Harvesting Kentucky bluegrass
- Story and photos
-by Mardi Ford
Bluegrass is a funny thing. It's not very forgiving sometimes," says Bill Merrigan of Blue Mountain Seeds.
He's seen some fields hold onto a grudge after uneven fertilization or watering mishaps.
"Four or five years later, you still see the difference in the field," he says.
So, if Kentucky bluegrass was a woman, would she be considered the high maintenance type?
"Actually," Merrigans says, grinning, "that might not be a bad way to put it."
High maintenance or not, Kentucky bluegrass must have some forgiveness in her heart. The 2007 harvest, Merrigan says, "was better than we deserved, considering the ergot (a fungus) and how dry it is."
Fighting disease and drought (no pestilence, yet) has definitely had an impact on grass seed farmers, Merrigan says. Some may plant wheat instead to take advantage of that commodity's currently high market value.
"You can't blame 'em," he says. "We might not plant as many acres of bluegrass as we have, but a lot of growers will stick it out Â— stick to the rotation. Grass seed has made these growers a good living."
In 2006, Union County grass seed was the fourth-ranked single commodity in the county's more than $57 million agriculture industry, and generated more than $6.5 million dollars in sales, according to Oregon State University.
The National Agricultural Statistics Service reports that in 2006, grass seed ranked third behind cattle and nursery products on Oregon's list of top 40 commodities, with a value of more than $481 million dollars.
Annually, Oregon's grass seed industry produces 60 percent of all temperate-climate grass seed varieties for the U.S. and world markets. Kentucky bluegrass is one of the six main temperate-climate grass seed varieties. And Northeast Oregon leads the state in bluegrass seed production.
For 2006, statistics show Union County planted 6,100 acres of Kentucky bluegrass and Umatilla County planted 6,120 acres for a combined Northeast Oregon total of
12,220 acres. As a single county, Central Oregon's Jefferson County led with 7,360 acres. The only other county in the state to produce Kentucky bluegrass in 2006 was Marion County, which planted 1,500 acres of bluegrass.
Kentucky bluegrass has been called America's grass and the Cadillac of turf. Although she might be high maintenance, the variety is not all style and no substance.
Although Kentucky bluegrass prefers a lot of water, with periodic smatterings of precipitation to keep the crowns alive, it will survive extended drought by going dormant. Then, after significant rainfall or irrigation, it can recover quickly.
In fact, due to its ability to withstand damage, a 19th-century author defined bluegrass as the "constant benediction of nature."
That author, U.S. Sen. John James Ingalls, Kansas, also wrote this:
"One grass differs from another grass in glory. One is vulgar and another patrician. ... Some varieties are useful. Some are beautiful. Others combine utility and ornament. The sour, reedy herbage of swamps is baseborn. Timothy is a valuable servant. Redtop and clover are a degree higher in the social scale. But the king (or queen) of them all, with genuine blood royal, is Blue Grass."
Some historical records says bluegrass was brought to the colonies by early European immigrants for their animals nearly 400 years ago. Others believe it may be native to some regions of the U.S. But wherever it came from, in the 21st century Kentucky bluegrass grows in nearly every state in the nation.
For these reasons, Kentucky bluegrass has long been the industry standard of quality, texture, color and longevity. In 1970, the Plant Variety Protection Act was established to encourage the development of new plant varieties by providing exclusive marketing rights to owners.
Since then, more than 2,700 Certificates of Protection have been issued for a wide variety of crops Â— more than 100 of them new varieties of Kentucky bluegrass.
Dave Nelson, director of the Oregon Seed Council, says the Plant Variety Protection Act brought a much-needed wave of development and improvement to the grass seed industry.
"Rye grass, for example, was developed to look more like Kentucky bluegrass while retaining its own resistance to heat," he says. And with a
seven-day germination rate, rye grass is tough competition for Kentucky bluegrass's 21-day germination rate.
But even with the improvements of hardier varieties bred to look like Kentucky bluegrass, Nelson says there is no danger of a lack of market for the industry standard.
"Kentucky bluegrass is the standard of visual amenity Â— a beautiful turf," he says. "Although there may be a broader demand for an economy car, there will always be demand for a Cadillac."
But as with any variety, bluegrass also has it's weak points Â— one of which is its susceptibility to disease. Like ergot, for example.
Ergot is an old enemy making a comeback in Union County. Though it's advance has been progressive over the past several years, outbreak this season is the worst many have seen.
Ergot (Calvicepts purpurea) is a species of fungus that affects grasses and cereal grains. Its documented history dates to the Middle Ages.
USDA Plant Pathologist Steve Alderman says ergot over winters in the soil. Spring germination requires moisture, but even dry conditions only halt the process. When moisture is again present, germination continues.
Once a plant is infected, Alderman says, spores mix with plant sap developing a sticky excretion called "honey dew" that forms droplets on the infected flower parts. Next, the fungus develops black sclerotia (ergot bodies) that actually replace the seed head Â— a devastating impact to the yield.
Harvesting and seed cleaning processes are sticky, time consuming, repetitive and costly. Any hope of a sale of post-harvest residue for livestock supplemental feed is also lost. Ergot contaminated grass is highly toxic if ingested.
Control methods for ergot under research include field burning, fungicides, biological controls and changes in irrigation and row spacing. According to Alderman, open burning and composting have shown the best results.
"We thought ergot was suppressed," says Nelson, "but with the changes in field burning it eventually crept back into the fields from the ditch banks."
Merrigan, however, is slow to blame ergot's significant increase solely on the reduction of open burning.
"We've talked a lot about that and think that could be a big part of it. But who really knows Â— it could be the wet, it could be the cold," he says. "Like everything else in nature, it could just be cyclical. It's probably a combination. But it makes you wonder what we have to look forward to next year."