CALUMET – While the Big 12 and Southeastern Conferences have begun the annual trash talking about football supremacy, a battle between the powerhouses is currently being played out literally under their feet.
And the Big 12 is winning before even the first football is snapped.
After eight seasons on artificial turf, the University of Arkansas will be installing a new grass field at Razorback Stadium. It's called Tahoma 31, created by Oklahoma State University’s Dennis Martin and Yanqi Wu, both doctors in the Turfgrass Sciences Department.
Tahoma 31 is the chief rival to the “TifTuf” variety of Bermuda created at the University of Georgia – an SEC member.
“It’s the Big 12 versus the Southeastern Conference. The TifTuf is from the University of Georgia and it’s not quite as cold-hardy but ties us in a lot of the charts in the quality ratings. They are our biggest competitor, especially in our market,” said Brad Sherry.
Tahoma 31 is the seventh variety of Bermuda grass released by OSU and is currently being grown for commercial use in Oklahoma by two companies. One of those is Sod by Sherry, with locations in Calumet and on Foreman Road between El Reno and Yukon.
Sherry, a third generation sod farmer, currently runs the operation with his father. Dan Sherry started the company in 1983 with his father-in-law, Virdin Royse.
Sherry said his company was quick to jump at the opportunity to grow Tahoma 31 once OSU completed its trials on the variety.
“We knew this grass was in development for a while and we sought them out. It’s been on the turf trails since it was developed in 2006. After extensive testing, we really liked the way it was proven to use 18 percent less water than its competition turf grasses.
“Less water use and it topped the charts as far as winter hardiness. It had the least amount of winter kill among all the competitors on the turf trials,” said Sherry.
The University of Arkansas is the first major university set to install Tahoma 31 since its release in the past year. That came after the completion of the 10-year-long testing through the National Turfgrass Evaluation Program, better known as NTEP.
Sherry said his company did not grow any of the grass used on the Arkansas field, but can see why it will be popular. The grass for Razorback Stadium is being grown in Memphis, Tenn., and will be installed this week according to the university’s Sports Information Department.
It’s the third time Arkansas has switched back to a grass surface since 1938.
“It’s Oklahoma State University developed grass that is being installed on the University of Arkansas field. It’s on a grid matrix system out of Australia where it’s grown on these large grids and then brought in to where it’s instantly playable.
“They can take grids in and out that they have been growing. We are not quite into that just yet,” said Sherry.
Tahoma 31 growers are licensed by Sod Production Services out of Charles City, Va. There are only 11 producers allowed to grow the varsity in the United States and they are based in Oklahoma, Missouri, Tennessee, Indiana, South Carolina, Texas, New Jersey, Maryland and Virginia.
“It's a grass that likes to be an inch and a half or shorter, so residential yards will work fine and require less water.
“It’s bred to go further north than the typical Bermuda line so it can go into Kansas City, St. Louis or even Maryland and survive the harsh winters, which has always been a challenge,” said Sherry.
Sherry said his company is planning two major installs of Tahoma 31 in the coming weeks.
“We have had some calls from a golf course in Dallas needing 60 acres and that is a lot. We have talked with Westminster School in Oklahoma City. They have sodded their playground before and it has hundreds of kids playing on it. It's high traffic and they want us to sod their play area before school starts.
“We are going to install a semi-load for Hobby Lobby because they want to try it out on one of their campuses on South Council Road. That will be our first install of Tahoma 31 and we are excited about that,” said Sherry.
A breed apart
Sherry said Tahoma 31 growers are excited about the variety because of the way it was genetically designed compared to other Bermuda grasses.
“It’s a Bermuda grass but it’s bred off two different mother plants so it will maintain its DNA species and not variate. Some other types these days will variate within species and the blades will get wider over time and get patchy-looking.
“This is a certified plant and will maintain its same blade look and color. Every plant is genetically the same,” said Sherry.
Tahoma 31’s testing showed it topped out better than other varieties when it comes to how it recovers from high usage situations.
“It topped the charts for divot recovery and that is just like cleats. It’s such a dense grass but it does not get patchy. We have been pounding it with triple 60 fertilizer and have not been worried about the thatch at all,” said Sherry.
Golf courses have taken interest in Tahoma 31, said Sherry, because of its multiple uses.
