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UMN Conducts Turfgrass Seed Production Research in Northern Minnesota

Research trials at the Magnusson Research Farm. Photo: Joan Barreto Ortiz; published by permission.

By Eric Watkins, Professor, Department of Horticultural Science, University of Minnesota

My grandfather was born in 1922 near Warroad, Minnesota, on a farm his father had settled shortly before. In the 1930s, a New Deal program called the Beltrami Island Project resulted in the relocation of his family, along with several others, from their property. Some of the displaced stayed nearby, others left. My grandfather’s family, along with their house and barn, moved to Kerkhoven in west-central Minnesota. When I was growing up, my grandfather spoke fondly of his time in Warroad—adventures involving bears grabbed most of our attention. My grandparents would make the trek north to Warroad almost every summer to visit old friends from his youth, pick wild blueberries, and hack their way through the woods to find the foundations of the farmhouse and barn my great grandfather built.

As a turfgrass researcher, I am also a regular visitor to Roseau County, Minnesota, the same county where my grandfather was born. The cold, unforgiving winters combine with just the right amount of daylight and rainfall during the summer to provide an excellent environment in which turfgrass seed can be produced. Grass seed fields now cover vast acreages near Roseau and Warroad. Seed production in this region is somewhere in the range of 30,000–40,000 acres (this still pales in comparison to Oregon and Washington where grass seed production is much higher).

The first major production of grass seed in Minnesota was ‘Park’ Kentucky bluegrass beginning in the mid-1950s. During the 1990s, research at the University of Minnesota resulted in the introduction of perennial ryegrass seed production, which is now the dominant species produced in Roseau and Lake of the Woods Counties. In recent years, we’ve seen some tall fescue seed production and our team at UMN has explored fine fescue seed production.

Each June, researchers from the University put on a grass seed field day where they highlight completed and ongoing research for grass seed growers. The field day is held at the Magnusson Research Farm near Roseau, a facility that provides space for important grass seed production research.

The grass seed producers, represented by the Minnesota Turf Seed Council, are great supporters of research at the University of Minnesota. Research in Roseau has been ongoing for decades, and every year results are summarized in an annual research report; these reports can be found at https://turf.umn.edu/research/seed-production. Turfgrass seed production research at Roseau is currently focused on perennial ryegrass and the fine fescues.

Perennial ryegrass

Perennial ryegrass is a major focus of the research program at Roseau. Led by Dr. Nancy Ehlke and Donn Vellekson in the Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics, researchers work to determine best management practices for perennial ryegrass seed production. Growers are interested in learning more about fertilization, plant growth regulation, and new pesticides. Several UMN-developed cultivars are grown for seed in northern Minnesota, including ‘Arctic Green,’ ‘Green Emperor,’ and ‘Royal Green.’

Fine Fescues

The fine fescues are a group of fine-leaved grasses that do well in shade or sun, and generally have fewer input requirements than more commonly used grasses like Kentucky bluegrass. There are five primary fine fescues: strong creeping red fescue, slender creeping red fescue, Chewings fescue, hard fescue, and sheep fescue. For the past several years, we have been working on a new potential variety of hard fescue we refer to as ‘MNHD.’ In addition to variety development, other ongoing research includes how to best establish hard fescue in northern Minnesota seed fields.

The decades-long collaboration between the turfgrass seed producers and the University of Minnesota has been a true partnership. I look forward to continuing this work and seeing this region continue to have a growing impact on the turfgrass industry.

Editor’s note: Parts of this article were previously published as a blog post at https://turf.umn.edu.