Turf Management: Change of focus

The aim of turf management is on creating a surface which is fit for purpose.

A significant effort is put into carrying out a wide range of essential maintenance activities to create the desired surface.  Sometimes we can become too absorbed into undertaking maintenance work without taking a step back and questioning how not just how effective is the work, but also what are the wider consequences of the activity on the sustainability of the turfgrass environment.

Changing the focus to the desired outcomes, rather than inputs or short term results, is essential if we are to make best use of all available resources, and that includes the correct application of knowledge and understanding.

A good example of short term results is that of fertiliser application. The grass plant is quite happy to receive any additional application of Nitrogen or Iron at most times of the year, resulting in a bit of a green up and variable additional growth. To the lay person this looks good as they are judging the effectiveness primarily on the colour of the grass, however, to the experienced and insightful groundsman / grounds person this demonstrates a shallow knowledge of culture.

What are the wider consequences of the application? How is this affecting root growth? What effect is it having on traction? What about its influence on a grass’s disease resistance? Or maybe its carrying capacity? How has surface speed been affected? Has it unduly impacted on other maintenance activities? Has it encouraged undesirable thatch or an increase in weed content? Is the surface softer than desired?

The grass plant, even in a high profile stadium, is still a natural living organism which has its own life cycle and habit, and needs to be treated as such. Enhanced activities and inputs can be used to encourage the development of that ideal surface within particular situations, but the consequences of sub-optimal agronomic practices will unduly stress the grass plant and this will negatively impact on the sustainability of the grass and sward.

Footballers

Footballers

A change of focus to provide a better understanding of what is required will aid in improving resource effectiveness and potential sustainability.  The following examples are all well documented, but how often do we hear about all the inputs which go into producing a sports surface rather than the outcomes, which is what people actually want. It is a change of emphasis which is needed when discussing the product, i.e. in this example a football pitch.

Maybe there are underlying reasons why the ongoing performance outcomes of a pitch are not widely commented on. Arguably one reason is that the superficial look of a pitch helps to hide underlying issues which are best kept hidden and annual major renovations help to ‘reset the clock’ for a pitch, but this is an unacceptable approach if sustainability is to be achieved or embraced.

Before we look at this in more detail, a good analogy is that of say a motor vehicle (although not the most environmentally acceptable example). An end user isn’t (usually) interested in the quantities of materials used in its manufacture, nor how many hours it took to make, or the tools and robots which were used in the manufacturing process, but what they will be interested in are the outcomes, i.e. miles per gallons, acceleration, CO2 emissions, how comfortable it is to drive etc, i.e. its performance. This is the type of focus turf managers should be taking, especially if the industry workers are to continue to raise the professionalism of their trade.

So, for example, let’s look at where the focus of a football pitch should lie, and does lie in many cases, but there are too many which do not take this approach:

  1. For good consistent ball roll and speed we want a surface that
  • has good ground coverage
  • is relatively dry (or a slightly moist grass leaf for ‘zippiness’ of a ball)
  • has a uniform sward height
  • has an even surface
  • has a shorter grass length, which doesn’t stress a plant (rather than just a short length)

2. For good consistent grip or traction we want a surface

  • with good root growth (both density and root depth)
  • that does not kick out easily (stolons are prone to this)
  • that does not tear out easily when turning sharply with studded boots (stolons are prone to this)
  • with good grass ground cover
  • with a dry soil / rootzone
  • with a dry sward
  • with appropriate grass length for good stud grip

3. For good consistent ball (rebound) bounce we want a surface

  • good evenness, not bumpy
  • dry surface
  • dry soil / rootzone
  • good grass coverage
  • appropriate grass height, within an optimum range

4. For fatigue limitation we want a surface with

  • good evenness, not bumpy
  • a shallow gradient between goal lines and touchlines
  • good surface firmness within an optimal range (being neither too hard nor too soft)
  • consistent ball reaction (bounce, roll and speed)
  • consistency of player to surface interaction, especially good traction / grip

5. For safety we want a surface

  • with no undesirable surface debris
  • which is dry, not slippery
  • does not have any standing water
  • is not too hard, so as to cause injury on falling to the ground
  • relatively even, without undulations which can cause an imbalance when running
  • does not have any trip hazards, such as rabbit scraping or holes within the surface
  • is correctly and clearly marked out, especially for players to judge pitch boundaries

A turf manager is clearly interested in all inputs needed to achieve the outcomes, but the focus must be on the outcomes, and this is something which is often not the case. Search through Twitter or industry magazines, for example, and see how many comments are made about inputs and how few about outcomes! Just saying!!

Chris Gray, 16th June 2018