“They developed it for use on golf courses like a municipal golf course that wants to have one type of grass on its entire golf course. This will be an excellent tee box grass and we are growing it in the sand as a trial in front of my house in Yukon.
“We mow it here (Calumet) at a half inch like you would in a fairway and we are mowing the grass in the sand at a quarter of an inch. On a tee box you can mow it to a quarter of an inch and have the same grass as you do in the fairway. Then you have the same grass on the green at a quarter of an inch,” said Sherry.
The variety’s ability to handle cold weather and grow well in both dirt and sand has increased its early popularity in the golfing circles.
“Most greens are sand-based so we can lift it and sell it for putting green situations to golf courses. You can’t take soil sod to use on greens because it messes with their base and contaminates the 12 inches of sand under the greens.
“It will be good for golf courses because when it’s under freezing conditions, they won't have to tarp their putting greens. It can handle really low mowing heights and still handle the hard freezes we get and still come out green in the spring,” said Sherry.
Sherry has seen firsthand how quickly Tahoma 31 can grow from the amount he’s taken out from his two-acre foundation plot in Calumet.
“The two acres is our foundation plot that came from Oklahoma State. We can grow it from there and take it to other areas. Generally you get coverage in eight weeks but to have the thickness for play ability, we say a full year. The fact it branches out so quickly when it’s broken is what makes it so appealing.
“Every joint is a plant, so every break it just spreads insanely off that. The genetic color of it is a deeper green than our other grasses so I see it needing less fertilizer to have the same color or look better. This grass grows out than up,” said Sherry.
The quick coverage time may have been why the U.S. government chose Tahoma 31 recently to sprig two acres of the Capital Building lawn in Washington D.C according to Sod Production Service's media relations company.
Sherry is currently growing 24 acres of the grass and has plans for more.
“It’s a vegetatively propagated plant. The only way for it to be established is by installation of the roots. We have a machine that rolls it out slowly, shreds it and sprigs it every 2 inches and then presses into the top inch. It takes awhile and we can only do about four acres a day,” said Sherry.
Taking on artificial turf
Tahoma 31 has the potential to be the answer for a growing question among high schools, cities and universities needing new playing surfaces on athletic fields – “Which is better, natural or artificial grass?”
“The problem with artificial turf is that it gets so hot, the field cannot breathe. So in August when they go out to practice, many schools can’t get on their turf fields because it’s too hot. This is natural skin. Sod is the Earth’s skin.
“There is a lot of maintenance cost in keeping turf fields looking right and playable, but the challenge has been getting a turf that can handle week after week of getting pounded with foot traffic. Tahoma 31 is that turf,” said Sherry.
A 1994 graduate of El Reno High School, Sherry recalls his two-a-day drills with the Indians.
“El Reno has a natural surface and I played football on grass and it was great and it was real. I’m a grass guy and there is something about smelling fresh-mowed grass or even wet grass in August.
“I recall two-a-days, some of those memories are good and some bad, but I remember the smell and you don’t get that smell from artificial turf,” said Sherry.
Sherry added El Reno currently has another OSU variety of Bermuda called Rivera, installed at Memorial Stadium. There has been a recent push to replace that grass with an artificial playing surface.
“I promise you if they put artificial turf on the field, come August they will be back in the park practicing. They won’t have two-a-days on the turf because it will be just too hot.
“I think this (Tahoma 31) will be the way to go for schools than artificial turf. This will cost 30 percent less than an artificial turf field and if you have the right manager, it will be better on the players’ ankles and bodies,” said Sherry.
Sherry claims the new variety will be in better shape on football fields later in the year compared to earlier releases.
“It won’t be as dormant in late October and into November like other grasses. We found actual green leaves on the ground last winter in January. It loves colder weather. Tahoma means frozen water in a Native American tongue further north,” said Sherry.
The key will be getting customers to take a chance on Tahoma 31.
“Some big jobs are still a little leery because it’s a huge cost to put in a football or soccer field or even a golf course. They want to get it right and they don’t want to be the guinea pig. But this has been tested in the university and now it’s being tested in the real world,” said Sherry.
Arkansas plays its 2019 season opener Aug. 31, one month after Tahoma 31 is set to be installed.