Making the Most of Your Sports Fields
By Kelli Anderson
By all accounts, sports turf managers are facing a tough season. With tighter budgets, Mother Nature's inclement-curve-balls and communities clamoring for longer playing seasons, sports turf managers are called upon to do the near-impossible: produce safe, beautiful sports fields with fewer resources and in less time.
"I've seen it all, and the problems are the same," said Abby McNeil, out-going president of the Sports Turf Managers Association (STMA). "Overused fields don't get a break, and they still have to be a safe surface. I went from Division III to Division II, and I still have to prioritize things. We're all stretched too thin and are faced with doing more with less."
Ironically, the difficulties resulting from the global economic downturn and tougher climate conditions are greatly responsible for producing smarter, more efficient solutions for the challenges facing today's sports turf managers and groundskeepers. While many of the components of sports field maintenance remain the same—
aeration, irrigation, fertilization and regular inspection to name a few—the way they are being done thanks to technological advances in the industry and the influence of best-practices teaching is saving money and time, and yielding better results.
Regardless of sport field—soccer, golf, football or baseball—compaction is often the biggest perennial problem. Although the wear patterns differ in each sport, the injuries resulting from these hardened surfaces and the damage to turf are a common concern.
Aeration—introducing air deep into the soil and root levels—is the key. If done right, aeration not only softens the soil but will reduce weeds, prevent runoff and even rain-outs, thereby reducing the need for and cost of herbicides, irrigation and lost revenue from missed games. And while aeration's importance may be common knowledge, it is a vital player missing in many groundskeepers' lineup or, if used, is misunderstood and misapplied.
"One of the greatest misconceptions for 30 years is that pulling plugs is aeration," said Paul Gillen, president of the Sports Turf Association based in Ontario, Canada. "The definition of aeration is getting air into the soil, and the only way to do that is with water."
While Gillen is quick to point out the good purpose and benefits of coring (to be used in top dressing, over-seeding and thatch removal), he explains that bringing oxygen into the soil to the root levels is best accomplished with vent tining. Vent tining enables water to infiltrate the compacted surface of the turf, percolate down deep into the soil and to create a vacuum that pulls oxygen down into the soil after it. It strengthens the root systems, growing them deeper, and improves their ability to take in water and nutrients.
"This past year we used a venting tine between 4 and 6 inches to get nutrients right down to the roots and reduce compaction," said Kristopher Myers, superintendent of parks and recreation in Bellefontaine, Ohio. "With the venting tine you can play on it right after. Compaction was a big issue for us—a lot of parks have this problem. It's one of my favorite pieces of equipment because you can get in there, aerate and still play."
But breaking up compacted soil is not limited to one approach. According to McNeil, using a variety of methods is better in the long run. And others agree. "The most underutilized of best practices is aeration," said Jerad Minnick, sports turf manager for the Maryland Soccer Foundation's Maryland SoccerPlex of Germantown, and previous groundskeeper for the Kansas City Royals. "Without water roots can't grow. It's a matter of needing to open up the soil, and there are so many ways to do that now that money and time aren't an excuse. Just do anything to get water down."
Soil conditioners, for example, are especially useful for skinned infields and boast a myriad of benefits including reducing compaction, minimizing bad hops, and preventing rainouts and wet spots. They can work magic on turf as well. While initially costly, soil conditioners turned into the soil can last for decades and pay for themselves over time in reduced labor and traditional equipment/methods costs.
Pulling plugs in the spring and fall and top dressing the soil with a more porous, nutrient-rich material is also a great way to correct poor soils over time and to break up compaction nearer the surface.
Using a combination of methods efficiently—coring in the spring and fall to top dress, vent tining throughout playing seasons to loosen and aerate, and applying soil conditioning products where most needed—produces effective results.
And when it comes to best practices, efficient, effective results are the name of the game. Gone are the days when most can afford the costly blanket methods of irrigation and the application of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. A more targeted (read: smarter, not harder) approach is possible today thanks to an upswing in technological advances over the past 10 years.
With water ranking high in today's conservation-minded world, advances in irrigation systems and strategies mean that sports fields can still look their best at a fraction of the cost. GPS systems, initially used in the agricultural industry to identify areas of crops most in need of nutrients and water, are now being used along with a host of other options—rain sensors, computerized smart control systems and irrigation controllers or clocks to name a few—to help better manage recreational spaces as well.
For the Minnesota Twins' newest groundskeeper overseeing the construction of the Target Field baseball stadium in Minneapolis, water conservation and cost savings was definitely part of the game plan. Reclaimed water from two enormous underground cisterns will be used to wash down stadium seats, to water the warning track and ultimately, if proven safe, to irrigate the outfield as well.
"Cost savings for water is everywhere," said Larry DiVito, groundskeeper for the Twins. "I'm a big proponent of having an irrigation clock set at 'zero.' It takes time to reset every day but the worst thing is to set it for a week and forget about it. It wastes water. I program it after assessing the weather, and it allows me to decide how much water to put on the field."
For those dealing with larger complexes and multiple fields, however, a hands-on approach becomes impractical. Setting and resetting clocks by hand can be time-consuming, costly and ineffective. Rain sensors, however, are one tool that can save time and money.
"One of the biggest problems is irrigation—you've got to be on top of things," said Jerry Nelson, grounds manager for 18 years with Macalaster College in St. Paul, Minn. "You can't let the ground get too wet. It not only costs more, it's just not good for the turf. I'm seeing a lot of people getting rain sensors. We've had them 15 years, and it's paid for itself many times in a hurry."
