Your most important field management tool might not be parked in your maintenance garage; it might be in your shirt pocket. Mowers, aerators, sprayers they’re all important, but think about how many times a day you reach for your smartphone.

“I’m on my phone all the time,” says Pete Cheswick, supervising groundskeeper at Massapequa School District in New York. “For example, I have all my vendors’ numbers in my cellphone, so I can call them if I’m out on a field and I have a question. Or, if there’s a problem with a piece of equipment, I can take a photo with my phone and in one instant I can email or text it to a vendor so they can see exactly what I’m seeing. They can tell me what the exact part number is, how much it will be, or if it’s something I can try to fix on the fly. That’s a huge help.”

Similarly, Cheswick has been able to take photos of problem areas on his fields with his cellphone – brown spots, for example – and send them to his local extension office for assistance with diagnosis and treatment. He also uses it to document field conditions for his supervisors and to create a record of vandalism incidents.

“It’s crazy to think about how we used to have to do things,” he marvels.

According to Pew Research, 58 percent of American adults have a smartphone, and 90 percent own a cellphone.

Cheswick’s smartphone also keeps him connected to the Internet and some helpful apps.

Get Smart: How to use your smartphone to help you be a better sports turf manager

  • Store vendors’ phone numbers so you can call them while on the field if you have questions about their products.
  • Use online maps to calculate the area of fields to obtain precise measurements for fertilizer and other applications.
  • Use apps to help you stay up to date with the weather so you can schedule windows for maintenance, such as seeding or fertilization.
  • Gain access to websites to help identify weeds, turf disease, insects, etc.
  • Take photos of equipment that needs repair and email to vendors so they can see what you’re seeing and advise you on how to repair the equipment or order parts.
  • Post important information on Twitter, Facebook and other social media outlets.
  • Access documents to see important information.
  • Communicate with crew members while they’re out in the field.
  • Access aerial maps to show crew members exactly where tasks need to be completed.

“One of the apps I use the most is http://weather.com – I’m checking that all the time. I’ll look at the 10-day forecast to help schedule maintenance. If I see we’ve got rain coming and there’s a window in the game schedule, I might put down some seed before it rains,” he explains.

He also uses the up-to-the-minute weather forecast to help him plan snow removal. “Another app we use is one from Toro that lets us look up parts information for our equipment; all the parts are broken down so you can see them,” adds Cheswick.

Because he oversees 140 acres of athletic fields, Cheswick creates spreadsheets with the schedules for each field so he and his crew know what is (and will be) taking place on every field. “I can access those Excel documents on my cellphone if I’m out in the field,” he notes.

Jesse Pritchard, sports turf manager at the University of Virginia (UVA), says that smartphones are now the primary mode of communication with his crew.

“We speak via text a lot – that’s the best way to reach them these days,” he explains. “They all get a text from me on Sunday evenings that describes the upcoming week, for example.” He can also contact staff members on the job during the day to get updates or provide direction.

Pritchard also uses his phone to regularly access a weather app called Dark Sky.

Sports Field Managers’ PicksFavorite Apps and Websites

“That gives me a one-hour forecast in great detail,” he says. This level of detail is particularly important during baseball and softball seasons. “It’s very accurate as far as when to put the tarp on – it’s giving me radar and automatic push notifications to tell me, say, it’s going to start raining in six minutes.”

The university also subscribes to a meteorology service, so he can talk directly to a meteorologist anytime, anywhere using his smartphone.

The UVA facilities department also provides an electronic schedule of all activity that will take place on any given field, so those in the sports turf department have ready access to find out when they need to have a field ready, or when there might be a window for maintenance.”From an educational standpoint, I love Twitter,” says Pritchard.

“I follow so many other turf managers, and it’s real-time learning. People are tweeting what fertilizer they’re putting out, when they’re aerifying, basically what they’re doing, how they’re doing it, why they’re doing it. As a whole, people in the industry are pretty open about what they’re doing, and Twitter gives you a broad perspective.”

Pritchard follows suit, posting details of his own maintenance program and what’s taking place at UVA.

“I’m happy to give the information out,” he says. “I take photos right out in the field so I can show what I’m posting about. What I post isn’t necessarily the right way, it’s just what works for us.” He notes that his Twitter followers are probably evenly split between UVA sports fans and fellow turfgrass pros.

At Mundelein Park District in Illinois, Superintendent of Parks Derek Solberg says he frequently goes online to check out the growing degree days tracker (http://www.gddtracker.net) run by the Michigan State University turfgrass science department.

“That is a very handy website,” he states, noting that while some of the content is probably designed for the golf turf audience, there’s plenty of relevance for those maintaining athletic fields. “We use it for timing our pre-emergent herbicide applications in the spring. The site actually tells you when it’s good to spray, when it’s optimum, and when you’re past the window. We use it for broadleaves, but there’s a lot of information on weed flowering, crabgrass germination, etc. It’s been a good technology tool for us.”

Another one of his favorite sites is the Crop Data Management Systems (http://www.cdms.net) site, where he can quickly find the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for any herbicide, pesticide or insecticide his department might be using.

