Feature Article - November 2014
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Take the Field

Managing & Maintaining High-Performing Sports Fields

By Chris Gelbach

Sports fields, be they natural grass or synthetic turf, require ongoing management and maintenance to ensure optimal performance and player safety. Practitioners in the field are seeing the sophistication of these efforts advance in a wide variety of recreational environments.

"In recreation situations, there's been a huge shift in the past five years," said Dean Pearson, assistant turf manager for University of Washington Athletics. "There is a much more scientific, more intensive approach to the way that [natural] turf is managed and the way that synthetic is managed now."

Where parks and rec departments often still fall short, according to Abby McNeal, assistant director of parks for the City and County of Denver, is in planning for sufficient maintenance funds to get the quality of fields they want.

"If you have an 'A' field, you need to put a maintenance program together that a high-level field warrants," McNeal said. "And then you can have an adjusted program for the next tier down or several tiers down. A lot of organizations would rather run one generic maintenance program across all their fields because it saves costs, but it's hard to do that and put out a quality field surface."

The other mistake McNeal sees departments make is in not planning for the future on the synthetic turf side. "If the warranty is for eight years, you need to have the funds in place to replace that field in eight years, even though you may get another few years after that warranty is up," she said.

Maintaining Grass Fields

The good thing about maintaining quality natural turf is that some of the most effective practices are also the simplest. "Eighty percent of turf management is irrigation, fertilization and mowing, and mowing is probably No. 1," said Andrew McNitt, professor of Soil Science at Penn State University and director of its Center for Sports Surface Research.

According to McNitt, the biggest thing any turf manager can do to enhance field quality is to mow often. "We've got data that show that if you're mowing once per week, the best thing you can do for that field is to mow twice per week. If you're mowing twice per week, mow three times per week," McNitt said.

McNitt noted that professional fields are mowed almost every day, and that the field at Penn State's Beaver Stadium is mowed three or four times a week year-round. Mowing frequently can often be a challenge for recreation departments and high schools because of the costs required for manpower, particularly compared to the expense of buying seed and fertilizer. But if it can be managed, it can be a sound investment.

"You need to mow, because everything else we're going to do is going to make the grass grow even faster," said McNitt. "So if you can't keep up with the mowing now, there's no use making the grass grow even faster because you don't have the ability to cut it frequently enough in the first place."

McNitt recommends using a quality mower with sharp, well-adjusted blades, and maintaining the same mowing height throughout the year. A benefit of mowing often is that it allows the clippings to filter down into the turf where they can nourish the grass instead of needing to be removed. "If you remove your clippings all year long, you're probably removing about a third of the nitrogen fertilizer that you put down every year. So, it's really a waste," McNitt said.

Pearson noted that a higher mowing height allows the turf to retain more nutrients and water. "The higher you can mow at and get away with it, the better," he said.

When budgeting, McNeal recommends considering not only what you'll need for grass maintenance throughout the year, but also for renovation once a year, or twice if your budget allows. This includes asking whether you can get by with a good aerification, topdressing, seeding and fertility program to renovate the field, or whether you need to strip it off and resod. "Or maybe it's a combination of both," McNeal said. "That needs to be part of the natural grass maintenance program discussion on the front end."