Using data to improve field safety, playability and turf health

How do you balance the conflicting needs of several user groups (players, greens committees, athletic directors, coaches, band leaders, graduation planners, etc.) and the cultural needs of the playing field? Often it forces compromises like irrigating not by what the turf needs, but to fit small windows of opportunity between events. All the benefactors want perfect turf for their activities, and none of them fully recognize that their individual and collective expectations are often in conflict with turf health, and therefore, their own goals.

For many years, dry and hard was the goal for game day, and little attention was paid to athlete safety. Those days are gone because the scrutiny on safety is much more intense today. Player safety has gained an ever-growing spotlight, and liability concerns are driving even professional sports to change the way their games are being played.

What complicates this situation is that there are many different interpretations of what a “safe field” really is and what it takes to achieve that expectation. Some think softer fields must be safer, but that approach overlooks the potential for soft tissue injuries. Safety and playability is a complex balance of what is good for the player and the fundamental needs of healthy turf. What often gets missed by user groups and administrators is that turf health is a key component of providing safe conditions. It is paramount that the health needs of the turf not be set aside in favor of safety or field availability, because neither can be effectively achieved without strong root systems and healthy turfgrass plants.

Being in low/no budget environments further amplifies the importance of every decision that a turf manager must make. Multi-use fields and increasing scrutiny on player safety add to the challenges you face. Managers need all the help they can get to produce healthy and safe playing fields within limited time and budget constraints.

Successfully managing athletic fields these days requires an understanding of three critical factors that each influence one another, and bring individual and collective impacts on safety, playability, recovery and resource management. Similarly, they all influence and are influenced by irrigation practices.

3 legs of a stool

Soil moisture, surface firmness and soil compaction can be visualized as the legs of a stool. With all three legs in place, the stool stands firm with limited effort and is at its strongest. Remove one or more of the legs and it is far more difficult to keep the stool upright, and its capacity is diminished significantly.

Water is one of the most scrutinized turfgrass inputs. Especially in areas prone to drought, the pressure to justify every drop applied is intense and growing. At the same time, it is essential to providing the conditions desired by field users because only healthy turf can achieve their expectations. Believe it or not, the tension between these is a good thing, driving us to more responsible use of water and even making turf healthier in the long run through better-informed management of the true needs of the plants. With the right information, justification of irrigation and water savings are both possible.

Portable soil moisture meter technology makes it easy to add ongoing measurement and management of soil moisture levels part of your routine operations. Many turf managers have been using TDR meters daily for years, to dial in moisture levels and create optimal playing conditions. They can tell you what their ideal moisture content is at any given point in the year, when and precisely where they need to water and for how long.

Soil moisture meters allow them to determine easy to communicate wilt points for their turf, ideal game day moisture content by sport or event, and better balance the needs of turf and user for mutual benefit. It is possible to determine both, exactly how much you must irrigate to maintain turf health, and how much you can irrigate without negatively impacting performance of the field at the next event.

Knowing and managing to ideal game day moisture targets provides recordable, objective data backup when you are questioned about management decisions.

Surface firmness

Playability is a moving target for a myriad of reasons. Multi-use fields present unique and often conflicting priorities about what makes the field playable for each specific need. Determining and managing game day moisture levels is an excellent start, but more is needed to maintain player safety objectives, achieve desired playing conditions for each sport, and meet the demands of each user group. Understanding surface compaction (hardness) and setting quantifiable thresholds is vital. Defining surface measurement values that meet the specific needs of each event makes it easier to understand and provide those conditions, as well as gauge and communicate progress. Data provides unbiased feedback to help you determine the best mix of cultural and irrigation strategies for fine tuning your programs to create safer and better playing surfaces.

Surface firmness meters provide objective measurements that quantify what conditions are preferred, creating a platform for constructive discussion about what is acceptable in challenging conditions, and facilitating agreement on the resources required to make all it happen. Establishing, agreeing on and managing playing surfaces based on quantifiable data gives you a significant advantage over trying to achieve loosely defined, subjective expectations.

Most sports turf managers believe surface testing is priced well out of their range, but viable options are available and affordable enough for almost any organization to have on hand for routine monitoring of their conditions. A common concern with reasonably priced instruments is that they use different units of measurement than the frequently touted test implements, but the value is not in the units displayed.

Any measurement is a giant leap forward from doing nothing and likely puts you ahead of most peers. Regardless of what meter is used, the numbers themselves are irrelevant anyway. What matters is how a given reading translates to the performance of your fields, and that you can consistently monitor playability realities. Communication and understanding of conditions becomes much easier once a common scale is established.

Liability is another key concern. Frequent testing and ongoing recordkeeping of inputs to address field conditioning demonstrates diligence and commitment to safety. Not measuring could easily prove far more expensive than an investment in tools that allow you to continually validate performance of your facilities. Further, an incomplete approach to testing can provide false security, which leads us to the third leg of the stool.

