Ryegrass cultivar surprises growers

Mitch Lies/Capital Press Hagen, Fred and Burkhart Ledeboer discuss the benefits of a new spreading perennial ryegrass that Fred developed through traditional breeding methods. Ledeboer Seed Co. recently received a utility patent on the growth habit.

Ledeboer: Spreading perennial ryegrass offers advantages

By MITCH LIES

Capital Press

AURORA, Ore. -- What Fred Ledeboer originally thought was plant contamination could turn out to be a dramatic breakthrough in perennial ryegrass breeding.

Ledeboer in the spring of 2003 noticed what he thought was bentgrass contamination in his perennial ryegrass breeding plots.

"It had growth habits similar to bentgrass," Ledeboer said. "But then I got out my hand lens and studied the characteristics and found out they weren't bentgrasses," he said. "They were ryegrasses."

The discovery shocked Ledeboer and re-routed his breeding work.

"I knew I had something that in my 50 years in the business I had never seen before," said Ledeboer, 79.

"Just how big of a discovery it was, I didn't know at the time," he said.

Ledeboer today believes the discovery is the biggest breakthrough in perennial ryegrass breeding since the advent of turf-type perennial ryegrasses more than 40 years ago.

The spreading perennial ryegrass has several advantages over conventional perennial ryegrass, according to Ledeboer. It establishes quickly at half the seeding rate of standard perennial ryegrass, creates a dense stand that outcompetes weeds, holds its color longer than traditional ryegrass and can be mowed lower than most grasses.

"It is satisfyingly rich in color, has great density and great uniformity with no extra management," Ledeboer said.

Where a mature stand of perennial ryegrass will have between 4,000 and 5,000 tillers, or shoots, per square foot, the Ledeboer spreading ryegrass will have 10,000 to 11,000 tillers, said Fred's son, Hagen, a partner in Ledeboer Seed Co.

The recommended seeding rate for the spreading perennial ryegrass is 3.5 pounds per 1,000 square feet, or about half the industry standard of 6 to 8 pounds per 1,000 square feet, Hagen said.

In sod, the seed removes a huge obstacle by allowing farmers to produce sod without netting, Hagen said.

The variety also yields well for seed growers, Hagen said, averaging better than 1,800 pounds per acre. And the Ledeboers are paying a premium for the crop, Hagen said.

The significance of the Ledeboers' advancement is up for debate. Skeptics say the grasses have yet to show they can tolerate heat, plant diseases and other factors that can shorten a lawn's life and mar its appearance. But it is clear the industry is interested in a spreading ryegrass.

Barenbrug USA, for example, recently started advertising a perennial ryegrass that regenerates through pseudo-stolons -- the same spreading technique utilized by the Ledeboers.

The Ledeboers obtained their utility patent March 31. It is, according to Fred Ledeboer, the first and only utility patent issued for an open pollinated turf-type perennial ryegrass.

Unlike plant patents, which protect from variety infringement, a utility patent protects a plant's growth habit.

The patent is the culmination of 30 years of breeding, Fred said.

"It was a new combination of genes coming together and staying together as a group that made this happen," Fred said.

The Ledeboers used traditional breeding techniques in the hundreds of polycrosses they made over the years to arrive at the two dozen or so varieties they now are working with.

The company worked for two years with plant science patent attorneys in Colorado to obtain the patent, Hagen said.

"It's an incredible process to get a utility patent," he said.

The Ledeboers are in their second year of commercially producing their seed. They already are seeing a high level of interest.

"We don't have enough seed," said Hagen's brother, Burkhart Ledeboer, who also is a partner in the business.

"We're expanding production because of demand," Fred Ledeboer said.

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