Let’s talk about research and development.
This process – by which companies create research laboratories and fill them with very smart people focused on pressing technical problems of the upmost importance – is a tried and true, successful step crucial to our global economy and business structure.
And it’s not a new concept.
For example, in the 19th century, many of the country’s largest railroads established staff offices that monitored learning and innovation throughout their sprawling systems. Taking this example a little further, the Pennsylvania Railroad – which, in 1876, became the first American corporation to hire a Ph.D. chemist – built a facility for testing locomotives in place while operating at speeds as high as 90 mph.
Now, let’s talk about research and development in the sports field industry. A prime example of important, current industry R&D is the work being done at the Iowa State University Horticulture Research Station, where sports fields planted on a 3-acre plot are being used to test the effects of athletic use on the turfgrass plant to improve athletic fields all across the country.
Yes, these are sports fields near cornfields in Iowa. But, no, this isn’t a “Field of Dreams” revival.
The installation and implementation of these soon-to-be professional-grade athletic fields are what should be a great addition to the industry’s research footprint.
The man behind the curtain
Baseball Hall of Famer Eddie Murray once said, “There’s more to this game than just walking up to home plate, swinging the bat, fielding a ground ball. There’s some dedication in it, some love you’ve got to put into this work.” (Go ahead and trust Murray’s words – he racked up 3,255 career hits.)
The second part of what Murray said – the part about dedication and putting love into your work – suits Dan Strey to a tee. Strey, 30, and a native of Rockford, Illinois, is a research assistant in Iowa State’s Department of Horticulture and the brains (and brawn) behind this sports turf research facility, which is about 15 minutes from the main campus.
“This is one of the bigger areas in the country that is truly dedicated solely to sports turf research,” Strey says on a sunny September afternoon, standing on one of the fields – that he planned, excavated and planted – at the sports turf research facility. “This project was a personal goal for me. One year from now, this will look like any playing surface.”
According to Strey, much of the research planned involves traffic simulation, using a machine fitted with two rollers with cleats screwed to them. The machine then creates a twisting motion that simulates the cuts and direction changes a player might make on the field. Measuring the wear and tear of a field is a main focus, but, Strey says, researchers also will focus on fertility and seeding rates. The area – which broke ground in June – is divided into three plots: a native soil field, a field that will be used to evaluate sand topdressing over existing native soil fields, and a field with a 3-inch sand cap. Each field has nine subplots; each subplot has different cultivars and species of grasses. The three plots were designed to represent the major types of sports fields being used and constructed in Iowa as well as in the Midwest.
“These plots were carefully planned out,” Strey says. “We wanted grasses that are used in this area, for instance at the Iowa State football stadium, or at the (Chicago Cubs Triple-A affiliate) Iowa Cubs stadium. We also wanted cultivars that are being used a lot in the industry so we can properly research them. Or, for instance, one of these stadiums is having trouble with its fields; the crew can call us and say ‘Hey, are you seeing anything on your side?’ Also, if they need help, if they want to try something but can’t necessarily do it mid-season, they’ll ask us, ‘Can you spray ‘X’ in an area for me, and tell me if you’re seeing any issues?'”
Not only does Strey – who received an undergraduate degree from Iowa State in horticulture-turfgrass management and landscape design and construction in 2012, and completed a master’s program in horticulture-turfgrass management this year – manage these plots, but he also cares for 15 acres of turf at the Iowa State Horticulture Research Station. It’s a lot of work, but at least he doesn’t have to waste valuable time commuting – Strey lives in a house on the property.
“This project fit all my loves,” Strey says. “To me, this is a small piece of heaven out here. It’s been a challenge to tackle it all, but I’m as comfortable in a skid loader as I am on a mower on a fairway.”
Strey isn’t lying about that. He has two golf course internships under his belt, as, in 2010, he interned at Geneva National (Geneva Lake, Wisconsin) and, in 2011, at Victoria National (Newburgh, Indiana). Fast-forward to 2015, and he was the guy in the bulldozer (thanks to a partnership with Ziegler Caterpillar) clearing the land that would eventually become this turf research “playground.”
More valuable equipment
Along with the bulldozer – and other heavy machinery – these research plots were carefully implemented. But there’s another tool with which Strey has become skilled, thanks to this project: the telephone. It’s easy to sit in a room and come up with great ideas, exciting innovations and new concepts. But to get any project past the infant, conceptual stage and into the reality stage, an essential hurdle to cross is finding the necessary funding. It was incumbent on Strey all winter to work the phones and seek out donations for the project.
“Over 90 percent of this project is through donations,” Strey explains. “That’s what took the most time. We created a lot of relationships with donors and sponsors that were crucial to this project’s success.”