Dark Sky is one weather app that can help sports turf managers plan maintenance schedules and keep up on the latest forecasts in great detail.
PHOTO COURTESY OF DARK SKY

“We are required by the state labor department to have safety data sheets on file not only for pesticides, but for brake cleaner, motor oil, any chemical product that we buy,” he explains. The site also includes product labels describing the use of that material, which makes it easy to check label instructions and personal protective equipment requirements. Solberg says, “It also lets us research and read about a new product that we’ve heard about and might be thinking of trying. It’s all in one place.”

Solberg has also found online aerial mapping capabilities, like those provided by Google Earth, to be helpful in maintaining the park system’s athletic fields.

“It’s handy to be able to bring a staff member into the office to show them exactly where you want them to do a particular job, rather than having to draw a sketch on a white board. I’ve been able to print aerial photos of our parks, write a few notes on them, and just hand them to a staff member,” he explains. “It makes things a lot less confusing.”

Solberg also uses online maps to calculate the area of certain fields (helpful when putting down seed, fertilizer, pesticides, etc.), and to obtain precise measurements for a fence that needed to be installed around one field.

“We’re kind of old-fashioned here; we just got smartphones to use on the job about two months ago, and we’re still figuring out how to use them,” jokes Cody Witham, assistant manager of the sports complex at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, Colorado. The massive complex boasts a main stadium that’s home to Major League Soccer’s Colorado Rapids, as well as 23 other full-size fields (21 natural grass and two synthetic). The smartphones have helped with communication among staff members, who are often very spread out. Staff members are also able to electronically check the schedule to see when a field will be in use, how it needs to be laid out, and when it needs to be ready, he explains.

“We have an account with AccuWeather, so we all downloaded the AccuWeather app,” says Witham. “That’s helping us really keep track of the weather – anything from lightning that might be in the area when we have kids playing on the fields to keeping track of what the weather will be the next couple days. We definitely use it for planning the timing of applications like fertilizer. As turf guys, we’re checking out the weather pretty much all day.”

The view from the Iowa Cubs Sports Turf drone, looking down on a field the company recently renovated and resodded.
PHOTO COURTESY OF IOWA CUBS SPORTS TURF

Flying High

Taking technology to new heights

The use of technology is being taken to new heights, literally, at Iowa Cubs Sports Turf, a Des Moines-based company that provides athletic field maintenance and construction services. “We purchased a drone,” says Casey Scheidel, certified sports field manager, who manages the construction wing of the company.

The high-flying drone, a DJI Phantom, is fitted with a GoPro camera, which can shoot videos and photos and allows him to create time-lapse montages documenting the progress of field construction projects.

“If we do a project over a week span, say, we can take aerial photos of the work as we go. That way everyone can see what’s going on. And, at the end of the project, we go back to our customer and provide them video and a time-lapse record of the project,” Scheidel explains. “It provides a little assurance of honesty from the contractor to the client; they can see from the time-lapse what we did the entire time we were there.”

Scheidel also posts daily photos shot from the drone to the company’s Twitter page, and says the result is a lot of good promotional visibility.

“When we get to a new job site we’ll gain 20 or 30 new Twitter followers right away when we start posting pictures and videos of the project. Then the neighboring school district, for example, can see all the work we’re doing and hopefully they’ll come to us to ask questions about renovating their field,” he states. “I don’t have to advertise. I just have a Twitter page and a drone. From a business standpoint there’s a good return on investment with a drone.”

There’s also an immediate benefit to the company in being able to check their own work looking down from hundreds of feet in the air. When laying sod on a field, for example, it can help to get a sense of how the layout is going. “Once you’re in the air, you can really see things,” says Scheidel. For example, the company recently had to strip the top layer off a field as part of a renovation job. “From the drone, we could really see how much organic material was left on the field. You couldn’t necessarily see if from the ground, but once we looked at an aerial photo, it was easy to see dark spots on the field where more organic content had to come out.”

The drone is operated from the ground by sight.

“They are as easy as can be to operate,” he states. “You literally take it out of the box and fly it.” The quality of the photos and videos produced is amazing, he adds. “We probably fly the drone for just 10 minutes a day, and then it might take another 10 minutes to post the photos from the computer at night. It probably adds, at most, 20 minutes to our day.”

Drones are an unregulated area for now, “So it’s a little bit of a gray area about what we can and can’t be doing with them,” says Scheidel.

He takes precautions to avoid any mishaps. For example, being careful not to interfere with plane traffic from nearby airports.

“And we don’t fly it when people are around, because we don’t want to take any chances of the drone crashing and hitting someone,” he adds.

When used carefully, Scheidel thinks there are many potential benefits to a drone. “In fact, we’re thinking of purchasing a second one,” he says.

Finally, Witham says that having a smartphone has made it easier for him to respond to people in a timely manner.

“On this job, I’m out on the fields all day, and it was tough to respond to emails. If I got an email at 5:30 p.m. and it was about something that was supposed to be done at 3 p.m., there was nothing I could do,” he says. “Now I can get my email right away. It sounds like a simple thing, but it has been a big help.”

Patrick White has covered every aspect of the green industry in the last 15 years. He is based in Middlesex, Vermont, and is always on the lookout for interesting and unusual stories.