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."
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 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."
Standard hard and cushioned courts are the simplest to maintain, Weavil said. Other than being blown daily, there is little other surface maintenance to perform. "Clay courts, however, are a much different animal," he said.
Clay courts in Weavil's territory are maintained daily, two times a day, April through October. Also, each spring the courts have an annual topdressing of the clay material added to replace what is lost from weather and play during the previous year. This work includes removal of the "dead," old surfacing material, installation of 1/8 inch of new material, removal of the old line tapes and installation of new line tape. Once the topdressing is added (this work is contracted out), Weavil's team takes over.
"The courts must be watered, swept and rolled every day for about a month to get the courts tight and ready for the heavy play months," he said. "Once we have the courts packed and tightened to a level where players can safely play, our staff moves into a daily routine of watering, sweeping, rolling and line sweeping. The clay courts are watered using an irrigation controller in order to keep the courts viable and from turning into unplayable powder.
"By having multiple tennis surfacing we open our facilities to players of all levels," Weavil said.
There is only one recreational soccer field in Weavil's system. The turf on this field is GN-1 Bermuda grass. Bermuda grass does well in North Carolina due to the hot summers and high nighttime summer temperatures. Exceptionally cold and wet winters can lead to issues, but this is a relatively rare occurrence.
Weavil advises following standard best management practices for turf: soil tests every winter, applications of recommended fertilizers and supplements throughout the year, monthly applications of nitrogen from May through August, pre-emergent weed control, post-emergent weed control and irrigation.
One additional step he takes each June during a break in the soccer season is to replace the sod in front of the goals each year due to the wear and tear and to mitigate the risk posed to players from the damaged turf. Weavil annually replaces approximately 1,000 square feet of sod at each goal, he said. They sod cut the area to the correct depth, install the sod, cutting in at the edges to create a clean transition, and finally add washed sand to any gaps in seams. Then they water and grow the sod in for one month, cutting the new sod as it begins to grow. During their shutdown, maintenance staff also performs a heavy aeration on the field. They level and adjust any sprinkler heads that require attention during this time.
"As this is a recreational field not used for heavy league play," he said, "we cut the field two times per week using a rotary mower set at a 1-inch height."
Weavil currently has five softball fields in his inventory. These fields have brick dust infields and mixed tall fescue outfields. The outfields are mown, seeded, aerated and fertilized per normal best management practices.
"Our main maintenance work here is performed on our infields," he said. "Each season we remove our pitching rubbers and home plates so that we may add sufficient clay material to level the batter's box and pitching area creating safe playing surfaces. We also add clay to these areas during the summer playing season as needed."
Prior to the opening of each season, the interface between the skinned area and outfield grass is leveled to remove any built-up material that could create a lip and affect play of the game. "We utilize equipment to remove any grass and infield material to the correct field dimensions and then add back infield material or sod as needed," Weavil said. "These operations are very intensive for a small three-to-five-man crew each season and requires a trained staff member to direct the operations."
Finally, daily maintenance includes grooming the field, lining the infield foul lines with sports chalk and using turf paint for the outfield foul lines. The infield is lightly watered and bases are installed as required.
Eco-friendly practices are trending, and managing water is increasingly important in today's changing environment, according to James Bergdoll, director of parks maintenance, Chattanooga, Tenn. "Using tools such as soil moisture meters and 'smart' irrigation system components helps us be more efficient with water use on sports fields."
Also, consider the type of grass being used, Bergdoll advised. "Turfgrass scientists and producers are constantly bringing new and improved grass varieties to the marketplace. These new grasses require less water, are more disease-resistant, out-compete weeds, require less fertilizer and beyond. Growing these improved varieties requires less input to have exceptional, sustainable playing surfaces."
The Right Tools
Ren Wilkes, marketing manager for a Moline, Ill.-based manufacturer of agricultural and lawncare equipment, offered some additional advice on specific pieces of equipment.
