Pushing the Envelope

Damon Ervie didn't know crabgrass from bluegrass when he got his first job as a groundskeeper at a rural, nine-hole golf course when he was 17 years old.

“It was so far out in the country that most golfers would call it a goat ranch,” says Ervie of the course near his hometown in north-central Missouri. “Basically, I was the seasonal help. I mowed, weeded, fertilized and watered it during the summer months.”

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But Ervie learned a great deal about turf management working various landscaping jobs while moving to different cities with his wife Kathy during her medical training. He developed an interest in sports turf working for Munie Outdoor Services in Jefferson City, Mo., where Kathy began working as a physician's assistant.

“I was a stadium director for the public schools,” says Ervie, who completed community college but primarily taught himself about turf through reading and experimentation. The couple moved to Liberty, Mo., in 1999, and he became facilities director for the Liberty Public Schools. “They had high expectations and were willing to invest in bringing the sports fields up to par. That's when my desire to grow bermudagrass in the Transition Zone began to take hold.”

MIDWESTERN BERMUDAGRASS GUY

Now the president of Advanced Turf Concepts, a company that contracts with school systems and golf courses to overhaul and maintain their sports turf, Ervie has cultivated a reputation as the “Midwestern Bermudagrass Guy.”

“People were sort of scared of bermudagrass when I first came to Liberty,” he says. “But I did a cost-analysis of managing warm-season grasses compared to managing high-profile bluegrass or fescue. I determined that maintaining bermudagrass was about a third of the cost of maintaining cool-season grasses.”

With the blessing of the school system, Ervie began experimenting in earnest. He sprigged the football field with bermudagrass in late May and told the administration the field would be ready by August. “I would have a heart attack trying that now,” he says, “but I was gung-ho at the time, and it worked!”

Ervie purchased a bermudagrass sod shredder for the school system. The machine processes bermudagrass sod into sprigs and Ervie then cuts it into the ground. He has found that bermudagrass sprigs have a 45-percent mortality rate by the time they are harvested and shipped. The sod has soil attached, which helps it thrive during shipping.

SUCCESSFUL SPRIGGING

“By starting out with sod, you also have more flexibility,” he adds. “If you have bad weather, you can roll out the sod instead of sprigging. But we choose to shred and sprig it because it goes farther.”

In addition, the chances of successfully growing bermudagrass are greater with sprigging because the grass adapts to the soil conditions better. With sod, you get a layered effect, where the grass doesn't adapt as well.

“We sprigged the field and flooded it like a rice paddy for two weeks,” explains Ervie. “People thought we were nuts because the field looked like a lake. They called to say there was a water leak or broken sprinklers. But the bermudagrass field grew in nicely and was ready for play within 90 days.”

With all the traffic on the football field — there were 75 events that fall — Ervie knew he had to get cover on the bermudagrass by October. He overseeded with perennial ryegrass for the winter months. But the next spring, he found the ryegrass had overdeveloped into the bermuda and he lost about 40 percent of the field.

“They are developing such drought-tolerant ryegrasses that you can't get them out,” says Ervie. “Our only option at the time was to spray it with a nonselective herbicide or transition the ryegrass out culturally. We intensified fertilization, mowed it as short as possible and reduced irrigation.”

Ervie sprigged two different varieties of bermudagrass that spring. One was a baby bermuda, which he hoped would grow tightly enough that he wouldn't have to overseed the next winter. But once the cleats tore up the turf, it was apparent he would have to overseed again. That winter, Ervie tried annual ryegrass instead of perennial and seeded at much lower rates.

PLAYABILITY VS. AESTHETICS

“A lot of people don't like the looks of annual ryegrass,” he adds. “The perennial looks stronger and healthier. But we were looking more at playability, not aesthetics. Even though the annual worked better, we still had issues with transitioning it out in the spring. I sprayed the annual ryegrass with a nonselective herbicide, but it set back my bermuda again.”

In 2001, Ervie met Jimmy Johnson, a sales rep for Bayer Environmental Science in the Kansas City area. He knew about the company's new herbicide, Revolver, which was undergoing field trials before registration. He agreed to help research the product on his sports fields.

A postemergence herbicide for selectively removing cool-season grasses from warm-season grasses, Revolver contains the sulfonylurea active ingredient foramsulfuron. Now registered for use on tolerant warm-season turfgrasses, including numerous cultivars of bermuda-grass and zoysiagrass, it also controls goosegrass, henbit, and provides suppression of centipedegrass.

TRANSITIONING WITH REVOLVER

Ervie conducted several test plots on his 40-acre practice field at Liberty. “We had three different varieties of bermudagrass: Baby, Quicksand and Tifsport,” he explains. “We watched how each variety reacted to the use of the product. The full rates did an incredible job. The bermudagrass greened up and started to run sooner than areas we didn't treat.

“We also used Revolver on goose-grass, which it really controls. We'd tried everything else until then and the best thing I'd come up with was an intern with a utility knife!”

Once the product received registration in 2003, Ervie used it for transitioning out his football and practice fields with great success. He can't say enough about the Liberty School District for allowing him to conduct experiments and try new grasses. The district is happy the fields were converted to bermudagrass because it lasts longer into the season and is more durable.

BRANCHING OUT

Ervie started his own business in 2004 and left the school system to be a full-time consultant. He and his partner, Rich Farrant, consider themselves entrepreneurs and are negotiating a deal to become the exclusive Midwest suppliers of a cold-tolerant bermudagrass variety called Riviera. Farrant owns five golf courses in the Kansas City area and a sod farm in Topeka, Kan.

“We have worked with the Kansas City Chiefs, the Kansas City Royals, the University of Kansas and many area school systems,” says Ervie. “Once we convert a facility to bermudagrass, I recommend we do the maintenance for a year to make sure the grass grows in properly.

Someone who is willing to take risks, Ervie has ushered in a lot of changes in the way sports turf fields are grown in the Midwest. “Missouri isn't Texas, where they overseed heavily and have no problem transitioning back naturally,” adds Ervie. “We have a totally different climate, so it's taken a lot of experimentation to learn how to grow bermudagrass here. It's an ongoing challenge but definitely worth the effort.”

Debbie Clayton, industry specialist with Tierney Communications (Philadelphia, Pa.), has been writing articles about the turf industry for more than a decade.

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