Behind the seeds
Simon Taylor provides an insight into the development of ICL’s grass seed portfolio.
Simon has been working in the grass seed industry since 1986, having just graduated in agriculture. For 23 years, Simon worked in the UK turf seed industry from sales to becoming a company director, followed by 10 years in a more Europe-oriented role and now leading ICL’s turf seed business since 2012.
“My responsibility is for the management of the grass seed program globally. This entails working with key partners in the US and Europe to enable a diverse variety portfolio across all the turf species. Our customers are located throughout Europe and the rest of the world, so we must cater for a wide range of climatic conditions and end user applications. It is our business to offer solutions as part of an integrated package, so by combining the best turf seeds with the latest fertilizer technology we create some of the finest natural sports surfaces in the world.”
“When I started with ICL, the seed portfolio was 100% US origin from the Scotts program. At that time, Scotts sold the professional business rights in Europe to ICL; however, the continuation of the US seeds portfolio came to an end. Over the last 5 years, the portfolio has changed dramatically. Not only have we introduced better varieties, but we have also split the program 50:50 between US and European genetics. This has made for a much more adaptable offering to end users to cope with the challenges they face at ground level. These changes made to our business have seen us consistently grow year on year, which I feel is testament to the quality of our products. This is what I am most proud of.”
Selecting the best new grass cultivars for top all-round performance
So how do we go about developing/selecting the best new grass cultivars? ICL has taken a proactive approach, selecting and trialing a range of new turf grass cultivars across all the major species, and working with private breeders such as Mountain View Seeds in the US and Den Haan Zaden in the Netherlands.
“These partners have brought to the table a host of new possibilities for us. Thousands of individual plant collections are made annually to further diversify the genetic background of the turf breeding program. This, in combination with an exchange of material with the well-known Rutgers University Center for Turfgrass Science in New Jersey, further increases possibilities for new and exciting cultivars. The aim is to develop cultivars that will accommodate a wider range of environmental conditions and be more adaptable across a range of management regimes.”
Turf grasses within the ICL portfolio take positive characteristics from both US and EU genetic sources. In this way, seed blends can be created with a broad-spectrum approach which is essential for dealing with the diversity of regions across Europe. For this reason, varieties are trialed in the Netherlands to not only demonstrate to customers, but also to gain understanding of which varieties are most compatible together to form the best blends for the ProSelect seed range.
“We think we have a handle on climate change, but we certainly do not have a handle on our changing weather and that’s something all turf managers require assurance on, that their seed mixtures and single cultivars can cope with all that is thrown at them. The aim is always to find the best all-round performance: drought and disease resistance, but also adapting to various climates, heavy sport use, and visual attractiveness. There is more and more demand from natural turf surfaces in heavily played sports venues. And they have to look top-notch for TV as well,” says Simon.
“Over my career, the term ‘sustainability’ has reared its head many times. The word itself can mean many things depending on your circumstances. What some people would like it to mean is the cozy feeling of doing our bit for the planet. But if you are managing natural turf on any sports facility, you are connected to a business and so sustainability takes on a different face. It’s about providing the best quality surface as economically as possible while being environmentally responsible. At the end of the day, golf and football players want the best quality turf to play on.”
“From a turf grass perspective, can we make radical changes to make turf grasses more environmentally sustainable? Probably not! Grass breeding is a slow old business. Breeding a new variety can take 10–15 years and the progression of traditional plant breeding only brings small increments of improvement. Where we can make an impact is to have grass varieties with improved disease resistance and therefore less need for fungicide treatment. Equally, we need varieties of greater drought tolerance as the world over, irrigation is becoming a more expensive and restricted commodity. This is where I see the biggest change.”
In the short term, Simon believes it is turf managers and the industry that can make the most change. “The biggest improvements that can be made are on the management side. Having an integrated approach to your turf management means that you’re able to prevent many issues, so you don’t need to apply herbicides and fungicides. Thankfully, understanding turf grass as a plant and its basic needs is improving every day between companies and end users.”
Trialling all species
With so many aspects of turf grass evaluation to take into account, it helps to collaborate with independent national turf trials as well as to have an owned trial program in place. “Love them or loath them, independent national turf trials are essential to evaluate turfgrasses. The American National Turf Evaluation Program (NTEP), is an extremely comprehensive system collecting data across the majority of states but has one single flaw from my point of view, in that it is very much based on evaluation of summer sports. For southern Europe, those turfgrasses fit perfectly into sports stadiums and golf course applications. Of course, when it come to the cooler northern regions with lower light intensities, then the selection criteria need to be completely different, especially for turf under intensive wear.”
Most countries have their own turf grass trial programs which can be used as a reference to turf performance although, according to Simon, there is no substitute to seeing what works best in your situation. “At ICL, we like to work with customers to run on-site trials to see what works best in their situation. In addition to this, we run our own turf evaluation trials in the Netherlands as part of a variety screening program, to see whether a cultivar is worth taking into our portfolio. That means we trial all species and within them all 40–50 varieties, so that’s about 200–300 different variety lines to assess!”
Exciting new grass seed varieties
The trial work forms the basis for Simon to formulate the ProSelect blends to marry up different varieties that will complement each other to create consistently high-performing turf. “Until now, the industry hasn’t seen us as a key supplier of turf grasses. I think that’s because there are long-established companies in the market that have had a history and brand presence for over decades. We’re really only here for the last 10 years. This is where ProSelect comes in. Take a look at our portfolio—you might be pleasantly surprised to discover exciting new varieties that will exceed your expectations.”