Cultural practices and guidelines for low-budget athletic fields

By Dr. Brad Fresenburg

Expectations on today’s sports fields are much higher than they were when many of us played Little League baseball or other sports. High expectations often lead to disappointing outcomes when fields do not meet the expectations of coaches, players, and parents. There is often a gap between what is expected and what is necessary to provide a safe, playable field. If that gap can be minimized by removing excessive expectations, priorities and dollars can be more focused. The primary objective when maintaining athletic fields at any level of play is to provide safe, playable fields for athletes. All too often, budgetary limitations get in the way of proper care and maintenance of athletic fields. Although there is no universal budgetary formula, some level of success can be achieved on most athletic fields. Understanding and applying essential cultural practices, as well as using outside sources; athletic directors, coaches, users, and sports turf managers can collaborate to provide healthy, safe, playable fields that meet those primary objectives of safety and playability.

Have a plan

Whether maintaining one field or 20 fields, prioritizing them can help determine where time, supplies, and maintenance should be allocated. Schedules of events, basic maintenance desired, equipment and resources needed factor into the overall plan. Distinguish high priority areas from low priority areas. For example, game and main practice fields require the most time and money to maintain. Maintenance frequency and material allocation can be reduced on low priority fields and other areas.

Part of this plan includes an annual budget. You may not be responsible for this, but it helps to have an understanding of individual cost for various practices. What does it cost to fertilizing a field or core aerate the center of a football field? Knowing individual cost provides opportunities for donations when you consider outside relationships (discussed a little later).

Concentrate on maintenance practices

While a practice like mowing and fertility may occur over the entire field, overseeding and aeration can be applied to areas of greatest need. Applying seed between football hash marks only will reduce seed requirements by 66%. Only 22% of an entire college football field exists from the 20 to 20 yard line to 5 yards beyond the hash marks. For high school football fields, this area is 26% of the field. You can increase your spending power by almost four times when targeting high traffic areas. Other high traffic areas include goal boxes on soccer fields and positional areas on baseball and softball outfields. Focusing on the areas of dire need will stretch limited dollars for the most good.

Cultural practices

There are cultural practices that are necessary and others that can be altered from a little to a lot. Mowing (time, fuel, and repairs) is a must and always part of every annual budget. Beyond this, two of the next best practices are fertility and seeding. If the field manager can maintain the highest possible mowing height allowed (up to 3.5 to 4 inches), overseeding and fertility will help to maintain the highest turfgrass density possible for safety, playability, and weed competition (reducing annual weeds by 80%). When overseeding, always provide good seed/soil contact to get the highest level of seed germination. Always select turfgrass blends or mixtures best for your area with the highest degree of disease resistance possible. Often seed and fertilizer is spread on bare, compacted soil surfaces providing very little benefit for the dollars spent.

  • Cool-season grasses (tall fescue, Kentucky bluegrass, perennial ryegrass) are optimally overseeded and fertilized in the fall of the year. Spring overseeding and fertility may be an option if spring play occurs. However, late spring fertility can be detrimental to cool-season grasses as it relates to turfgrass diseases. Cool-season grasses, like fescue, are more susceptible to brown patch disease if fescue receives excess nitrogen late spring to early summer. Type of fertilizer and timing are key to managing diseases. If a budget only allows minimal overseeding and fertility (one or two applications), fall is the optimum time.
  • Warm-season grasses (bermudagrass, zoysiagrass, etc.) are re-established and fertilized during the late spring and early summer months for rapid growth and recovery. Seeding is the most economical means of re-establishment followed by sprigging.

Soil testing is another inexpensive practice to consider as a means to save money. Sports turf managers can determine what the needs are for nutrients as well as what the soil pH is. If soil pH falls outside the desirable range (pH 6 to 7); applications of fertilizer may not benefit turfgrass plants as nutrients may be locked up in the soil colloid. Soil test results may also indicate sufficient levels of some nutrients like phosphorus and potassium; therefore saving dollars on purchasing fertilizers containing these nutrients and apply that savings to additional nitrogen fertilizers or other practices.

