Grounds for Innovation

Turf Trends for Today & Tomorrow

By Chris Gelbach

Across the nation, sports fields are seeing increasingly concentrated use as an increase in participants and the growing popularity of sports like soccer and lacrosse have created more demand for field time. Luckily, a wide array of new innovations and technologies are giving turf managers more ways to meet this demand without compromising playing conditions or player safety. And these advancements hold even more promise for the future.

The Rise of Synthetic

One way facilities are accommodating their increased use is through synthetic turf. "We are certainly seeing more and more synthetic systems going in throughout the Mid-Atlantic," said Mike Goatley Jr., professor and extension turfgrass specialist at Virginia Tech and president of the Sports Turf Managers Association (STMA). "They're popping up like dandelions."

The trend's momentum concerns Goatley and some other experts who see people who balk at paying $5,000 a year to maintain their natural grass investing hundreds of thousands of dollars on an artificial field. "We start to worry when people use synthetic turf as a keeping up with the Joneses because the high school next to me has one," said Mike Tarantino, director of facilities, maintenance and operations for the Poway School Unified School District in the San Diego area, who is also active in STMA as a board director.

That said, even natural-grass advocates such as Tarantino strategically use synthetic turf. "I'm in a K-12 district, and there's no way I could manage a [natural grass] stadium field with the conditions that were placed upon me with high school athletic sports, community use and a 360-piece marching band at each high school."

In his case, those conditions include a football season followed immediately by soccer, lacrosse and field hockey seasons all on the same field, plus graduation ceremonies, leaving no time to repair natural grass—and no feasible option for the stadium fields other than synthetic turf.

"Since day one, our main market has been the high school and the park and rec market," said Darren Gill, vice president of global marketing for a synthetic turf manufacturer based in Calhoun, Ga. "And really the reason is not because synthetic turf is a luxury—it's because it's a necessity for those clients who can't grow grass and have extreme use demands on the fields."

Artificial turf can be used safely in inclement weather conditions, and allow for almost nonstop use if lights are installed. But while synthetic turf requires less maintenance than natural grass, it isn't maintenance-free. In fact, the creation of more equipment and procedures to support the maintenance of synthetic fields is another growing trend. As Gill noted, his company has created a system that includes regular brushing, aerating, raking and sweeping. "It really helps the clients understand when the field should be maintained and how it should be maintained," he said.

Many synthetic turf products have 8-year warranties, making the planning for the turf's replacement essential. "Somewhere in 8 to 15 years, you'll need to come up with another $500,000 or $600,000 to put back into this field when it needs to be replaced," Tarantino said.

The architectural, engineering and design consulting firm Stantec doesn't believe it makes sense to cut corners in this investment. "We never really recommend to go with a lesser product for synthetic turf just because they don't have a budget because it's just going to fall apart—your return on investment is not going to be good over the lifetime," said Meg Buczynski, senior associate in the Stantec sport group. "In that case, we look at how we can get them what they need in a natural grass setting or try to work with them on how to generate that revenue or get that funding up front."

And while the producers of synthetic turf have made advancements in heat management, it remains an issue. Gill's company recently addressed it by introducing a cooler infill that adds a cork layer that absorbs less heat than traditional black crumb rubber. "We've been able to reduce the surface temperature by about 35 degrees in laboratory testing," he said. "Both the fiber and the infill are a heat source. So we've been working on it on a parallel path to try to find cool fiber and a cool infill. When it comes to cool fiber, we're probably a few years away."

In the meantime, facility managers like Tarantino still rely on water to temporarily cool down their synthetic fields. "When the temperatures on the playing field get too warm, we can turn water on that field and drop that temperature by 10 or 15 degrees," he said. Tarantino finds this to mostly be an issue for practices, since games typically take place in the evening.

These water requirements somewhat mitigate synthetic turf's benefits for some warm-weather facilities. "The ironic thing is that they do need irrigation to cool them down, too," said Jeff Langner, brand manager for a maker of turf establishment products and accessories in Buffalo Grove, Ill. "So if you're in a place with water restrictions, you're going to have trouble with synthetic fields if you can't get out and put water on the field."

Natural Advances

In part because of heat concerns, many warm-climate facilities continue to opt for natural grass. "Depending on what region of the South you're in, if you're in an area or a municipality where they really know how to take care of their grass fields, they really don't want synthetic turf because of the heat," said Dave Nardone, sport group leader for Stantec. "But others that want the low maintenance and consistency of synthetic are willing to overlook that."

Meanwhile, natural turf grasses are also advancing significantly in performance in heavy-duty applications, thanks to new research and breeding approaches. According to Goatley, these advances include new regenerating ryegrasses that are better able to creep and repair themselves; new turf-type tall fescues that are better adapted to sports turf applications; new hybrids that cross Kentucky and Texas bluegrasses; and upcoming advances in natural grasses that will do better under low-irrigation conditions.

Most notably, he notes the superior performance of next-generation Bermuda grasses. "If it can be grown in your climate, for most sports and for its durability and predictability in terms of performance and playability, these new generations of Bermuda grass that have been selected for cold tolerance are my primary recommendation," Goatley said.

