State turfgrass growers reclaim stable footing
STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Demand for turfgrass in Mississippi is stabilizing as housing starts trend up nationally.
Jay McCurdy, turfgrass specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, said favorable weather, coupled with optimism in the national housing market, is welcome news to the state’s sod growers.
“Recent mild winters have helped stabilize harvestable acreage,” he said. “Increased demand has counteracted an increase in planted acres, but total acreage appears to be similar to that of last year overall. With the exception of high temperatures and isolated drought, the weather has been favorable for production in 2016. The month of June was cooler than average, which isn’t favorable for growing grass, but makes harvesting and caring for it more pleasant.”
The U.S. Census Bureau and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development conduct data on residential construction monthly. Housing starts, or privately owned homes that are under construction, were at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of more than 1.21 million in July compared to just under 1.15 million in July 2015 -- a 5.6 percent increase.
Quantifying the state’s total sod farm acreage is more of an inexact science, as that data is not currently tracked as it is for other agricultural commodities. About 50 Mississippi producers grow turf.
The most common turf species in Mississippi is bermudagrass, with the variety Tifway 419 remaining a top seller. Other bermudagrass varieties available in the Mid-South and Gulf Coast, such as Celebration, Discovery, MS-Pride, MS-Supreme, Tiftuf, TifGrand, Latitude 36, Northbridge and Tifway II. Tiftuf and MS-Pride are popular for their tolerance to drought, while Latitude 36 and Northbridge are noted for their cold tolerance.
The price of bermudagrass has changed little from a year ago, McCurdy said. Certified Tifway costs $1.75 to $2.25 per square yard, and other varieties range from $2.50 to $3.50 per square yard, depending on supply.
Other regularly used turfs include zoysia, centipede and St. Augustine grass.
Zoysia costs range considerably depending upon variety and location, McCurdy said. Meyer, which is the most common and still highly sought after, costs $2.50 to 3.50 per square yard, while Palisades, Zorro, Empire, JaMur and others cost up to $3 to $4.
Wholesale centipedegrass ranges from $2 to 2.50 per square yard, while St. Augustine grass may be as little as $2 per square yard on the Gulf Coast but up to $4 per square yard in northern portions of the state.
McCurdy said labor costs remain the turf industry’s major hurdle.
“Like most on-farm labor, the work is seasonal and highly influenced by weather. Worker protection standards and increasing pay positively affect rural communities, but they are difficult hurdles to overcome for small family sod farms,” he said. ”Labor comprises almost half of costs in many instances. For this reason, sod farms continue to mechanize the harvesting and stacking of sod.”
Barry Stewart, associate professor of turf with Extension and the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station, said insect pressure is also causing issues. Both sod and hay growers are dealing with infestations with armyworms due to a recent lack of rainfall in many areas of the state.
“Sod is one of the few crops that is lush and green in August and sod -- particularly bermudagrass sod -- is a magnet for armyworms,” Stewart said. “Some producers have had to spray their sod multiple times. Some areas have received very little rainfall since early July and have had to irrigate more than normal. Pumping water is not free, so some farmers have had to spend more on irrigation.”
McCurdy and Stewart will give presentations at the Deep South Turf Expo in Biloxi scheduled for Oct. 11-13. Visit http://www.deepsouthturfexpo.org/conference---attendee-details.html for more information about the conference.