Managing athletic fields on a tight budget

As communities all over the country grow, the need for safe athletic fields is greater than ever. As an athletic-field manager, you are responsible for providing a safe, playable field to the people who use it. This seems like an easy enough challenge for you to tackle, right? Unfortunately, field managers have inherited fields with little or no money set aside for their upkeep. Along with these fields come the possible problems of poor design, bad installations and less-than-desirable soils. Compounding the problems even more is the constant use of these fields on a year-around basis. So let's review: more fields, more use and less money! How big is that challenge to tackle now? Today's small-budgeted athletic-field manager must be dedicated, organized, educated and innovative to provide an acceptable field for the end users. Here are some tips that I believe will help you start creating the safest field possible.

1. Prioritize Remember, it's your responsibility to provide the people who use your field with a safe and playable one. Being able to prioritize your maintenance practices - on any budget - can provide an acceptable, safe playing surface. Priorities should lie in the areas where maintenance is of utmost importance. These areas should include, but are not limited to: irrigation, mowing, fertilization and aeration. Obviously on a baseball/softball field, some time must be set aside for infield skin and pitcher's mound maintenance. As you begin to prioritize each task for field maintenance, you'll realize which ones will require the greatest amount of your budget.

2. Communication When you have a small budget, it is important to communicate your financial situation to the users of the field. This may mean talking to a high school booster club or little league association directors. If you are able to show how your maintenance practices are prioritized, this will demonstrate to these users how you are working toward the best field possible, given the financial situation. This will ensure that everyone is on the same page and knows what to expect regarding the field. Don't lead them to believe that you can provide Super-Bowl or All-Star game field quality with a tight budget, either. Being able to provide a safe field to play on should be all interested parties expect. With poor soil conditions, excessive use and little money to work with, aesthetics should not be a priority at this time.

3. Irrigation Irrigation is the best way to provide a desirable turf cover on your playing field. You need to be knowledgeable in the use and operation of the irrigation system and all of it's different components. Being able to provide your turf with adequate - not excessive - moisture will give you an acceptable playing surface in most instances. Healthy, irrigated turf will also help in the prevention of undesirable weeds encroaching into the turf.

4. Mowing Make sure that you have a properly maintained mower with sharp, balanced blades. Being able to maintain turf at the recommended mowing height will aid in the overall health and appearance of the turf. A properly mowed field will recover quicker from damage, and will provide a safer, more stable playing surface for all of it's participants.

5. Aerification No matter what type of soil the field is grown on, aerification is necessary. Aerification opens up the top 3 to 4 inches of soil and allows numerous benefits for the turfgrass plant. Aerifying the soil allows oxygen to get into the rootzone, relieves soil compaction, allows water to infiltrate the soil profile, aids in the movement of fertilizers into the soil profile and helps to reduce thatch buildup.

6. Fertilization Turfgrass that has an adequate amount of fertilizer is better able to recuperate and withstand the stresses put upon it. Using the correct fertilizer to meet the nutrient needs of the turf will help you maintain healthy turf on your field. The amount of fertilizer needed varies depending on the species of turfgrass in your area of the country. By using a slow-release fertilizer (e.g., IBDU), you will get a longer residual effect than by using a quick- release fertilizer (e.g., Urea). You should contact your local extension office for specific fertilizer recommendations if you have questions.

7. Field rotation If space allows, field rotation is a great way to spread out wear on a field. If you are able to run your field in an east/west layout for the spring, and then flip it to a north /south layout for the summer, this will spread out concentrated wear to other areas of the field. After a field has been rotated or shifted, you may be able to work on highly trafficked areas without affecting play. Unfortunately, this is not feasible for baseball/softball field.

8. Equipment Keeping your maintenance equipment in proper working order will enable you to use all the tools you need to maintain your field. By keeping up with scheduled maintenance according to the manufacturer, you should be able to get many years of use from each piece of equipment. When purchasing equipment, look at multi-use equipment that is capable of performing a variety of tasks. Utility carts, for example, not only haul materials, but can also be outfitted with many other attachments as well, including a spray rig, topdresser or a fertilizer spreader.

9. Use of free services Being able to tap into free services is a big asset for any athletic-field manager. The best service for your particular area is your local extension office. Your local extension office will be able to help you select the correct turfgrass for your area, conduct soil testing and assist you in fertilizer selection as well as conduct disease and insect identification. The local extension office also may have free literature that can benefit you.

Alumni, parents, high school and college teams are also great sources of help. These groups may be able to assist you in the daily and yearly maintenance of a field. This help can range from taking care of a skinned infield and it's edges, to rebuilding a field. If you take the time to organize the efforts of these groups, you can work on other maintenance tasks while they maintain the field they are using. This also will allow these groups gain pride in a job well done and could encourage them to help out more in the future, as well. I have even seen these groups pitch-in financially to help offset the cost of a piece of equipment needed to help maintain a field. This could be a paint machine to mark the lines or a bunker rake to work a skinned infield with.

10. Educate yourself Better understanding the fields that you maintain can only help you to succeed. Become active and involved with your local, regional or national turfgrass associations. Try to attend as many turfgrass workshops and seminars your budget will allow. These are a great way to meet and ask other professionals how they tackle tough athletic-field issues that you may be facing. Being able to network and build contacts will help when you face a challenge that is new to you. These associations are also a great source of literature authored by worldwide turfgrass professionals who may help you tackle the challenge of producing that top-notch field.

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