Going more high-tech still, newer smart control systems with centralized computer controls can automate just about every aspect of the irrigation process over a wide-ranging area, taking much of the guesswork and manual labor out of the equation. Recognizing their uber-effectiveness, states like California are about to mandate shifts to smart control systems. With the passing of California Bill 1881, other states are sure to look to their lead as droughts and diminishing water supplies become more and more problematic around the country.
For the public works department in Novato, Calif., the cost-effectiveness of a smart control system made its selection for their area a no-brainer. "We have so little water and try to manage it as best we can," said Bill Johnson, parks maintenance supervisor for the city's public works department. "Most systems don't put down the right amount of water—they use much more than they need. I like our system because it takes a lot of the guesswork out for our guys on five major sites. It calls in every day and plugs in the amount of water based on all the factors."
The Novato Water District, convinced of the smart system's value savings in their long-range budget, purchased the system for the city. For many turning to this higher-tech irrigation alternative, the savings in labor costs and a reduction of 30 percent water usage per year pays for a system within two years.
Money-saving strategies are not lost on those cutting costs on, well, cutting, either. Keeping blades sharp, for example, is a regular maintenance chore that keeps grass healthy, but evaluating how much maintenance you can handle will determine, in part, the kind of equipment you choose for your facility. As with all equipment choices, elements of cost, quality of performance, maintenance and versatility factor into the decision-making process.
For Myers, who saves money by letting grass grow as long as he can between mowing, a reel mower has been the ideal tool for his facility's needs and has noticeably improved the health and aesthetics of his park district's sports fields.
However, for the large park district in Sylvania, Ohio, a rotary mower has become the tool of choice for their three-times-a-week mowing routine. "We used to have a reel mower, but daily and weekly maintenance needed to cover all our ball fields was too much work and took too much time," said Brian Hall, facilities and maintenance director with the joint recreation district in Sylvania, Ohio. "We use a rotary that cuts just as well."
Like so many things, it can be attention to the little things that makes the biggest difference.
Take water audits. Whether your irrigation system is high-tech or hands-on, annual water audits indicate where there's a leak, if your system is efficient and what you may need to do differently.
It helps, however, if your irrigation system is the best you can afford. "My advice is that for anything you bury in the ground, don't cut corners," said Corky Buell, vice president of sports field construction and turf maintenance company Landscapes Unlimited, LLC of Lincoln, Neb. "A cheap fitting or valve is just ludicrous. I've seen a $3 valve flush out an entire green at a $30,000 cost."
According to Buell, another one of the most overlooked areas in sports field construction and maintenance is drainage. "They do everything else but get wet spots that can be so easily taken care of with top dressing," Buell said. "A golf green gets perfect by constantly top dressing. You can do the same with a wet spot in any field and it eliminates weeds. A lot of things don't cost a lot and pay huge dividends."
Eliminating weeds by strengthening turf and reducing wet spots will certainly cut down on the need for and cost of herbicides and pesticides. Add to that an economy that just won't tolerate the costs of blanket treatments and you have many who are willing to hold back longer before pulling the chemical trigger and only spot treating when they do.
"The economy has made us think more about what we really need to do and when we can tolerate holding off on pesticides," said Donnie Mefford, sports turf manager for the University of Kentucky's Nutter Training Facility, one of the nation's showcase football facilities located in Lexington, Ky. "For a few weeds do we spray the entire outfield? We have to be selective and remind ourselves to ask if it's really a problem—is it affecting the players? Aesthetics? Then it's time. Be smart in making decisions."
Perhaps the only thing more challenging than correcting compacted, damaged turf is coping with the overscheduled activities that create them in the first place. While top dressing, coring, tining and soil conditioning are all good and well, perhaps nothing heals overused sports fields like a good rest. But when?
For those who have multiple fields, the solution might be as simple as a rotating schedule to let certain areas rest each season or as needed.
But for many, the problem isn't having a plan. It's getting others to go along with it. "Truly the biggest challenge is the time of year they are now playing and the pressure on the fields," explained Wes Matthews of the Centerville-Washington Park District in Ohio. "There wasn't much spring soccer at first, but it's grown and grown tremendously. That's a big problem because we do a lot of maintenance in the spring and fall and we can barely rest areas."
For Matthews the solution has been 10 patient years in the making. By working with coaches, programmers and parents he has gradually educated them about the necessary aspects of field maintenance in order to give them the kind of playing surface and safety results they want in return.
"It took a lot of time to convince our user groups to go along with this—eight to 10 years," Matthews explained. "And now we have a good relationship and they're on board. It's communicating effectively—we have meetings with football teams and our soccer teams and are in constant communication. That line of communication is huge."
While Matthews concedes that originally cooperation was a battle, he says they now see that the resulting improved field conditions are to their advantage.
Gaining allies was also achieved through changes in department structure. Having the athletic coordinator's position moved from programming to operations shifted the role from one of an "outside" adversary to an "inside" advocate that incorporates field maintenance needs into the decision making process.
Opening up communication has proven to be a successful approach for the Nutter Training Facility as well. "You have to be able to communicate," Mefford agreed. "We ask administrators, coaches and student players for their feedback so they understand what you are trying to do. We have to be visible and open up communication with coaches so we have a common goal. It's so important to express concerns and to listen."
As a result of the cooperative relationship between his staff and the athletic groups, Mefford has been able to put a plan in place that sets goals for regular field maintenance that all groups understand. "For field usage in general, there's not a lot of down time—that's really the challenge," Mefford said. "When dealing with grass that needs aerification, top dressing, irrigation, fertilizing and pesticide applications, it's finding time to make those things happen. We have to communicate the necessity to do things to be safe and look good." Meeting and discussing where and how these things have to take place to achieve a common goal has been a big help.
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