Feature Article - February 2013
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Sports Fields in Context

Making the Right Choices in Synthetic & Natural Turf

By Joseph Bush

Water Concerns

Tarantino is interested also in how science can help people in his position. He has had his eye on the work of James Baird, assistant cooperative extension specialist in turfgrass management and assistant turfgrass horticulturist at the University of California Riverside.

Baird says much of his research revolves around an aspect of turf management that currently concerns turf managers in southern California and the Southwest, but is informative to any turf manager who doesn't like to waste water: water conservation and water quality.

"It may not be what every field manager is worrying about at the moment, but ultimately, we are running out of potable water to irrigate turf and landscapes, and we must either manage turf with less water or with poorer quality water that it usually high in salts," Baird said.

"At UCR, we are approaching these challenges from every angle, including: improving turfgrasses to withstand summers with less water, or cool-season grasses, or to retain color during winters, or warm-season grasses; evaluating commercial products for water and salinity conservation; determining the best ways to manage turf using recycled water; and evaluating alternative methods of irrigation including subsurface drip irrigation."

Baird sees his and his department's role as not just developing better methods and grasses but also helping turf managers choose products to maximize their efforts and fields.

"Turf managers are having to produce the same or better turf conditions with diminishing resources, whether that be budget or water," he said. "Our industry has more than its fair share of 'snake oils' or products touted to do or save this or that. One of our jobs at UCR is to help them separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak."

One of the aids managers are using more in Baird's opinion is turf colorant as an aesthetic boost. Its use cuts down on water use and overseeding in the winter. Baird and his team are testing various colorants to gather data to make choices easier for managers.

"We are evaluating several pigments and pigments with resin, sometimes referred to as paints, for aesthetics, longevity and color fastness," he said. "Pigments with resin appear to more popular with end users because of their realistic, or preferred, color and longevity. However, they are more challenging to work with from an operator's point of view because they are closer in consistency to that of household paints and therefore harder on the spray equipment."

Though it's obvious that Baird is a natural turf specialist, he believes there are situations for which synthetic is the answer. Baird lived in New Jersey before California, and observed the way the facility formerly known as The Meadowlands Sports Complex was used.

"Constant use by professional, collegiate and high school teams playing football and soccer, not to mention concerts," Baird said. "They tried the turf module concept to replace worn areas of the field, but ultimately there was just too much use and traffic. Ultimately, it comes down to concentrated traffic. You can't be playing on natural turf 24/7 and expect it to survive."

Baird does not understand, however, why synthetic turf is used in warmer climates.

"The main issue I have with artificial fields, especially in Southern California, is surface temperatures during warmer weather," he said. "I've heard about temperatures approaching 180 degree Fahrenheit or above. These fields must be irrigated with water to cool the surface. So, if the argument in favor of artificial turf is water conservation, I don't see it in our climate."