A perennial ryegrass trial plot at Kansas State University’s Rocky Ford Turfgrass Research Center in Manhattan, Kan. Photo by Andrew Hartsock
Early this year, Chad Allen tweeted out a photograph that had to have been as relatable as it was recognizable for any turfgrass professional who ever dived into the deep end of the National Turfgrass Evaluation Program’s data pool in search of
the perfect turfgrass cultivar.
Allen’s Twitter tableau — taken in the heart of golf’s offseason in Westfield, Ind., where Allen serves as superintendent at The Club of Chatham Hills — featured an open laptop, a screaming-yellow highlighter and a short stack
of printed data tables.
“You really have to know what you’re looking for,” says Allen, a four-year GCSAA member and @BentgrassWizard on Twitter. “I was in the process of looking at NTEP data. Ownership is looking to build two or three golf courses in
the next few years, so I was looking at bentgrass results. It was organized chaos, what I was trying to do — flipping back and forth all the time. If you want to look at genetic color, or how does it do with dollar spot, you’re always
flipping back and forth, making your own spreadsheets, trying to simplify what I wanted to get. Like I said, it was organized chaos.”
If only he’d waited a couple of months.
NTEP quietly released its Turfgrass Trial Explorer Version 1.0 earlier this month and along with it the promise of a kinder, gentler NTEP experience.
“There’s just a lot there,” says Corey Barnes, GCSAA Class A superintendent at Chambersburg Country Club in Chambersburg, Pa., and a 12-year association member who admits to slogging through NTEP’s data dreariness far more during
his time at Horry-Georgetown Technical College than in the years since. “There’s a lot of good stuff there, but I remember my classmates not really understanding it all.”
‘It’s a godsend’
Few could blame them.
As any turfgrass professional worth their weight in clippings likely knows, the NTEP — a cooperative effort of the nonprofit National Turfgrass Evaluation Program Inc. and the USDA — has, for 40 years, developed, coordinated and compiled data
from uniform trials of 17 turfgrass varieties and “promising selections” in the U.S. and Canada. Trials have been conducted in 40 states and six Canadian provinces, evaluating such criteria as turfgrass tolerance to drought, heat, cold
and traffic; color, quality and density; and resistance to insects and disease.
The NTEP’s Turfgrass Trial Explorer features a customizable, user-friendly interface that makes comparing turfgrasses easier than the NTEP website’s approach. Shown are the results of density for three seasons of trials for bentgrass (greens) from 2015-19 in Georgia. The click-sortable table below has top performers shaded in green.
For the end-user, whether home DIYer, plant breeder, researcher or golf course superintendent, it’s a massive amount of info and, until recently, the user-accessible interface was, to put it mildly, unwieldy.
“I spent hours going through it old-school, printing everything out, comparing,” Allen says of his January data deep dive. “This (new interface) would have saved my company a ton of money just on printing. It’s a godsend.”
As Allen alluded, traditionally, traipsing through the NTEP’s turfgrass treasure trove was rather laborious.
A user would first select a species to investigate, then a variable — say, quality ratings, or genetic color, density or drought tolerance — then, depending on the variable, there might be another subvariable to select. Ultimately, the result
would be a static table of results, typically with columns dedicated to the trial’s location and rows for the cultivar. A user wanting to select another variable would have to repeat the process to access another static table. Someone hoping
to look at a cultivar’s suitability for several variables would have to flip between and cross-reference multiple tables to perform a thorough analysis.
Perhaps it’s telling that the NTEP website even has a section dedicated to help in the printing of tables. It suggests opening the printable version, in PDF form, and printing the entire report or selected pages. As a reference point, the entire report
for the latest national tall fescue test is a 125-page document.
The renovation has been more than a decade in the making.
“I’ve had this on my list of things to do since 2010,” says Kevin Morris, executive director of NTEP and an eight-year GCSAA Educator member. “But 2010, 2011 … it wasn’t good economically, and we didn’t have
the money to do anything about it.”
‘Just the beginning’
Here are the same results for the same parameters from the ntep.org website. Note that the image is three tables stitched together; each search would have created one of three tables, and the tables include data from five trial locations — four of which might be irrelevant to the searcher.
In 2017, Eric Watkins, Ph.D., a professor in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Horticultural Science, received a $5.4 million grant from the USDA’s Specialty Crop Research Initiative to study fine fescues. Watkins, who served on
NTEP’s policy committee from 2014 to 2018, used part of that grant to design and build a database of NTEP’s fine fescue data, and that database grew to include NTEP’s other cultivar data as well, along with an improved user interface.
The result is the NTEP Turfgrass Trial Explorer v1.0.
“I’ve been using it myself,” Morris says. “We have a new trial coming up. This would have taken me a lot of time to pore over before. I just ran it. It took less than 20 minutes, what would have taken a few hours before. It is
Morris stresses that it’s still an early version. Data from 2021 trials have not yet been included (that data is still available at ntep.org and should be included in the Explorer by this fall, Morris says), and there are additional features still
to be rolled out.
“It’s Version 1.0. That is just the beginning step,” Morris says. “There are still some things we need to improve, and we have a plan over the next 2 1/2 years to spend another $200,000, mainly in programming time. We have a plan
to add features. Where we’d like to get to, we’d like for you to be able to say, ‘What’s the best drought-tolerant Kentucky bluegrass?’ and it tells you. But we’re a long way from that.”
A screenshot of the same query (bentgrass greens; spring, summer, fall density; Georgia) from a cellphone. The mobile interface is still a work in progress, NTEP’s Kevin Morris says, but it’s still usable.
The Explorer is responsive — it works from a smartphone or tablet (“I cringe just thinking about doing that on my phone the old way,” Allen says) — though Morris cautions that mobile ease-of-use is still a work in progress. And
an app is in the works for home DIYers looking to improve their backyard stands.
But this version of the Explorer — with its customizations for locations, site characteristics and management practices, as well as, crucially, its click-sortable tables and ability to export to Excel-friendly CSV files — should be, as Allen
said, a godsend for golf course superintendents.
“They’re a strong target for us,” Morris says. “They’re educated users. They’re not buying seed all the time, but when they’re buying, they need to have access to the data so they can make informed decisions.
So now we’ve got something, something that works. It’s not perfect, but we want people to try it. Tell us what you can and can’t do with it. What are the glitches? We want to hear from people.”
If Allen’s reaction is any indication, most of what they hear from superintendents will be positive.
“I don’t think the majority of superintendents have a need for it that often, but if you have some renovation plans in the future, or you have a problem area, if you’re looking for stress tolerances … that’s when you need
that NTEP data,” Allen says. “It’s the only resource you have, that NTEP data. Of course, every golf course is a microclimate. You can’t get the exact answer you need. But that’s the holy grail right there, narrowing
it down to two or three cultivars. Then you can talk to people, vendors, other superintendents who are using it. I think they’re on a great path.”
Andrew Hartsock is GCM’s senior managing editor.