Soil compaction

Surface hardness measurement alone is truly insufficient in determining actual safety of an athletic field. Soil compaction throughout the rootzone must also be considered, understood, monitored, and managed to ensure safe playing conditions and encourage a healthy growing environment. Think about carpeting installed over concrete, even though padding softens the surface there is still a very real impact hazard because of what lies just beneath. This danger increases dramatically with the layering of several common but usually unperceived factors such as, frequency of impact in a given sport, size and speed of the players, and cumulative effects of busy field schedules.

The physical properties of soil are dynamic, and often misunderstood. It doesn’t take a soil scientist to see that dried soil hardens and saturated soil is soft (mud), but there is much more to consider. The mere presence of moisture can dramatically skew how soil compaction is perceived, and we can easily do the wrong thing for a right reason. Irrigating will soften dry soil, but the application of water does not mitigate compaction. In fact, applying traffic to wetted soil will make compaction worse.

Perched water tables are of specific concern to sports turf managers. Underlying compaction and soil characteristics can prevent drainage from the surface layers until they become fully saturated. This can be an inherited condition, or something unknowingly contributed to by consistent cultivation at the same depths without ever addressing the deeper profile. Whatever the cause, the result is very undesirable outcomes like shallow turf plant rooting, poor foot traction, diminished shear strength and compromised wear tolerance. What’s more, an artificially soft surface layer can give false ‘acceptable’ surface hardness measurements that don’t equate to safe conditions.

Measuring compaction levels in the deeper soil profile with a digital meter allows you to monitor what is going on beneath the surface and improve timing and effectiveness of aeration practices. Knowing how the entire soil profile is performing helps you make informed, site-specific, cultural management decisions to improve field safety and turfgrass health conditions. A digital value is far superior to an analog dial or color scale because numeric values allow tracking of subtle changes over time and help you gauge the urgency required for action. Consider investing in a meter with an ultrasonic depth sensor and internal data logger; there is one currently available that records at every inch up to a depth of 18 inches into the profile.

Technology is always evolving, and today portable meters are available for measuring the three legs of our stool. Even better, some even offer GPS location, satellite mapping and cloud-based data management options. For best results seek a platform that allows management of all three factors in the same dashboard with visual analysis tools.

Communication with administrators and user groups can be far more effective with visual support that they can better understand. Imagine the power of having your evaluation data GPS plotted on a satellite image of your facilities.

Reducing liability

Liability concerns must be addressed when developing programs to deliver on these goals. Concerns about risk exposure have rapidly changed the way organizations think about their athletic facilities. Fear of legal action cuts through organizational structures like nothing else and compels them to seek out ways to reduce risk. In many cases this has resulted in an intensified pressure and scrutiny on field management staff, but unfortunately supplemental resource allocations have not increased to adequately address these pressures and concerns.

It should make perfect sense to your chain of command to lower liability exposure by investing in field measurement instruments to test, track and validate an organizational commitment to maintaining safe facilities. For a few thousand dollars you can be ready when the lawyers call, with concrete facts about the conditions of your field when an incident occurred. Data is like kryptonite to frivolous lawsuits.

Meters track safety conditions and provide significant, practical and agronomic value. You can leverage the liability concerns that are easily recognized by administrators to secure funding for tools that might never be approved for turf health alone. In turn you can better address field management factors less recognizable to others, for the mutual benefit of all parties. By giving them what they want, you can also provide what they need.

Budget support

Availability of resources has not grown with the same intensity as scrutiny. It’s difficult to explain the delicate balance between turf health needs, athletic field playability and player safety concerns to those not actively engaged in performing the work. Easily overlooked is that the physical properties of a field change with weather and wear throughout the course of a season. This reality significantly influences how much effort is required to provide desired conditions. It simply takes more resources (labor, materials, equipment, etc.) at certain times to produce the same result, and often there are environmental and other circumstances beyond the turf manger’s control can make it impossible to achieve the ideal.

An added value to the use of field measurement instruments is their ability as third-party evaluators in determining and sharing quantified realities about the needs of your fields. Data is your friend, even when it reveals information you don’t like. Quantifying even difficult results provides a compelling opportunity to make adjustments that improve conditions and can help you communicate need to gain buy in on your operational requirements. Finally, there is a way to prove the need for labor to address field conditions, equipment to ensure ongoing success, tarps/covers to help manage moisture, contract services, and other resources that were previously out of reach.

An increasing number of people are demanding “safe” conditions with no context for what it takes to achieve that goal. Getting access to resources to meet expectations is a real challenge. The good news is there are some very good, time tested data measurement options available in the market today that will give you what you need without charging exorbitant prices. Find what works for you and put it into practice soon.

Loyd Bowman is turf national accounts manager for Spectrum Technologies. Loyd studied turfgrass management at Michigan State and was the first-ever Toro Super Bowl Sports Turfgrass Training Program winner. He began his career as a high school groundskeeper and has been actively involved in the industry for nearly 20 years.