PHOTO COURTESY OF DZIUREK/ISTOCK

Bing Crosby’s vision of a “Winter Wonderland” involved sleigh bells and plenty of snow. For sports turf managers charged with keeping fields playable through late fall, winter and early spring, snow usually inspires something other than wonder. Finding the right combination of tools and techniques, though, can keep spirits up even as the snow comes down.

Perhaps no other sports field in the U.S. is more associated with winter weather than “The Frozen Tundra,” Lambeau Field. Ironically, the home of the Green Bay Packers now boasts an underground heating system, but Fields Manager Allen Johnson still must deal with the snow that falls with regularity in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

“There’s no one answer to dealing with snow,” Johnson says. “A lot depends on how close the snowfall is to the game, and the opportunity you have to get the field ready.” The temperatures and consistency of the snow are also important factors in plotting a removal strategy, he adds.

“If we get a 4-inch snow event on Monday and we don’t play until the following weekend, and it’s not going to be super cold where we’re going to have some days above freezing, the snow could possibly melt on its own,” explains Johnson. The most preferable outcome is always to avoid having to put equipment out on the field, he stresses.

Clearing the seating bowl is a bigger challenge than clearing the field at MetLife Stadium. Snow is plowed from the tarpcovered field using rubber-tipped blades. Snow from the stadium is trucked out or melted.
PHOTO COURTESY OF METLIFE STADIUM

Unfortunately, even with a field heating system, the snow doesn’t always melt on its own.

“The snow is kept up in the air just a little bit by the grass blades,” he says, noting that even when the snow mostly melts it can leave a thin layer of crust.

“Another tactic we use is to let the majority of the snow melt, and to finish it off putting the tarp over the top of it during the middle of the day,” Johnson adds. The greenhouse effect created by the tarp speeds the melting process, but care must be taken not to leave the tarp on too long, especially overnight, as it can freeze to the field. He uses large blowers to blow warm air under the tarp to prevent any risk of freeze and help speed melting.

On most occasions, Johnson has the tarp on the field before it snows. In fact, the tarp is his primary snow-removal tool.

“If it’s going to snow a little bit and it’s the night before a game, I’ll put the tarp on just to keep the snow off the field, and then blow air under the tarp to ensure it never sits directly on the field,” he explains.

During big snow events, when it’s impossible to keep warm air blowing under the tarp, the heavy blanket of snow helps insulate the field and prevents the tarp from freezing to the surface, he adds.

“Then we plow the snow off of the tarp; we usually use small tractors with box blades. We replace the metal edge with a rubber edge,” Johnson notes. He tries to avoid this scenario – “You don’t want to take equipment out on your field if you don’t have to” – but sometimes there’s no choice.

Dartmouth Turf Manager John Buck snowblows an athletic field. It’s important to keep fields clear even when they won’t be used for several weeks, because if snow is allowed to accumulate it can create layers of ice and be impossible to remove.
PHOTO COURTESY OF DARTMOUTH

On the Packers’ practice field, also natural grass, he typically removes snow using a utility vehicle with a front-mounted snowblower.

“You just go out in the middle of the field, set the snowblower down all the way, and then raise it just slightly so it’s just above the ground, and then snowblow it all off,” he explains. “We’ve had a foot of snow out there before.”

The thin covering of snow left behind is removed with a tractor-mounted brush. “That gets it pretty clean,” Johnson says. “The key with doing any kind of snow removal directly on the field is that you really have to be gentle and go slow, and not use down pressure.”

At New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium, home of the New York Jets and New York Giants, clearing snow from the field is a straightforward process; clearing the rest of the stadium poses the bigger challenge, says Dave Duernberger, vice president of facility operations.

“During the winter months we watch the weather forecast very carefully. If there is any frozen precipitation in the forecast, we make sure we have a tarp on the playing field,” he explains. A pair of pickup trucks with plows, equipped with rubber edges, clears snow off the tarp into piles on the sidelines.

Teams of shovelers are brought in to clear the stadium’s seating areas.

