Caring for district grounds

The Millard Public School District extends across the southwest suburban area of Omaha, Neb. With three high schools, six middle schools and currently 24 (soon to be 25) elementary schools, the district is proud to serve 21,500 students in kindergarten through 12th grade, and employ 2,700 staff members.

Terry Haubold is manager of maintenance and grounds for the district, working within the Sodexho School Services contract. He says, “On the grounds side of the operation, we are responsible for maintaining 39 building sites on approximately 344 mowable acres of land. The largest site has approximately 381,000 square feet of building and 61 mowable acres; the smallest is approximately 1,400 square feet of building and .22 acre of land to maintain. Our grounds department is responsible for mowing, trimming, fertilization, pest control, irrigation and all other cultural maintenance practices.”

From left to right: Lou Osborn; Kevin Becker, grounds department head; Rob Lender; and Matt Novak.

He says, “Our total grounds department is made up of 12 skilled full-time employees, seven part-time employees and five seasonal employees. Kevin Becker serves as grounds department head, and his expertise is a vital part of our overall program. Out of this group, three full-time employees, Lou Osborn, Rob Lender and Matt Novak, work along with Kevin on our A team, and are responsible for all sports field management with varying assistance from one full-time employee and one seasonal employee.”

The big picture

Spread between the district’s three high schools are: four baseball, three softball, three soccer and three football fields, five multipurpose practice fields, three all-weather running tracks with field events, 18 all-weather tennis courts and one shared synthetic turf field. Each of the six middle schools has their own football field and an asphalt running track.

Matt Novak sets the striping pattern with a reel mower.

The elementary schools have open multipurpose field space with a portion of the turf area equipped with a backstop for baseball. These fields serve the physical education program along with elementary intramural and neighborhood sports use. The elementary fields are native soil with a combination of bluegrasses and turf-type tall fescues. They are maintained within the general turf category. Three mowing crews break the district into thirds and make a weekly circuit of that turf area. Each crew is equipped with a 580 Toro Groundsmaster and a zero-turn radius mower, a small walk-behind mower and two string trimmers.

Most of the middle and high school athletic fields are a native amended soil, which is made up primarily of a mixture of Marshall silty clay loam and Marshall-Ponca silty clay loams. Two of the newer fields, one soccer and one football on the Millard West High School campus, are sand-based fields with a mix of 85 percent #10 USGA sharp sand and 15 percent Dakota reed sedge.

Lou Osborn mows the field with the 12-foot Toro rotary mower.

All of the fields are primarily bluegrass, a Kentucky bluegrass blend called Grid Blue from United Seeds, Inc., which includes Cabernet, Perfection, Princeton 105, Rambo and Rugby II Kentucky bluegrasses. Haubold says, “When the budget and time allow it, we do an overseeding of the fields using the Grid Blue blend. When the fields are in play, we will try to overseed with a rye blend. We use Five Iron Perennial Ryegrass from United Seeds, Inc., a blend of All Star 3, Revenge, SR4600 and TopHat2 perennial ryegrasses.”

As in most areas, water use is becoming more of a concern. Approximately 250 acres, including all the athletic fields, are equipped with inground irrigation. In the past two years, the district has converted their irrigation control to a Toro Sentinel System to better monitor water usage and control application rates and timing. It includes a centrally located weather station sensor that monitors everything from UV, wind and evapotranspiration (ET).  Haubold says, “In the first year of operation of the Sentinel System, we were able to cut water usage on our athletic fields by an average of 40 percent. Because our district is spread across such a wide area, conditions can vary greatly from one site to another. We are considering adding a second weather station in the future to further increase the efficiency of the system.”

Damage to the synthetic turf is examined by the crew.

The synthetic field serves as the stadium field for the district. It’s a Sprinturf system with 100 percent crumb rubber infill. It was installed during the spring of 2005 and first used for that fall’s football season.

Maintenance program

The biggest challenges the grounds department faces are typical of a growing program with a limited budget—too many scheduled activities on the natural grass fields and insufficient time allowed for the fields to recover before being used again.

They’ve developed a base month-by-month maintenance program for the native soil middle school fields, the native soil high school fields and the sand-based high school fields. Becker says, “We’ve also developed corresponding schedules for preparation for on-field activities, but these schedules are only plans that we must constantly modify according to field use changes and weather conditions.

“Our fertilization programs are based on soil-test results. We’ve switched to a fertilizer with 75 percent slow-release nitrogen (N) to gain greater flexibility in timing the applications. We aim for about 4 pounds of N per 1,000 square feet, spread over four applications on the native soil high school fields. The middle school fields get a bit less spread over three applications. We apply between 5 and 6 pounds of N on the sand-based fields spread over six applications. The sand-based fields require a more intensive irrigation program, too. They don’t tolerate as much use as the native soils fields, but do recover faster from use.”

Aerification is a major tool in reducing compaction and helping the fields stand up to so much use. They use a combination of core aeration, dragging in the cores; solid shatter-tine aeration to an 8-inch depth; and slicing, using whichever method best fits the window of opportunity. They try to topdress after core aeration using about 1/8 inch of an 85/15 mix that matches the profile of the sand-based fields.

Rob Lender works on overseeding, pulling the seeder behind the John Deere 2150 tractor.

The baseball, softball and soccer fields are mowed to a height of 1.5 to 1.75 inches with a Toro Reelmaster during the playing season. Becker says, “In season, we mow them on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. The team also has access to a 72-inch, zero-turn rotary unit for cutting the practice fields and the out-of-season fields to a height of 2.5 to 3 inches. Crew members [that are] not mowing trim with string trimmers or do whatever repair and/or maintenance is needed at each site.

The blower is used to clear any debris from the synthetic field surface. It will be followed by brushing to stand up the turf fibers.

“We follow stringent IPM procedures, using control products only as needed and constantly evaluating and searching for environmentally safe products that are safe to use within the tight windows of availability around student activities. It presents a challenge, but we do a good job. Grubs are a recurring problem. We’ve achieved great control with Merit, but alternate it with Dylox every few years when we can make the timing fit to avoid building up immunity to either product. We do make preemergent weed control applications when it won’t impact overseeding. We spot-treat for broadleaf weeds as needed. We control any disease issues with cultural practices, using fungicides only as a curative treatment. We use hooded spray applicators when control products must be applied.”

The heavy use of the synthetic field brings another set of challenges. The crew walks the field before each event looking for damage. They make the repairs in-house and have logged, on average, 78 repairs per year. Once repairs are completed, they work the entire field with a blower to remove any debris and then come back with a brush to stand up the turf fibers.

The author is a contributing editor for Sportsfield Management.