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State's sod farms manage cold, wet and then hot, dry
MISSISSIPPI STATE – The lingering recession continues to impact Mississippi’s turfgrass industry with total sod acreage down as a portion has been switched to row crop production until the economy improves.
Wayne Wells, Mississippi State University Extension Service turf specialist, said the state has about 4,500 acres of turf and about 50 sod producers. The largest producers each have about 300 to 500 acres of turf production.
“Sod production hinges on construction, so with new home sales at their slowest since 1963, our sales are down some, too,” Wells said. “Many of our larger sod producers have some diversity in their farming operations, and when they saw home construction slowing, they put some of their acreage into soybeans and corn.”
Sod farms are located near metropolitan areas, so the bulk of the state’s sod farms are in north Mississippi near the Memphis and Southaven markets, in the Jackson area and near the coast. Small sod farms sell mostly within a 50-mile radius, while larger farms distribute their product as far as 150 miles.
“Mississippi can grow just about any of the major warm-season grasses, such as Bermudagrass, zoysia, centipede and St. Augustine, and the northern tier of the state can do a little bit with the cool-season grasses, such as turf-type tall fescue,” Wells said.
The cold winter was hard on the state’s turf, particularly St. Augustine, which is one of the more sensitive grasses grown in the state. Wells said the cold and wet weather set back grass growth and delayed harvest, but sod producers overcame that challenge with good management.
“St. Augustine and special golf greens cultivars of Bermudagrass had to be replaced in some places, and that helped sales in the first part of the year,” Wells said. “You don’t have to replace sod very often due to winter injury, but when temperatures hit single digits, you do.”
The wet spring also presented disease challenges, from spring dead spot in Bermudagrass in the northern part of the state to leaf blight later in the season. Fall armyworms were causing problems as early as June, and producers were spending money recently treating for white grubs.
The exceptionally hot and dry summer meant sod farms had to manage irrigation carefully, both for good growth and to moisten the soil so sod could be harvested.
Paul Battle of Battle Sod Farm in Tunica is also president of the Mid-South Turfgrass Council, which serves growers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee and Missouri. For the past 10 years, his large sod farm has grown a variety of warm- and cool-season grasses.
“The heat has been a challenge, but the warmer season grasses can handle the heat if you have irrigation,” Battle said. “My experience with Bermuda and zoysia is that when it gets hot, you can really push the grasses quicker to harvest.”
The switch from cold weather and too much water to high temperatures and very little rain was tough. He said the excess spring rain was a problem, and he had to manage some disease problems because of it. In response to the poor economy, he reduced his sod acres and does not project business to increase soon.
“Sales have probably been about the same as last year, which was down about a third from what it was a few years ago,” Battle said.
While sales are slow, recent sod prices have held fairly steady. Sod sells by the square yard, and Wells said Bermudagrass brings $1.25 to $1.50; zoysia, $2.25 to $3; centipede, $1.50 to $2; and St. Augustine, $3 to $3.50.
“While supply and demand influence pricing, cost of production factors, such as the length of time to produce the crop, royalties paid on patented cultivars, and fertilizer and supply costs, also affect pricing,” Wells said.