our equipment,” Mark said. “We lessen the chances of damage to the finish grade and irrigation system.”

Improvements in equipment in general have been helpful. “Our Princeton piggyback forklifts changed our industry,” he said.

Most of the large jobs entail using the big rolls, which Missouri Turf lays using a custom-made installer. “We customized an installer that connects to a Ford tractor,” Mark said. “All our tractors are Fords from Mordt Tractor Co. in Troy, Mo.” Hydroseeding is done on slopes such as landfill reclamation projects with a Finn hydroseeder.

Looking ahead

“The turfgrass industry in the St. Louis area is in a period of transition,” Mark said. “The home building market, which represents a large portion of the industry, has severely declined. This has brought on a new era where specific markets are more defined. It’s very important for a company to identify its target market and not waste time where they are not competitive,” he said. “We have a saturated market,” he 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.