The project was fully funded by mid-February. Strey also worked with several manufacturers and local equipment dealers. Overall, he was “blown away by the generosity of the project donors,” which include the following companies and organizations: Hunter Industries, Cresline Pipe, Nibco Valves, Regency Wire, John Deere Landscapes, Rainbird Irrigation, Ziegler Caterpillar, Trimble GPS, Iowa Turfgrass Institute, Iowa Sports Turf Managers Association, United Seeds, Bush Sports Turf, Lasco Fittings, Inc., Harco Fittings, MTI Distributing, Doug and Amy Moore, Barenbrug USA, and the Iowa State University Department of Horticulture.
“Before we put a shovel in the ground, we had a gameplan,” Strey says.
Down to the details
After ground was broken on the project in June, Strey and his assistant, Iowa State undergraduate student Zack Olinger, installed irrigation and drainage systems – which included laying 6,000 feet of pipe, 72 sprinkler heads, 24 electric valves, eight isolation valves, 12 quick couplers and 3 miles of wire – and planting was completed in early August. The goal was for the perennial ryegrass to be completely grown in by the fall and the Kentucky bluegrass by May.
The only real setback to the project was extremely wet weather. Since May 1, Strey says, the area has undergone 35 inches of rain, which caused irrigation to take twice as long as originally anticipated. “Luckily, we got the dirt work done before it got really wet out there,” Strey recalls. “When it rained on any given day, we got nothing less than 1 inch. So we’d work 14- and 15-hour days because we knew that, once the rains came, we’d be shut down for days.”
Seeding/final grading on the fields was done Aug. 16, but heavy rains came Aug. 17 and 18, washing out some of the seed. “Some plots have come in beautifully, others got washed out after the rains. Overall, there have been minimal problems with seed growth,” Strey says. After the rain, Strey put seed back down in the affected areas in mid-September, and sprouts could be easily seen on Sept. 22. The target date for full-grow in is June 1, 2016, and Strey says they are on schedule to make that happen.
As far as grasses go, the research area features four plots of pure Kentucky bluegrass, which is heavily used on sports fields across the country. There is also one small plot of ryegrass and one small plot of turf-type tall fescue, which was planted because, as Strey explains, “there hasn’t been a lot of work done with this type of grass in the past, and it’s gained popularity in the Midwest during the last five years.”
On the sand cap field, sand from old putting greens at the Iowa State University Horticulture Research Station was used for construction. “No materials were hauled in, and no materials were hauled out,” Strey says. “Everything was done on-site.”
Concerning mowing, Strey has both John Deere and Toro mowers. He currently mows the plots at 1.5 inches and next year, the target is 1 to 1.25 inches. And in addition to the traffic and fertility studies, Strey also runs confidential and classified experiments on the plots for various chemical and seed companies.
‘With a little help from my friends’
Yes, when Ringo Starr sang those famed lyrics in 1967, he wasn’t referring to the Iowa State University Horticulture Research Station. Nevertheless, the song’s message rings true: Sometimes, we can’t do it alone.
This was the case for Strey in construction of this sports turf research facility. Along with the project’s donors and sponsors, Strey needed help at various points of construction, for example the aforementioned irrigation installation, done by Strey and Olinger, an Iowa State undergrad. The two worked together on several other tasks, and Strey says, without Olinger, this project couldn’t have been done.
“Zack expressed interest [in helping] last winter, and he was included and involved from the planning stages to what you see now,” Strey says. “For him, as an undergrad, he’s not going to be able to get this experience anywhere else. It’s important for him to see how this all came together.”
Strey says his favorite part of constructing the project was observing Olinger’s growth over time. “The best part of doing this was watching how far Zack has come,” Strey says. “He had no experience with irrigation or field building. He’s now in an undergrad irrigation course and he can darn near teach it! To see his evolution was fantastic. I took him under my wing and he worked his tail off.”
Strey also received help throughout the process from Derek York, a project manager with Bush Sports Turf (http://BushTurf.com), an Illinois sports field construction company. Strey made several calls to York during the winter, seeking advice and suggestions of different methodologies from some construction and field building practices. York also helped laser-grade the plots in August.
Several others local to the Iowa State University community also assisted with the project. Also, several vendors and peers of Strey offered advice and suggestions during the Iowa Turfgrass Field Day on July 23, which was held at the Iowa State University Horticulture Research Station.
“This industry is all about sharing,” Strey says. “We want to be able to show this process – how to build a field – in a classroom. We want to share results and allow people to learn from what we’ve done here.”
COVER AND PHOTOS: CHRISTOPHER GANNON, IOWA STATE UNIVERSITY, ROB MEYER AND DAN STREY