MSU hits zinger with Flagstick: New turfgrass to improve golf courses, reduce environmental impacts

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Joe Vargas led the efforts at MSU Hancock Turfgrass Research Center to develop Flagstick which has resistance to dollar spot. (view larger image)

EAST LANSING, Mich. – A 20-year search for a turfgrass resistant to the most common disease afflicting golf courses in Michigan and throughout the northeastern United States has finished on an upswing. A team of Michigan State University (MSU) turf experts has released a new cultivar called Flagstick, which has shown resistance to dollar spot in long-term field trials conducted at MSU and at several other locations across the country.

Dollar spot is a foliar disease named after the silver-dollar-shaped patches of dead grass and silvery film left in its path. Caused by a fungal pathogen, the disease is a top concern for golf course managers in northern areas who rely on creeping bentgrass and annual bluegrass for putting greens and fairways.

According to the American Phytopathological Society, more money is spent worldwide on the chemical control of dollar spot than on any other turfgrass disease.  

MSU plant, soil and microbial sciences professor Joseph M. Vargas is the lead researcher in developing Flagstick. He said the new turfgrass cultivar provides a tool to control dollar spot, lower disease management costs and reduce the environmental impact of fungicides.

“Most of the fungicide applications throughout the season in the Northeast and Midwest are for control of dollar spot. Last year in Michigan, if it was not for dollar spot, very few fungicide applications would have been applied to golf courses,” Vargas said. “Golf courses usually spend about 40 to 50 percent of their fungicide budgets on controlling dollar spot. It’s a disease that can’t be tolerated because, if you let it go, it will spread and eventually destroy your turf.”

The new cultivar is being embraced by the golf course industry, said Gordon LaFontaine, executive director of the Michigan Turfgrass Foundation.

“Flagstick is a tremendous new turfgrass,” LaFontaine said. “The industry spends so much on spraying for dollar spot on golf courses. This cultivar will make a world of difference. Having a dollar-spot-resistant cultivar on golf course greens, tees and especially fairways—encompassing acres of turf—will likely result in financial savings to golf courses as well as reduced environmental impact from fewer fungicide applications.”

Cultivar development began about 20 years ago when Ron Detweiler, a technician in Vargas’s lab, noticed patches of grass devoid of dollar spot at the MSU Hancock Turfgrass Research Center. Using grants from the Michigan Turfgrass Foundation and Project GREEEN, Vargas and his colleagues sampled the grasses and established small plots of them at the research center.

In 2003, Vargas and his team partnered with Seed Research of Oregon, a subsidiary of Pickseed USA, to continue testing the cultivar through the National Turfgrass Evaluation Program at various state universities around the country. After 12 years of trials, Flagstick emerged as the first highly resistant turfgrass cultivar.

“Most of the best discoveries are made through observation,” Vargas said. “The best place to look for disease resistance is in the middle of a big outbreak. Developing a dollar-spot-resistant cultivar has been a major research focus at a number of universities for the past 20 years. The fact that we at MSU were able to come up with it is very fulfilling.”

Flagstick is a cultivar of creeping bentgrass, a species of turfgrass preferred by golf courses for its versatility. It grows well in a wide variety of soils, is among the most winter-hardy turfgrass species and can maintain good cover even when mowed to 0.1 inch or less, as on most putting greens.

Pickseed USA has produced 4,000 pounds of Flagstick for the 2015 season, with larger quantities expected to be available for distribution in 2016.

The work of Vargas and his team is funded in part by MSU AgBioResearch.


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