Goatley also noted that researchers are making great strides in evaluating natural grasses for their suitability to sports applications. "One thing that's changing is how much simulated traffic that we're applying to some of these trials, particularly looking for distinctions in grasses and their tolerance to traffic that's definitely geared toward sports turf."

Embracing Turf Management

This is part of a larger embrace of science and professional maintenance techniques. "If you were to go back five, certainly 10 years, the idea was, let's mow the field and that's pretty much it," said Langner. "Now, aerification practices, overseeding and doing a topdressing program are all relatively common."

Pest management has also become more targeted and selective. "You're going to start seeing more and more environmentally friendly fields," said Tarantino. "This will include integrated pest management programs where managers use pesticides, herbicides and fungicides only when necessary and fight pests off with biological means and better horticultural practices instead."

These better environmental practices can also involve the collection of storm water for irrigation use in the design of new sports facilities. Goatley noted one particularly innovative application at Longwood University in Farmville, Va., in which a 50,000-gallon collection system was built into a synthetic field, with that water then being pumped back onto a natural grass baseball field.

According to Langner, among the other practices being embraced are watering more deeply and less frequently to get water down to the roots, mowing less frequently, looking at the pH of soil more frequently and understanding the nutrient uptake of the plant. "How much is your fertilizer being used by your plant, and how much is it going to leach off the site when it rains or you're going to irrigate?" he said. "That's something I think we could all improve on."

Turf Technologies

A variety of new technologies are being embraced to assist in these turf-management improvements. One example is the technology allowing for remote moisture monitoring and watering via computer or smartphone that is already in place at some Division I and professional fields. "They're still expensive, but we've got some really neat systems out there for monitoring soil moisture remotely that will greatly improve how we manage our water," Goatley said.

Mowing companies are also starting to employ GPS technology to evaluate fields for spots that are too hard, too compacted and too wet. These programs can even suggest a fertilization program for the field.

Clegg hammers are additionally being used more to monitor surface hardness, particularly on synthetic fields, as part of an increased emphasis on safety and concussion awareness. Also related to this trend is a new generation of shock pads for use under synthetic turf that offers a longer warranty and can be recycled into itself again.

And improved rotary mowers are enabling turf managers to maintain their natural grass at a higher level for a lower cost. "Before, when I'd tell people to put in a Bermuda grass field, I'd say you needed a reel mower to maintain it," Goatley said. "I've come 180 on that. The quality of cut with these new rotary mowers and the floating deck technology allows mowing at a height of one inch with rotary mowers, which we really couldn't do before. And they're a lot easier to maintain and adjust than the reel mowers are."

Planning Becomes Paramount

Instead of making the turf manager the last man hired in a new installation, experts expect to see them brought in earlier in the planning process more frequently. "If you don't have somebody you're working with who has knowledge of some very basic soil science, it ends up biting you in the long term," said Goatley. "You won't pay for it immediately, because I've seen many of these fields masked with a great sod installation, but it won't be many months before problems show up."

A basic feasibility study at the outset of a project can also facilitate its eventual success. "You might have somebody in-house who can go and renovate a field, but what if you increase the size of it?" said Nardone. "What if you could get two of them in perpendicularly if you made the field 30 yards longer? Often, simple things that come up in a feasibility study will have a big impact on the end user and their maintenance side."

In their planning, consultants like Nardone and Buczynski are seeing more facilities choosing to renovate their natural grass fields once they have a synthetic turf field in place. "With our school clients we often see that if they have three or four fields, they'll get one synthetic turf field, and it's like having two and a half natural grass fields to help them manage the amount of play," Buczynski said. With this approach, facilities can enjoy the flexibility and intensive playability of synthetic turf as well as the well-maintained grass fields that many athletes still prefer.

When clients do go synthetic, Buczynski is seeing more of them purchase additional turf for areas of high use since replacement of those areas is typically not covered under the product warranty. She's also seeing more go for synthetic turf just on high-use areas, such as baseball infields, while they leave the outfield natural grass.

This is part of a more targeted approach that extends to natural grass maintenance, and that will grow ever-more important in an era of low budgets. "If you can't do a topdressing program across your entire field, what about just focusing on the goal mounts? Let's overseed the goals. Same thing on a football field. Let's just focus on the areas between the hashes, on the goal line or sideline areas, and try to improve the turf there," Langner said.

This approach additionally applies to avoiding wear and tear in the first place, from moving the goal mounts for practices to minimize concentrated wear, to putting pads down on synthetic turf for batting cages or other areas of concentrated use. "It's all about looking at the field as a picture within a picture," said Tarantino.

And when you look at the big picture, the most critical pieces of the puzzle remain the decisions by the turf manager in maintaining the field and by management in making the right decisions in building or renovating the field in the first place.

"People think it's no different than the grass they have in their front yard," said Tarantino. "My response to them is, let me bring over the 360-piece marching band and let them play in your yard five or six days a week for three hours a day and then tell me your grass is the same as mine. It's perception that we need to change."

And it's a perception that's changing, slowly but surely—right in step with the changes in turf types, technologies and maintenance practices that are giving turf managers more tools to work with in maintaining safe, playable fields.

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