Feature Article - November 2015
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Innovation, Conservation & Training

The Latest Trends in Grounds Management

By Chris Gelbach

Sports Field Maintenance Offers Challenges, Opportunities

When it comes to sports turf, grounds managers nationwide are facing the same two key issues. "Overuse and lack of resources are the two biggest challenges currently," said Allen Johnson, fields manager for the Green Bay Packers and president of the Sports Turf Managers Association (STMA), who sees these same concerns across all the different sectors of the STMA's membership.

The problem has only gotten worse as a growing variety of sports become popular and compete for use of the same fields. To deal with this issue, more managers are turning to synthetic turf fields, an approach that Johnson sees as appropriate in situations where space restrictions are acute and fields face extreme use. But in other cases, he sees the problem as initiating with the lack of care taken in installing the initial grass field.

This often happens when a new school is built and the area around it is used for sports fields, according to Johnson. An area around it is cleared, grass seed is put down, and it gets mowed and declared a sports field. But because the native soil holds water, the field experiences issues.

"They think it's a failure of a natural grass field, but they never really gave a good natural grass field a chance," Johnson said. "They used native soil and it didn't drain. It's more of a drainage issue. So they put in a synthetic field with good drainage, and that's how they solve it. But they never gave a good natural grass field with good drainage a chance."

He also sees people looking at synthetic fields and natural grass differently. "A synthetic field has a life expectancy, and no one will give a second thought to taking a synthetic field and replacing it when it's time," Johnson said. "But with natural turf, they think it's grass and it should grow back. And if it can't keep up with the wear, they think it's a failure, rather than thinking they can just take that part out and replace it."

In reality, resodding these areas is becoming increasingly commonplace as a way to overcome the usage limits of natural turf. Lambeau Field has very limited use outside of game days, so Johnson doesn't need to resod there. But for his NFL peers who manage the grounds of outdoor stadiums that have heavier event schedules, resodding has become a normal maintenance practice. "When something wears out, it's as common as fertilizing where you just tear out that worn-out sod and you put in new stuff," Johnson said.

While resodding an entire field can prove expensive, Johnson recommends that school districts and other entities consider devoting additional resources to their maintenance budgets to address highly worn areas. "They could easily sod in the middle of a football field midseason or late in the season—it's not that expensive."

To do this successfully, Johnson recommends developing a relationship with a local sod farmer who produces high-quality sod and discussing with them what kind of product you'll need and what your expectations are.

Johnson also has seen a variety of new technologies contribute to the increased success of natural turf in demanding conditions. His peers who resod at midseason, for instance, benefit from improved equipment that can install the new sod more gently and tightly than the large crews with pitchforks that once handled the task.

Equipment that allows for effective fraise mowing—the mechanical removal of almost all of the grass surface while leaving a little bit of plant to regrow—is another increasingly common tactic for improving field quality. "I take all the grass off probably every other year on the practice fields and every year on Lambeau as a way to remove organic matter," Johnson said. "If you let the grass get too thick and too thatchy or an organic layer starts to build up, it can adversely affect the footing."

As concussion awareness increases, testing of fields for hardness is also happening with greater frequency and ubiquity. "The NFL has basically mandated that all the fields be tested for hardness before each game," Johnson said.

This, in turn, has placed a greater focus on proper aeration. "Before, they might aerate for the needs of the grass plant; now it's more to relieve compaction and keep the fields from becoming too hard," Johnson said. Improved aeration equipment that injects high volumes of air into the soil to aerate it and relieve hardness is another innovation contributing to greater success in this area.

While some of these practices may seem impractical budget-wise for school districts and other entities, Johnson recommends that neighboring communities work together to pay for equipment that may seem expensive as a standalone purchase, but that could be easily shared. A Clegg hammer for testing field hardness and aeration equipment are a few examples.

"You see cooperation between small communities that can't afford their own fire department or police department," Johnson said. "Why can't that extend to things like school maintenance? You're not aerating your sports fields every day. Anything that's used maybe twice a month or less could be shared for sure."