An 8-foot snowblower and a 125-horsepower tractor help Big Foot Turf clear football and baseball fields efficiently in Colorado.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF BIGFOOT TURF CO.

“We have very limited ways of getting that snow out of the stadium effectively, so all the snow from the 100 and 200 seating levels all eventually makes its way down and onto the playing field. It’s piled up on the tarp where skid loaders [can] scoop it up and load it onto a Mason dump truck that hauls it off the field,” Duernberger explains.

Duerenberger says MetLife Stadium has experimented quite successfully with using a snow melter. Skid steers load the snow into the high-powered snow melter (from Aero Snow Removal Corp.), which melts the snow. The resulting water is piped to a 10-inch side drain.

A snowblower is preferred for Bigfoot Turf Co. in LaSalle, Colorado. Owner Greg Johnson provides snow-removal services for several local sports fields.

“We have a huge snowblower,” says Johnson of the 8-foot-wide, 4-foot-tall behemoth that’s run off a 125-horsepower Kubota tractor. Clearing baseball fields of snow in the spring is the most common call for this service, he adds.

Previously, Bigfoot used box scrapers and plows to remove the snow.

Efficiency increased when he added the snowblower last year. “It’s awesome – it can throw snow 150 feet, and we don’t have to touch the same snow twice very often.” Johnson estimates that following a 6- to 12-inch snowfall, a football field can be cleared in two to three hours, while a college baseball field can be cleared in three to four hours.

He has only used the system on natural grass fields, and the tractor is equipped with turf tires. If the operator isn’t careful, there can be some minor damage to the field.

“We modified the snowblower with some larger skid plates for the bottom to make sure that if it does get down onto the turf it doesn’t rip it out,” Johnson explains. “We also try to run it with the snowblower just off the surface so that the skids are just barely touching.”

At Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, Turf Manager John Buck faces a tall order keeping the athletic fields clear from New England snows. One major focus is the varsity lacrosse field.

“They start practicing the first week of January,” he says. To prepare, he keeps that field, a FieldTurf surface, free of snow throughout November and December. “If we wait, something bad could happen, like ice. If you leave the snow and have all the freezing and thawing taking place, and then go out there in January you can’t get the ice off the field,” Buck explains.

For light dustings in early or late winter, he typically leaves the field alone.

“We’ll let the sun take care of that kind of snow. I want to try to hang on to the rubber crumb infill as much as possible, and when the temperatures are around the freezing mark, the rubber tends to come off with the snow,” he explains.

The rubber is most likely to be lost when plowing in early and late winter; it’s not as much of a problem in the middle of winter, Buck observes. If there’s a light snow on game day, he may lightly plow or brush the field to help speed the melting process.

For heavy snow events, his tool of choice is a large snowblower hooked to a 96-horsepower tractor.

“When you plow, you have to push. And the deeper the snow, the harder you have to push. There’s a shear force being exerted on the turf, and if the pile stops and the equipment stops and the tire keeps spinning, it can really damage the field,” Buck says.

Some springs Buck must clear the Dartmouth baseball field (also FieldTurf). Last winter, extreme weather provided a particular challenge.

“Just three weeks before the first home game there was a foot of snow and 4 inches of ice underneath,” he says. “It was easy to remove the snow because all of the ice was protecting the field, but we weren’t sure how to get the ice off. We started doing it by hand; we tried all different kinds of things.”

He credits Mike Wide, a member of the sports turf maintenance team, with the idea that ultimately worked. “He said, ‘I bet we could use the AERA-vator.’ That’s a unit made by First Products, and it de-compacts soils with a series of knuckling tines that rotate in an irregular way and vibrate. He figured that it might break up the ice, and even if it got through the ice into the field it wouldn’t do any real damage,” Buck explains. “It worked like a charm; it turned solid ice into crushed ice. It was absolutely remarkable.”

Buck isn’t sure what conditions this winter will bring, but says he’ll be ready: “Bring it on! That’s what I say.”