Keeping costs down and standards high on athletic fields
By Adam Sedgwick
Working proactively toward greater efficiencies and improvements
By Adam Sedgwick
With the impacts of COVID-19 still being felt around the world, and revenues generated by the stands, shops, bars, and restaurants of the world’s sports grounds dropping considerably, athletic turf managers are facing difficult budgetary decisions on how to best optimize their fields, while also tackling adverse weather conditions such as extreme cold weather, drought, and increased rainfall.
Turf is not a commodity where cuts can be made if standards are to be maintained. Ensuring a safe, durable, and high-performing surface is critical. The turf in a stadium or sports ground probably endures more wear and tear than any other. On football and soccer pitches, for example, teams play long seasons, with certain areas on the pitch experiencing a lot of concentrated action. These demanding locations on the field rely on exceptional standards of maintenance – week in, week out.
Instead of going out to collect data with hand sampling devices, permanently positioned sub-soil monitoring systems can stream readings from multiple key locations across pitches in real-time, collecting all the information needed to make a real-time assessment on where to allocate time and resources.
Due to the way buildings shield or expose the field to different weather conditions, the pitch develops a variety of microclimates – each with its own challenges, pressures, and risks. Whether it’s how the pitch gets airflow, moisture retention in areas of shade, or areas contracting disease, sports turf managers are required to individually monitor and treat these zones to ensure uniformity across the whole pitch.
An understaffed team will find it difficult to consistently take samples from the exact same measuring spots, reducing the consistency of manually-collected data. Additionally, tracking historical data to drive your future activities becomes nigh-on impossible. As a result, optimal turf conditions are difficult to achieve, water and expensive resources are wasted, and repetitive maintenance activities will increase costs.
With real-time data coming from underground sensors, managers get a detailed view of the in-field variation of their pitch, and can accurately treat exactly where needed according to live current levels.
Water usage and water retention
If heavy rain is forecasted, managers can program wetting agents in advance to ensure the moisture penetrates the soil and keeps it in good condition. If a period of drought is expected, moisture-retaining agents are deployed to keep the soil in good shape.
Ensuring a consistent playing surface is challenging when the soil’s growth potential and current conditions are unknown. When data is streamed from across a pitch in real-time, proactive agronomic turf improvement can be achieved as predictions can be made for plant nutrient and moisture requirements.
Aside from the physical health of the soil, athletic turf managers consider the home team’s tactics when it comes to the pitch’s condition. For example, in soccer, some teams prefer a shorter cut and a slightly wet surface to match their high intensity passing game. Others will want a dry, slower pitch with longer grass to suit their aerial superiority.
However, without some form of measurement system in place, there’s no way to effectively measure the outcomes of these practices, and finding the optimum levels is guesswork.
Optimize fertilizer application
Applying fertilizer at the wrong temperatures and moisture levels can waste thousands of dollars per application. When you have only got the air temperature to guide you on when to apply fungicides to the field, you will inevitably waste expensive products and potentially harm the plant and soil beneath.
When critical plant health products are expensive, it’s important to get the application right, and this can only be done with a data-driven approach. This way, you guarantee that you apply the product at the most effective times, leading to a greatly improved effect from its use, yearly savings, and disease control can be simplified.
Combat salinity from snow and cold weather
Turf in most cold countries sits dormant in the winter, and snow is an unavoidable enemy for turf managers. A healthy rug will be much more resilient during the winter months, so preparation is crucial. The grass plant can become extremely stressed due to the constant changes in temperature and moisture extremes.
Additionally, the risk of snow mold is a big threat when the snow begins to thaw. Deeper below the surface, the increase in moisture from the thawing snow will also pump a lot of moisture in the soil, massively increasing the salinity levels.
Sub-soil heating can help to mitigate the effects of fungal disease from the insulation the snow generates on the top layer soil. Also, by tracking historical data from previous winters, wetting agents can be programmed with sub-soil heating to ensure optimum moisture drainage when the cold weather hits. Only with real-time alerts can you optimally ensure that you’re heating the pitch at the right times and before it reaches critical temperatures. This way, you’re able to increase the playable days of your surface.
Data-driven sports turf management is a real option for grounds teams looking for ways to adapt to today’s world. Tighter conditions tend to create efficiency improvements that can have long-lasting benefits. For instance, a stadium that has collected several years of historical data will have a clearer view of overall trends and the tendencies of each zone’s soils. Instead of reacting to changes, athletic turf managers will be able to proactively work towards even greater efficiencies and improvements that will compound with each new year.
Adam Sedgwick is Soil Scout vice-president of global sales and has accrued decades of experience working across several continents in a wide range of leadership roles. From turf and amenity to precision farming, machine control, machine automation and GPS, he has spent his career at the forefront of agricultural technology and processes. A Harper Adams graduate with masters’ degrees in agri-business and crop science, he believes in the potential to contribute to a new era of sustainable agriculture and professional turf management.