Q&A with Dr. Grady Miller

Q: What can I do to improve my field(s)?

A: During the year, I get asked this question frequently. About 6 weeks ago, I was visiting with a new coach at new private school while standing on the school’s only field. It was being used for physical education classes and for soccer practice. Actually, maybe I should characterize the field better—it was a pasture, mown low. They were using a nearby city-maintained facility for their home games. It was their desire to improve the field so that they could actually use it for competition.

Of course I sometimes get an equally great opportunity to stand on great fields with very experienced sports turf managers and they sometimes ask the same question. I think one of great joys in my job is the opportunity to help people in their journey toward better playing surfaces regardless of where the journey begins. I wish all sports fields had some minimum level of condition all the time, but I have come to realize some situations just do not allow that to be the case.

Of course, “pro-level” fields have high expectations so that brings its own unique set of problems. Unfortunately it seems our high-end sports surfaces tend to cost a lot to keep them high-end; whereas, the low-end fields tend to stay low end because inputs are rarely ever increased, or at least they do not seem to match the level of use.

I have always said there are four major components that influence the quality of a field. At the center is good construction of the field. Afterwards, it is all about water management, maintenance, and controlled use. This column is going to concentrate on the maintenance aspect.

I will target my response toward minimum maintenance fields, but the concept can be applied to fields maintained at any level. At the most basic level most people recognize the need to mow turfgrass, but some turf managers could still improve their mower set-up and mowing practices. Sharp blades (rotary or reel) and properly set up deck or reels are paramount to a quality cut. Turfgrass should be mowed regularly based on growth rate and desired mowing height. The lower the cutting height, the more frequently it should be mowed. Bermudagrass fields will require more frequent mowing in the warmer months. Attention to this cultural practice is the first commitment that needs to be made toward achieving quality athletic fields.

After mowing, the next big impact item is often fertilization. Bermudagrass will respond to nitrogen fertilizer. In general, the higher the rate, the faster the recovery from damage. Well-fertilized grasses are darker green and generally will have fewer weeds. With high-end field management all kinds of fertilizer products can be used in programs for peaking fields for events, recovery, color, etc. But on the low end, just getting regular applications of a fertilizer at decent rates can make a big difference in field quality. Increasing rates from 1 pound per 1,000 square feet to 2, or 2 to 3, etc., up to about 6 pounds of N per 1,000 square feet a year will bring improvements. Once you get up to the higher annual rates, application timing and product formulations can be adjusted to refine turfgrass performance.

To me the third big impact item is weed control. For most high-end facilities, weeds are not tolerated. Often in large stadiums weeds are not a significant issue a year or two after establishment because the stadium walls prevents weed-blown seeds being introduced and dedicated mowers are used so no weeds are brought in from outside fields. But I often see lower-input fields struggle with weeds if measures to prevent them are not taken. I always suggest fields be put on a preemergence herbicide program. It is normally much cheaper and easier to prevent weeds than to control them once they appear. For bermudagrass fields, the active ingredient oxidiazon is the product of choice although in some instances other products may be used effectively. There is a large arsenal of chemical control products; many are specific to particular weeds. Take the time to figure out the best weed control program for each of your fields. This can save you money and time, minimizing your inputs, and increase your field’s uniformity.

The last significant maintenance practice to address is aerification. Poking holes with or without pulling cores is paramount to keeping a field from becoming overly hard and the turfgrass healthy. This practice also helps with water infiltration, fertilizer efficiency, and gas release. Turf manager almost can’t aerify their fields too much. Aerification frequency is one of the biggest management differences I see between low-input and high-input fields. I recommend most field managers try to figure out a way to get their fields aerified more frequently than they are currently accomplishing.

So, how can you do better? For low-budget fields, target the practices that will have the greatest benefit for the dollars and time invested. I would start with the four I just mentioned. Increase your inputs to the level your budget will support. Then use your knowledge and experience to make timely decisions to maximize those inputs. Make decisions purposely and your fields will get better and better.