Feature Article - November 2002
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Good Groundskeeping

A closer look at innovations and best practices for maintaining high-quality sports fields

By Mitch Martin

Modular turf installation at
Michigan State University's Spartan Stadium

Colleges and universities have a reputation for favoring the sublime over the practical. True to the American spirit, Mark Twain favored practical experience over higher education, writing: "Training is everything. The peach was once a bitter almond; Cauliflower is nothing but a cabbage with a college education."

However, today's universities are becoming more and more practical places of learning and training for grounds maintenance professionals. The college sports turf program is becoming almost as respected as the college football team.

Sports turf programs are providing the function of training academies for future professionals as well as serving the role as research institutions across the country. They are becoming more accessible information sources for the athletic field manager, often through extension offices.

Not matter what your facility, improving outdoor athletic playing surfaces is always a major goal.

Green grass and greenbacks

Of course, almost any sports field could be a superior performer with an unlimited maintenance budget. But since "unlimited budget" is an oxymoron, one constant struggle for field managers is to find the way to get the best field for the least amount of money.


A recent Michigan State University study performed in the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences was designed to provide specific solutions for that challengeā€”at least for sand-based soils with native grasses in a cool climate.

Completed last year, the study was conducted by Lisa Lundberg at MSU's Hancock Turfgrass Research Center under the supervision of MSU crops and soil science professor John "Trey" Rogers III (a.k.a. "The Sultan of Sod") and fellow MSU Prof. James Crum.

"We have so many high schools and park districts across the country that have sports fields with limited budgets and lots and lots of play on them," Crum says. "We wanted to try and quantify what practices were the most effective for the least amount of money."

The study concluded that the best bang for the buck came from applying the same amount of fertilizer, more often. The second most important was increased mowing.

"The idea that these practices are more effective isn't a revelation to anyone," Rogers says. "But what the study does is provide exact numbers for a turf grass manager facing the administrator. The study was aimed to a large extent at the bean counters."


The study was conducted from 1999 to 2001, and half the fields included real game traffic.

The fertilizing changes improved longevity 40 to 50 percent, Rogers says.

The study showed that the increase could be achieved by applying fertilizer nine times a year instead of five.

Rogers says the study showed mowing improved the test fields longevity by 20 to 40 percent. The increase was achieved by mowing twice a week instead of once. Rogers says mowing to a consistent height is important.

Both Crum and Rogers say one easy miscue is to fail to keep up a consistent mowing regime off-season

"Athletic fields are just like athletics," Rogers says. "It's what you do in the off-season that dictates your success during the season."

Crum says the study results might change in other climates, soils or grasses.

"I think what probably would remain the same is that fertility and mowing are the two most important variables across the country," Crum says. "In other parts of the country, exactly how important is what would change."