At the Top of His Game
Under Dr. Bill Meyer’s lead, the Rutgers Turfgrass Breeding Program remains world-class
Dr. William A. (Bill) Meyer’s enthusiasm is contagious. To anyone outside of green industry, this might seem absurd. What’s so exciting about turfgrass, after all?
William Meyer and his team at Rutgers University continue to lead the way in turfgrass variety development.
If you’re lucky enough to walk Rutgers University’s turfgrass plots with Meyer, you’ll likely come to realize that yes, “watching grass grow” can be pretty darn cool. That’s what students of this internationally recognized turfgrass breeder discover in Meyer’s Introduction to Turfgrass 101. Whether interacting with students or fellow turfgrass scientists, Meyer is sure to open minds to the possibilities that enhanced cool-season turfgrasses bring to the industry – and to the world.
Since April of 1996, Meyer has served as director of the Turfgrass Breeding Project at Cook College, Rutgers University. This involves population improvement projects for 11 open-pollinated cool-season turfgrass species at the Adelphia Research Farm and Hort Farm II and extensive breeding work on bluegrass. He also serves as a teaching professor in the Plant Biology & Pathology Department and is an advisor to graduate students.
Dr. William “Bill” Meyer’s Career at a Glance
1968, 1969: B.S. Horticulture/Turf; M.S. Plant Pathology, University of Illinois
1970: Graduate study at JNAU Agricultural University in Jabalpur, India
1972: Ph.D. Plant Pathology, University of Illinois
1972: Research director for Warrens Turf Nursery in Palos Park, Ill.
1974: Vice president of research for Turf-Seed, Inc., Hubbard, Ore.
1975: Partnership with Turf-Seed founder Bill Rose, serving as president and turfgrass breeder for Pure Seed Testing, Inc.
1996: Director of the Turfgrass Breeding Project at Cook College, Rutgers University
Paving the way
Meyer earned his B.S. in horticulture-turf in 1968, and his M.S. in plant pathology in 1969, both from the University of Illinois. He undertook graduate study in central India for a year, at JNAU Agricultural University in Jabalpur, where he focused on soil-borne diseases of soybeans. He completed his Ph.D. in plant pathology at the University of Illinois in 1972.
Meyer then headed for the corporate side of the turfgrass industry, stepping into the role of research director for Warrens Turf Nursery in Palos Park, Ill., in 1972. He first connected with Dr. C. Reed Funk of Rutgers University at that point, tapping into his extensive information on innovative Kentucky bluegrass breeding. Meyer says, “Dr. Funk also worked with me to start cooperative development projects that have proven beneficial throughout my career.”
Funk introduced him to Bill L. Rose in 1974, which led to Meyer’s career move to Hubbard, Ore. He says, “I accepted the position of vice president of research for Turf-Seed, Inc. in 1974, with Rose as my boss. In 1975, I also entered into a partnership with him, serving as president and turfgrass breeder for Pure Seed Testing, Inc.”
In 1983, Meyer added another role as adjunct member of Graduate Faculty of Oregon State University, Department of Crop Science.
To describe the period from 1975 to 1996 as prolific is an understatement. As his Curriculum Vitae (CV) on Rutgers’ website states: “Dr. Meyer developed or co-developed 80 improved cultivars with Plant Variety Protection when he was in private industry and 45 cultivars have been registered with the Crop Science Society of America (CSSA). Over 20 percent of the seed of proprietary cool-season turfgrass cultivars produced and marketed were developed or co-developed by Dr. Meyer. This represents 80 million pounds of grass seed out of a 400 million total.”
Making the move
With 24 successful years on the corporate side of the turfgrass industry, what prompted Meyer to make the move to Rutgers? “Reed Funk,” he says. “He kept telling me I’d thrive on the opportunity to interact with the entire seed industry working with many more grasses. Yet nothing would be as important to me as the students I’d develop. His persistence won me over, and he was right on both counts. Working with students, challenging them and watching them develop their unique, incredible talents, has become the joy of my life.”
