Feature Article - October 2019
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Grounds for Improvement

New Efficiencies Drive Better Maintenance Practices

By Rick Dandes

Advances in agricultural practices, the advent of new technologies and the increasing use of "smart" equipment are some of the main driving forces in sports field management and maintenance today.

Traditional best management practices are changing with the times, said Abby McNeal, field superintendent, operations supervisor/assistant director of parks for the City and County of Denver. "There are a lot more tools and resources that we have started to incorporate into our programs."

Some of those advances, she said, are better technologies and fertilizers, better ways to help create better density in turf, and smarter methods for reducing weed population. "We are doing our best to promote the reduction in all of our herbicides through better chemical management. We are doing weed control in sidewalk cracks and tree rings, and reducing our weed control edge-to-edge within our parks."

McNeal sees her mission as all about growing healthier turf that is safe and playable for anybody who uses it, she said. "So, we use proper mowing, using the right equipment and proper aerification, which we try to do twice a year. Depending on the soil conditions and health of the turf, we ensure that our irrigation systems are functioning properly and that we are using best practices for watering. In Denver, we are allotted so many inches per acre and we have to stay within our water budget."

McNeal's water conservation team helps the district staff by producing a monthly report of water usage, to see where they are in terms of overall usage throughout the year, and to make sure they are staying within the allotment provided.

"Rounding that out is using soil sampling, soil testing, to create a balanced fertility program," McNeal said. "In looking out for sports fields and general turf spaces within parks, they should be managed differently. With all practices, water should be adjusted to the soil conditions, and your fertility should be adjusted according to usage and to promote good turf growth and recovery.

"We've also been taking our better practices used for athletic fields and taking them to other high-traffic areas within the park," McNeal explained. "This versus just treating everything as general park space. That's been the shift.

"Our ultimate goal on any athletic field or on any park space is to create a safe surface, and a uniform surface for everybody," she said. "You don't want anybody to twist an ankle as they are walking."

McNeal's field staff is always on the lookout for problem areas, because "when you are mowing you have a good visual of every square foot of the property," she said. "Also on the lookout are our other maintenance staffers and irrigation technicians, as well as our daily staff that does trash cleanup and park cleanup."

Maintenance Ideas

For a parks and recreation system with multiple sports and recreational spaces you need to know how to maintain all the various surfaces, said Chris Weavil, assistant director of operations, Forsyth County (North Carolina) Parks and Recreation.

Sports turf managers are charged with providing cost-effective, safe playing surfaces for athletes. "The challenge," Weavil said, "is to create a uniformly dense turf cover that provides sure footing and one that is able to tolerate and recover from the extreme wear and tear to which high-use fields are subjected."

Although newer, properly designed fields may be constructed to handle more intense use, he said, many school and community sports fields were built on existing "native soils" that are often less than ideal. These soils may or may not have the best properties for sports field use but in many cases can perform well if managed properly.

Weavil's department operates nine county parks comprising nearly 2,500 acres of parkland and greenspace spread throughout Forsyth County. "Being a county park system," he said, "we provide more passive recreational activities for the citizenry such as open spaces, walking trails, picnic shelters, fishing and nature trails."

Within these passive recreational parks there are also active recreational components that have many different types of sports surfacing, including golf, tennis, softball and baseball fields. "Routine, daily and annual maintenance practices are key to staying on top of all your surfaces," Weavil said. Providing safe and well-maintained areas for the use and enjoyment of your customers is the end goal.

Golf Courses

Golf course turf is a high-maintenance operation, "but this is expected for a golf operation," Weavil said. "For our region we just switched to the Champion Bermuda greens last year. This has made a big change for our staff in terms of maintenance."

Bent greens require frequent watering or syringing during North Carolina summers, sometimes starting in early May all the way through late September, Weavil said. The Champion Bermuda has eliminated the hand watering required by the bent grass, which has freed staff to perform other needed duties. The tradeoff for the maintenance of Bermuda greens versus bent greens has been beneficial.

"We have reduced our water consumption, reduced labor hours during our summers, and we have reduced our chemical budget due to the switch," he said. "We have had to learn how to cover the Bermuda greens in the winter when temperatures dip below freezing and how to dye the dormant greens during the winter months. These trade-offs in labor during our lower play months versus our busy spring and summer season has been well worth the switch. Not to mention the fact that the Champion Bermuda gives us a slightly longer playing season into the fall, which helps our revenues."