Get your fields fit for football
In football, the heaviest, most powerful athletes dig into the turf to hold and defend their positions. Speed runners spin and slice, cutting into the turf with each step. It’s a brutal game, tough on players and even tougher on the turf. Your job is to maintain safe, playable field conditions that last from the heat of two-a-day practices through the cold of season playoffs, and maybe to the championship game. It’s all about getting fields fit for football, and keeping them that way.
Plan now to work within your budget by targeting the areas that will be exposed to the greatest wear. Then, determine how to best allocate your resources of materials, equipment use and labor hours to keep them in top shape. That may mean cutting back on the fertilization schedule for lesser-used fields, or the lesser used areas of multiple fields, and using that material to increase the rate or frequency of fertilization on the football fields. Or, instead of core-aerating the entire field in three directions, you may cover the full field twice and the area between the hash marks four times.
Chart the key field-use dates, and work backwards from there to schedule maintenance procedures. Think out of the box to overcome limitations. For example, when time is the limiting factor, put two or more machines and operators on a single field to complete a maintenance procedure in fewer hours.
Assess existing field conditions. The goal is complete cover with a dense, healthy turf. Following standard IPM practices, take whatever steps are needed to remove existing weeds and control damaging insect or disease activity. Seed, sprig or sod to fill in bare spots. Use a soil probe or a spade to pull samples at various points on the field to check root depth.
Test the irrigation system to make sure it’s operating properly and providing uniform coverage. Make judicious use of water, doing everything you can to push the turf roots as deep as they can go to increase stress tolerance. Irrigate less frequently and deeper, especially if the field is in low-use mode. If the field is getting moderate to heavy use, adjust the irrigation to supply adequate moisture to help regenerate turf tissue without overwatering. Too much water can make a field too lush and too shallow-rooted, and thus, too easily damaged once play gets started.
Analyze your fertilization program as compared to soil test results. You want to give the turf what it needs, when it needs it. Late-summer fertilization is the most important to build up the plant. You want to get that application down before practice starts if possible, and certainly before games begin in the fall.
Identify compacted areas and use a combination of core, spike, deep-tine and shatter aeration as necessary to relieve it. Pay attention to the sidelines as well as the playing surface. Check the thatch layer and remove any excess as needed. Identify any drainage issues and take action to resolve them.
If you plan to overseed the entire field either using a cool-season grass to overseed bermudagrass or to add density to an existing cool-season field, adjust the timing to follow your core aeration. Topdress following overseeding, if your budget allows it. Set up a program timing your applications prior to a practice or game to let the players cleat in the seed. Adjust the variety selection and percentages for the best germination rate for the weather conditions.
Explore your options and make arrangements with a sod grower to provide thick-cut sod if you need to replace a large section of the field in-season. Develop your own on-site sod farm to harvest for fast spot repairs. You want the soil profile, turf types and turf management program to match the playing surface as closely as possible. The goal is no-show replacement. The easiest area to develop is along the lesser used area of the sidelines and the back section of the end zone of your field. You’ll have a match in everything but the degree of wear.
Determine where to harvest the replacement turf to make the least impact on aesthetics and give the damaged turf an opportunity to recover. Dig deep to harvest the replacement sod; you want instant stability. Remove the section of damaged turf, digging to a depth that matches the depth of the harvested section.
Fit the new sod in place like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle, keeping the soil intact. Make sure the new sod is solidly in place with no gaps and is level with the surrounding surface with no depressions or raised areas that might affect footing.
Take the damaged section of sod to the excavated area and fit it in place. Overseed or sprig to jumpstart the recuperation. Apply a light coat of green dye if needed for aesthetics. Adapt maintenance procedures to bring this turf back to field-ready condition.
Recruit help for postgame divot repair. Consider working with the football coach to field a divot team. Friends of the varsity players or booster club members would be other likely recruits. It doesn’t take a lot of skill, and working together, there’s minimal time commitment.
Pregerminate seed for the divot mix and have it in buckets, ready to apply as soon as the game ends. Have the volunteers line up at arms’ length from each other and walk the field end to end, each working their lane.
Spread the wear
Work toward building a long-term relationship with coaches and administrators based on respectful communication. Be willing to listen to their concerns and compromise as necessary to meet the objectives of their programs while preserving field conditions.
Arrange for your crew members to help set up practice equipment if necessary to ensure locations are rotated each day to spread the wear. Set up a temporary goalpost off the main practice or game field for kicker practice.
Limit use of the stadium field to games only when possible. If special non-sports events are scheduled at the site between games, work with the group to keep on-field activity to a minimum. Stipulate that users walk the entire field clearing away all debris before they leave the stadium.
Try to keep practices and games off the field when it’s soaking wet. Have a backup plan in place. Reschedule the game for another date or move it to an alternate site if possible. It’s better to switch a scheduled home game to a neutral site or even the opponent’s field than risk severe field damage. Play in adverse conditions could create a dangerous situation that would require closing the field until the damage is repaired.
Football is tough on turf, but with proper planning and an aggressive management program, your fields can handle the season.
Mary Owen is extension turf specialist for the University of Massachusetts, based in Rochdale, Mass.