Meyer calls Funk “an amazing researcher and an intellect in the literature and history,” always supportive and encouraging. “He has been a great mentor for my research and teaching and for my relationships with my grad students and fellow professors and scientists.”
Meyer refers to his style as more “hands-on,” honed by his years of experience on the corporate side of the “very competitive” turfgrass industry. Always looking ahead, he has continued the focus on “take this and be creative,” while adding “generate some revenue.”
Meyer says, “We work on variety development as a cooperator with 22 different seed companies. All new cultivars and improved germplasm is then developed by agreements between the other organizations and Rutgers. This creates a revenue stream coming into the University that provides support for many turfgrass students and scientists. Their work produces improved varieties, which generate more revenue, keeping the cycle going well into the future.”
Initially, as a former competitor now a cooperator for so many seed companies, Meyer was under scrutiny. “Understandably, it took a little while for some of those people to determine that I would be fair.” He is.
Meyer strongly supports the National Turfgrass Evaluation Program (NTEP) trials. “The trialing is very factual, providing evaluation and direct comparison of cultivar performance based on data and facts. It’s on that basis that the industry can move forward.”
The Rutgers breeding projects include running “cycles of selection in single-plot progeny mowed turf trials” with the objective of identifying the varieties and associated endophytes that can improve “disease, insect and environmental stress tolerance.” Seeking to add to the gene pool, Funk has spent 10,000 hours collecting grasses from New Jersey south to the Atlantic region. Meyer expanded that search with extensive collecting from old turf areas in Europe.
“We don’t bring the plant materials into America directly. They’re grown for us by a private turfgrass farmer in Holland. We bring in the seeds from that production,” says Meyer. “In the last 16 years, we’ve imported 20,000 new germplasm sources. We don’t use all the U.S. or imported ‘finds,’ probably about 1 or 2 percent of what we bring in. We have to plant them and compare them to the adapted population. When we identify superior collections, we integrate them into our adapted populations by using a modified backcrossing technique.”
Dr. Reed Funk and Dr. William Meyer in 1978 in a turfgrass nursery in Oregon examining Manhattan II.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF DR. WILLIAM MEYER, COOK COLLEGE, RUTGERS UNIVERSITY.
Manhattan perennial ryegrass was developed through this process from clones that Funk’s searches produced in the early 1960s. Meyer says, “Manhattan was the first truly turf-type perennial ryegrass. That cultivar prompted breeders across the world to develop enhanced perennial ryegrass varieties. Manhattan and other germplasm sources developed at Rutgers have been used in many of these breeding programs in North America and Europe.”
Gray leaf spot is a tough disease that can be devastating to ryegrass, especially during the seedling stage. When conditions are right, it only takes about two or three days to wipe out the stand of turfgrass. Mature turf is still susceptible, but better able to survive. While working at Rutgers, Meyer made the discovery of gray leaf spot resistance in perennial ryegrass and began work on developing resistant varieties.
“In 2001, an epidemic of gray leaf spot occurred on our trials here,” he says. “Ninety-five percent of our turf plots were affected; only 34 survived. We had the parents of the plots that had produced the seed.”
Breeding research at this tall fescue nursery at the Adelphia (N.J.) Research Farm has led to the development of more diseases resistant cultivars.
Meyer and his Rutgers team started integrating the germplasm from those 34 sources to develop varieties with strong gray leaf spot resistance. Within five years they were able to release a group of varieties with that attribute.
Meyer says, “We’ve learned that ryegrass seeded from July 1 to 15 is the most susceptible. Once the seed is up, if conditions are right, within 30 days you’re almost guaranteed to get gray leaf spot. If you plant in mid-September, you don’t get that pressure.”
So, for the NTEP test for 2010, the Rutgers perennial ryegrass trials were planted in the fall. Meyer says, “At NTEP’s request, we planted another test right next to the first planting. We started putting that seeding out on July 15, 2011. Seventy-five percent of those plots were impacted by gray leaf spot.”
