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Bermuda Grass Makes for Greener Fairways, Fields, Lawns

LAS CRUCES -- The same Bermuda grass that's on golf courses and sports fields in 65 countries will be underfoot on more home lawns, thanks to a research and marketing partnership.

Seed for NuMex Sahara, developed at New Mexico State University, is being sold at mass retailers like Wal-Mart and Home Depot. The certified variety, released by NMSU in 1987, was the first improved, seeded Bermuda grass designed for commercial turf.

"It's easier to seed than it is to sprig, and it's less expensive, especially on large areas, so the seeded Bermuda grasses have caught on," said NMSU professor emeritus Arden Baltensperger, the plant breeder who developed NuMex Sahara after more than a decade of research. "It's also so easy to transport seed rather than sod."

That portability has allowed the durable grass to make its way to golf course fairways in Hawaii, soccer fields in Peru and palace grounds in Saudi Arabia.

"NuMex Sahara has taken me around the world," said Brenda Dossey, vice president for sales with Seeds West, a division of Pennington Seed, which markets the variety under an exclusive agreement. "You name it, if it's the warm, semitropical or tropical areas, they've probably had some."

The U.S. Golf Association has supported research on NuMex Sahara and other promising varieties.

"Bermuda grasses use less water than some of our cool-season grasses such as perennial ryegrass or Kentucky bluegrass," said Mike Kenna, USGA green section research director. "They are just inherently more resistant to disease and insect problems. And they stand up better under the heat and stress during the summer months, particularly in the southwestern U.S."

Over the last 10 years, sales of NuMex Sahara have generated nearly half a million dollars in royalties. NMSU's share will be plowed back into a new turfgrass specialist position for the Cooperative Extension Service, said Jerry Schickedanz, interim dean of NMSU's College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences .

"This is just a good culmination of a partnership with private industry and researchers that I think we'll see more of in the future as we develop more products from applied research, which we do very well at the college," he said.

With NuMex Sahara now available to homeowners, royalties should continue to roll in.

"This is a huge step in what we've done with NuMex Sahara," said Ernie Millner, senior vice president for Seeds West. "We're taking it from mostly professional turf organizations throughout the United States and putting it into mass merchandising around the world."

Compared with common Bermuda grass, NuMex Sahara offers a brighter green color and improved texture. Lawns planted with the uniform, certified seed can be reseeded later without creating patchy spots.

Over the last decade, sales of seeded Bermuda grass have increased from 10 million to 14 million pounds per year, Dossey said. The market is expected to thrive as long as groundskeepers and homeowners want greener grass on their side of the fence.

She credits NuMex Sahara, a pioneering variety, with fueling demand and development of new varieties.

"In 1989, there was one variety of improved, seeded Bermuda turfgrass," she said. "Today, there are over 20 commercial varieties, so it's here to stay."