Technological Advances for Turfgrass Management a Focus of New Faculty Member

Wendell Hutchens, assistant professor of turfgrass science, uses drones in his research on turfgrass at the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station.
Fred Miller

Wendell Hutchens, assistant professor of turfgrass science, uses drones in his research on turfgrass at the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station.

Drones and GPS technology are some of the emerging tools in the treatment of turfgrass diseases, and Wendell Hutchens hopes to find the best uses for these technologies in his new role with the turfgrass research program at the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station. 

In August, Hutchens joined the experiment station, the research arm of the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture. He will teach courses through the Dale Bumpers College of Agricultural, Food and Life Sciences at the U of A and conduct outreach work through the Division of Agriculture's Cooperative Extension Service.

In the coming years, Hutchens will begin projects to develop pest maps using drone imagery. It will expand on what he studied while earning his doctoral degree at Virginia Tech University. Pest maps can be used with GPS-guided autonomous sprayers. An operator drives the sprayer while the onboard computer tells the nozzles to spray in places indicated by the map. 

In Virginia, Hutchens used drones and remote-sensing technology to build disease maps on spring dead spot in bermudagrass. The pest maps can be used to treat site-specific symptomatic areas and predict where diseases and pests occur from year to year. Research from his colleagues revealed that these technologies might reduce fungicide inputs by up to 65 percent for the same level of disease control as compared to without the maps. 

"We want to manage turfgrass diseases as efficiently as possible with as little input and with optimum control," said Hutchens, assistant professor of turfgrass science. 

Hutchens is currently collaborating with doctoral student Daniel O'Brien on his research about wetting agents. Mike Richardson, professor of horticulture with the experiment station, is also working on that project. 

Wetting agents treat a localized dry spot, which is a dead or struggling patch of turfgrass because the soil is hydrophobic. The wetting agents are intended to help make soil more hydrophilic, so the soil will better absorb water. 

Wetting agents are not regulated like fungicides, herbicides or insecticides, however. The researchers therefore want to determine proper application intervals and rates of wetting agents, the differences between wetting agents and clear definitions of their active ingredients, Hutchens said. 

"We're just trying to really break it down to the simplest level and understand wetting agents at their core," he said. "That's something that surprisingly hasn't been thoroughly researched in turf yet, and it has been needing to be done for years." 

Hutchens is also collaborating on research to define application rates and timing for demethylation inhibitor (DMI) fungicides, which prevent the growth of fungi and control multiple turfgrass diseases. 

There are eight to nine commonly used DMI fungicides that are highly effective, Hutchens said. Turf managers apply DMI fungicides mainly during non-stressful weather periods for the turfgrass, which vary depending on whether turfgrasses are warm- or cool-season. For example, creeping bentgrass, a cool-season grass, experiences its stressful period in the summer. Incorrect fungicide application can cause the turfgrass to turn off-color and become unable to survive harsh temperatures. 

The research hopes to identify the critical point at which turf managers need to stop applying as the stressful period approaches. 

"It's a balancing point," Hutchens said. "Our models will help a turfgrass manager know both when to spray and when not to spray, which is just as useful either way you look at it."

Hutchens said he did not expect to do research when he first began his education in turfgrass. He enjoyed the internships that put him in the business with turf professionals, but he found he also wanted to solve major problems the turfgrass industry was facing. 

While he was at North Carolina State University, Hutchens realized that conducting research was one avenue to finding solutions. As a researcher, he said, he has the time and infrastructure to go in depth to find answers. 

"I really wanted to help people in my career," Hutchens said. "By doing research you can help people with their jobs, and potentially help them keep their jobs by helping them solve real-time disease and pest issues on their turfgrass. Research and extension allow me to give growers solutions to challenging problems."

Wayne Mackay, the Horticulture Department head, is excited that Hutchens has joined the department.

"His expertise brings new and exciting avenues in the turfgrass management research program," Mackay said. 

Richardson said he also feels delighted to work with Hutchens in the turfgrass program. 

"His background and expertise in turfgrass pathology is going to add a much-needed dimension to our research, teaching and extension efforts," Richardson said. "I know our students and industry stakeholders are going to greatly value his work." 

Hutchens received his bachelor's degree in turfgrass management in 2015 and a plant pathology master's degree in 2018, both from North Carolina State University. He received his doctorate in plant pathology from Virginia Tech University in 2022. 

Hutchens said he feels very welcomed by the faculty in Arkansas. 

"There are good people wherever you go, and I've definitely found them here," Hutchens said.

To learn more about Division of Agriculture research, visit the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station website: aaes.uada.edu. Follow on Twitter at @ArkAgResearch. To learn more about the Division of Agriculture, visit uada.edu. Follow us on Twitter at @AgInArk. To learn about extension programs in Arkansas, contact your local Cooperative Extension Service agent or visit www.uaex.uada.edu

About the Division of Agriculture: The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture's mission is to strengthen agriculture, communities, and families by connecting trusted research to the adoption of best practices. Through the Agricultural Experiment Station and the Cooperative Extension Service, the Division of Agriculture conducts research and extension work within the nation's historic land grant education system. The Division of Agriculture is one of 20 entities within the University of Arkansas System. It has offices in all 75 counties in Arkansas and faculty on five system campuses. The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture offers all its Extension and Research programs and services without regard to race, color, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, religion, age, disability, marital or veteran status, genetic information, or any other legally protected status, and is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Employer.

Contacts

Brittaney Mann, administrative specialist I
Agricultural Communication Services
479-575-6368, bamann@uark.edu

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