Resistant varieties have greatly expanded ryegrass usage, yet some people, even in universities, say all varieties of perennial ryegrass are the same. “That’s ignorant,” says Meyer. “I loved having visitors look at our side-by-side trials, with some plots having 100 percent healthy turf and others only 5 percent coverage. Then I’d say, ‘Do you really believe all these varieties are the same?’”
Meyer began working on turf-type tall fescues in 1977 and has continued that research at Rutgers. Data from the 2006 NTEP trials showed nearly all of the top 30 cultivars topping the list came from Rutgers. “The tall fescues are easy to establish and during dry periods, look great 90 percent of the time with no irrigation. They’re susceptible to pythium and brown patch, but mixing in 5 to 10 percent bluegrass reduces that,” Meyer says.
Bluegrass breeding techniques
Bluegrass is in a separate category. It’s an apomictic species that has asexual reproduction. The flower contains both male and female parts with the embryo produced identical to its mother. So breeding takes place in a controlled greenhouse environment.
Rutgers research discovered a technique to create new F1 hybrids. Meyer says, “If the pollen we want for the cross is sprinkled on the flower when it first opens, between midnight and 4 a.m., the cross will take. If we wait until morning, it won’t take. So grad students, armed with flashlights, are paid to take the night watch, detect flower opening and make the pollen application. We make about 80 of those crosses every year and have been doing so since the discovery was made. Researchers around the world have adopted this technique.”
Meyer started working with Midnight bluegrass in a 1978 testing. It was launched in the early ’80s and is still one of the top varieties today. He says, “Along with desirable attributes, a cultivar must also be an adequate seed producer to become marketable. The seed production affects how much the grower needs to be paid to produce it. Midnight might yield 600 pounds of seed per acre. The variety Shamrock yields over a ton of seed in that acre. Shamrock might get a 4.5 to 5 rating compared to Midnight at 6 to 7. It’s green and covers the ground, but it’s not great aesthetically. With lower seed production, one or more characteristics, such as drought tolerance or color, must be strong enough to merit the extra cost.”
The breeding program also is working with the fine fescues though, as Meyer notes, the current market share doesn’t justify much research. He says, “Tall fescue seed sales run at least 250 million pounds a year; ryegrasses 100 million; bluegrasses 70 million; and fine fescues about 8 million. Yet, the demand for low-input grass will grow. Once established, many of these fescues look very good without fertilizer or irrigation. If we can integrate the right endophytes for both dollar spot and red thread resistance, their performance will be even better.”
Specifics on Meyer’s turfgrass breeding work and national and international outreach during his corporate career and while at Rutgers are detailved on his CV posted on the Rutgers website. It’s currently a 70-page document, last updated in February of 2010. Among the achievements yet to be added is more proof of his highly-productive, cooperator research program. The Turfgrass Breeder’s Association’s prestigious Breeder’s Cup award was presented to Meyer in January of 2012 for his role as lead breeder for the drought-tolerant “Mallard” Kentucky bluegrass cultivar.
Meyer sees strong potential for industry advancement, bubbling with enthusiasm as he discusses the research already underway by former and current students. He points to low-input turf and water efficiencies as two strong areas of growth. He says, “More people want value-added traits in turfgrasses. Advancements in bluegrasses require long cycles. But with the tall fescues, ryegrasses, fine fescues and bentgrass, we can change what we introduce and make an improvement every year. If the work on molecular markers comes to fruition and we can consistently introduce desirable attributes across a species that will have a great impact. Imagine breeding and screening for resistance to stem rust, crown rust and striped rust in bluegrass. I think that is coming. We’re doing some research on it at Rutgers. If a big commercial company would get involved that could be huge. We’d have the turfgrasses to meet needs now and into the future.”
Suz Trusty is a partner in Trusty & Associates, a communications and market research firm in Council Bluffs, Iowa. She has been involved in the green industry for over 40 years. Contact her at email@example.com.