Depending on the grass, use either a reel lawn mower or a rotary mower. "If you are taking care of a soccer field in the south, you are going to want a good reel mower in order to cut three or four times a week to keep the playing surface where you want it. Up north you will probably use a rotary mower because of the different types of grasses. Many times, when you are cutting a soccer field or a football field, you will use a rotary mower."
Some of the other equipment that people don't think about are field rakes for baseball diamonds, which can also be used to push material around when you are taking care of baseball, soccer and football fields.
McNeal uses large 15-foot mowers, 12-foot mowers, zero-turn mowers and 72-inch mowers. "More recently, to align parks with the mayor's initiative, we have purchased propane zero-turn mowers as an alternative fuel source," she said. "We have been using battery-operated trimmers and backpack blowers. We've done some field testing with staff to figure out what kind of brands work the best, what they like and don't like about them so that when we are making purchases we get what our operators really like."
McNeal is continuing to evaluate the use of propane. "We have six in our fleet, which doesn't sound like a lot. In Denver, there is a push for using alternative sources for all types of equipment, including vehicles.
"We have a few electrical vehicles, but they don't have the oomph, the power needed to do snow removal," she said. "Some of the other pieces of equipment we look for have multiple uses. The versatility of equipment is something we look for to make a piece of equipment more valuable year-round. We look for pieces of equipment that allow us to use plows and sweepers and other attachments that can help us get our jobs done."
Wilkes suggested that parks consider getting a multipurpose utility vehicle that can haul people and material around. "Really, that is probably one of the most-used pieces of equipment for a sports field or a park," Wilkes said. "Tractors and aerators are useful too, but it really depends on how the field or the park is doing its own maintenance. You can add in a sprayer for fertilizer applications. Those are the basics: I would say a good reel mower, a field rake, a utility vehicle and a tractor are probably a good starter package for any type of sports maintenance facility."
For synthetic sports surfaces, find a sweeper, a machine that can vacuum up some of the rubber that accumulates. There is even a sprayer for disinfectants that can be useful, he said. "You will probably need a good blower to maintain the cleanliness of the surface."
Besides the basics in maintenance and management, there are a number of technology-based tools now available to better maintain athletic fields, Bergdoll explained.
"Soil moisture meters are great for managing soil moisture to assist with irrigation needs and also determining when a field may be too wet to use," Bergdoll said. "By taking readings and collecting data, you can determine the optimum soil conditions for not only growing grass but also playability. With hard numbers, it takes guessing and 'gut' feelings out of the equation."
Also, he noted, several field managers are now required to regularly measure field hardness for player safety. Several sports governing bodies have set thresholds for safe surface hardness. This data can also help with determining maintenance practices, such as aerification timing.
In Denver, McNeal has been using new technologies as well. "Our water conservation team is using drones and our software package to take our stress, heat indicating pictures," she said. "We are using that to help our field staff with irrigation practices. Water out here is a commodity, so every drop counts, every drop matters, and it costs quite a bit, so with these new technologies we are getting good data on where in our athletic fields the 'wear' spots are due to traffic or need of further irrigation. This allows us to adjust our programming. We take multiple readings throughout the growing season to hopefully show that we have improved and not gotten worse."
Equipment is getting smarter all the time, Wilkes said. "I think that over the past 10 years, technological advances to mowers have given the operator more control over the quality of the work. There is an economic aspect too. If you look at the electric reel mowers, your fuel saving is a technological advance. The hybrid technologies have come a long way too. And the controls that the operator has and technicians have to maintain the equipment, and the speed of mowing all goes into how well your fields are cared for."
Wilkes said "we are right on the doorstep of using robotics. There are some test units out in the field that move toward autonomous technologies. The possibilities are fantastic, especially for sports fields and the times you can mow. You can set a mower out there with one person overseeing several fields and cutting grass at 2 in the morning. You'll see technology coming in at a rapid pace over the next few years." RM
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