Tools and techniques to help your fields handle summer heat and drought stress

On a hot summer day, not long ago, a baseball player stood poised in the batter’s box. From the pitcher’s mound, a ball hurled toward the batter. With a crack of the bat, the young ballplayer ran as hard as he could, arms pumping, legs a blur, toward first base. There was a breeze that day, and as the ballplayer’s foot hit the bag a swirl of dust enveloped him. Did he reach the base before he was tagged out? It’s hard to say. The cloud was thick. No one could tell.

Research tests at the Ohio State University Turfgrass Research Center showed promising results for TurfScreen from Turf- Max. The “sunscreen for turf” scatters UVB radiation from the plant, improving photosynthesis and helping the plant during times of drought and heat stress.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF STACIE ZINN ROBERTS.

At least that’s the scenario painted by Eric Blanton, manager of turf and grounds for the Reno Aces AAA facility in Reno, Nev., a farm team for the Arizona Diamondbacks. As Blanton tells it, the clay and cinder infield dirt and warning track at his stadium would get so dry in the 90-degree heat with only 10-percent humidity “that we couldn’t keep enough water on it. It was really dusty.” Then, three years ago, he discovered a product called Field Magic from Ready Play, a super-absorbent sand that holds 12 times its weight in water. Blanton mixes Field Magic into the clay/cinder surface. “It saves us time on watering. Now we can limit our watering to one heavy watering a day. We were out there two to three times a day before we started using Field Magic. It really cut down on the dust factor,” he says.

Using a product like Field Magic is just one of many strategies that sports field managers utilize to not just survive, but thrive during periods of heat and drought stress.

Back in Reno, Blanton says drought is a common occurrence. “We go months without measurable rain here. Last year we only pulled the tarp to cover the field one time, and that was on opening day because of snow. It really doesn’t rain here, so we worry that irrigation isn’t enough,” Blanton says.

Eric Blanton, manager of turf and grounds for the Reno Aces AAA facility in Reno, Nev., uses Field Magic’s Ready Play on the field’s infield dirt, which cuts down dust and reduces watering needs.

He applies wetting agents, specifically Neptune from Loveland Products, every four weeks on the turf to give it a fighting chance. “That has really cut down on heat stress,” Blanton says. “With these products, it gives me peace of mind that the irrigation is enough, and it lasts. And the water we put down is going through the grass and the dirt, it’s working all the way through.”

Another innovative product to help combat heat and drought stress might, at first glance, seem to have more to do with bikinis than baseball fields. TurfScreen from TurfMax is sunscreen for turf. Scott May is president of TurfMax, based in Erdenheim, Pa. He states: “UVB rays have been proven detrimental to all plants, and detrimental to a plant’s ability to photosynthesize. By scattering UVB radiation from the plant and improving photosynthesis, the plant will hold up to extreme environmental conditions, such as drought and heat.”

TurfScreen is applied as a spray and designed to stick to the plant until mowed off. Research tests conducted last year at the Ohio State University Turfgrass Research Center showed promising results. Researchers noted that turfgrass treated with TurfScreen had “significantly lower temperatures compared to the check plots.” Also, plots treated with TurfScreen, when compared to untreated plots, had “significantly higher” rankings in color and turf quality. Researchers also found that in the period when water stress was implemented, it was “evident that TurfScreen treated turf was of satisfactory quality or higher and had significantly better ratings and turf quality compared to the check plot.”

Drought Outlook 2013

PHOTO COURTESY OF NOAA.

Last summer brought near-record drought conditions to many areas of the country, and unfortunately, scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are predicting that this year won’t be much better. In a climate update issued in February 2013, NOAA (www.ncdc.noaa.gov) reported that 54.2 percent of the contiguous United States were experiencing drought conditions, compared to 39 percent at the same time last year. South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska and Montana were battling severe and extreme drought , and it was expected that the already drought-ravaged areas of Texas, Oklahoma and the Pacific Northwest will likely get less rainfall this year than they did last year. What’s worse, scientists anticipate that the entire country will experience a warmer summer than last year.

In its drought monitor update issued on May 14, NOAA reported that moderate to exceptional drought covered 47.7 percent of the contiguous United States, decreasing from 48.1 percent the week before. The worst drought categories (extreme to exceptional drought) also decreased from 14.1 percent the previous week to 13.6 percent.

In times of extreme heat and drought stress, your first instinct may be to just throw more water on the field. However, that’s not always a good idea, says Randy Rider, northeast regional sales manager for Performance Nutrition.

“You don’t want to have wet feet, or overwater your plant when it’s really hot out, or you’ll start cooking your roots in the soil system. So, you want to make sure you have proper water management. That’s one of the key elements to making it through drought and heat stress. It’s not just about throwing down water, it’s about how much you put out at the proper time,” Rider says.

Performance Nutrition offers a complete system to improve plant health. It includes beneficial microbes, amino acids and hormones derived from plant products such as kelp. The combination of this system, Rider says, helps keep the plant healthy going into periods of drought or heat stress.

Chris Walsh is head groundskeeper at the Akron Aeros, the AA affiliate of the Cleveland Indians baseball team in Akron, Ohio. During the heat of the summer, Walsh says he uses Performance Nutrition’s Vibrant Red 3-6-12 NPK fertilizer, formulated with additional micronutrients including copper, iron, manganese, zinc and boron. Independent university studies have demonstrated that Vibrant Red fertilizer provides long-lasting turf color and quality, even during summer stress periods.

The clay and cinder infield dirt and warning track at the Reno Aces AAA stadium would get so dry in the 90-degree heat with only 10 percent humidity “that we couldn’t keep enough water on it,” says Eric Blanton. Then he discovered a product called Field Magic from Ready Play.

“I use the 3-6-12 liquid fertilizer in August when we really get the high heat and extreme temperatures and play a lot of baseball games,” Walsh says. “We’re able to apply it in a liquid form quickly. It’s a lot more efficient to get it to the plant. That time of year, we don’t have a lot of time to work around the events. I can just throw it in the tank. It’s the product I’ve been using for the last three years, and I’ve seen good results. I haven’t deviated from the program.”

In the heat of the summer, which coincides with the height of the baseball season, all of the foot traffic on his Kentucky bluegrass and rye field just compounds the problem.

“We’re constantly having games and events in the stadium. Just getting the proper time to water the turf and give it some downtime is a challenge. Having an irrigation system helps out a lot. We usually irrigate early in the mornings before events to give it time for the water to work down into the rootzone,” Walsh explains. “Obviously, you get hot spots. The Vibrant Red does a good job of helping the grass stand up to the stress of being hot out and baseball players crushing it underfoot. It stands up to the foot traffic. The Vibrant Red helps with turgidity. It helps the turf stand up and become more rigid instead of just laying over.”

Walsh plans his program all year toward the goal of sustaining a high-quality playing surface during the peak of the summer.

Walsh says, “We employ a comprehensive program of efficiently using our irrigation system, applying wetting agents, and the proper use of fertilizers to combat heat stress during drought and high heat.”

Stacie Zinn Roberts is the president of What’s Your Avocado?, a writing and marketing firm based in Mount Vernon, Wash.