To avoid fertilizer waste, determine the exact square footage of fertilized areas. Accurately measuring the square footage of treated areas helps determine some of those costs figures of many maintenance practices. Accurate fertilizer applications are dependent on purchasing the correct amount of fertilizer for a known square footage. Also, slightly reducing the fertilizer application rate (adjusting from 1 lb N/1000 sq. ft. to ¾ lb N/1000 sq. ft.) can make a difference when it comes to budgeted dollars. Spreading your fertilizer over several applications will be more beneficial than all at once (i.e., two applications of 0.50 lb of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet versus one application of a pound). Rotary walk-behind spreaders are very economical and are often used for all levels of play. Fertilizer buggies from local farm co-ops are an option for applications over large areas.

Aerification (soil cultivation) is and always will be the most neglected maintenance practice. It provides some of the greatest benefits: reduced compaction, air exchange, water and nutrient infiltration, and opportunities for deeper root development. It is a practice that can be completed using a borrowed piece of equipment. Walk-behind units can be rented daily for a nominal fee and used in those areas with the most need (centers of a football field, goal mouths, sidelines, etc.). This practice can improve on safety better than most other practices.

Irrigation may or may not be an option. Most low budget programs tend not to have a source of water especially if it is potable water being purchased. While soil moisture is important during play, it can increase the chances of turfgrass diseases if applied too often. Only apply what the soil/root-zone can infiltrate in one watering. Anything more will cause puddles and runoff—wasting water and promoting diseases. It is best to be on the conservative side of irrigation except where safety is a concern.

Topdressing is usually a luxury practice in a low budget facility. While sand is very cheap to purchase, transportation cost is usually prohibitive, not to mention the lack of application equipment (topdresser). Those fertilizer buggies at the local farm co-op can be used to spread topdressing sand as well if the co-op is willing and you are able to get sand delivered.

Keep in mind that cultural practices, however completed; should be followed correctly to favor the turfgrass and not pests. There is a direct correlation between poor cultural practices and levels of pests observed. Minimizing pests minimizes costs.

Control use

Over-use is a problem where athletic grounds are very limited. Any opportunity to restrict activities like physical education and band practice will greatly reduce wear and stretch maintenance dollars. Closing fields when conditions are unfavorable and limiting or eliminating public use can greatly reduce cost. In addition, shifting a field 20 to 30 feet or rotating them can spread the concentration of traffic over more area, therefore allowing previously worn areas to recover. Flexibility to change up a sporting event from a home field to an away field or vice versa to avoid wet playing conditions can save a field from excess damage. Controlling use will save dollars on maintenance.

Consider outside relationships

Most communities will have a sportsplex or golf course nearby. Relationships between these facilities, local businesses and a local school district can be as simple as introducing oneself and asking a question. If a school district has no means to purchase an aerator, don’t be afraid to contact a local golf course to potentially borrow their aerator. Perhaps several nearby school districts can purchase a piece of equipment to share. Many lawn care businesses will have specialized equipment like vertical slicers and aerators. Local farm co-ops are often a great source for seed, fertilizers and pesticides.

Consider an advertising trade-off. Community businesses may have some excellent sources for knowledge and may be willing to donate products, equipment and services for an advertisement spot on a scoreboard or outfield fence. Many sporting events are announced on local radio stations where broadcasters can promote a business for their contributions to a school or sporting program.

Booster clubs help to offset some of the cost for team uniforms, equipment and even field maintenance needs. Saturday morning bake sales, trivia nights, website sponsorships or auctions can often buy a piece of equipment or seed and fertilizer for a season. Calculating those cost in the planning phase of maintenance and resources needed, are the numbers you will need to provide to a booster club or individual for the asking.

Athletic field maintenance at the high school level or in any low-budget situation is not hopeless. Devise a plan, provide a list of needs and start asking around. You may find that safe and playable sports fields are an achievable goal even on a limited budget. More detailed information can be found on the STMA website, “2015 Conference recordings – Cultural Practices & Guidelines for Low Budget Athletic Fields.”

Brad Fresenburg, PhD, is Assistant Extension Professor, University of Missouri Turfgrass Sciences.