The sport and amenity sector is not immune to the recession and these reductions have, in many cases, had an impact on the maintenance budgets available for sportsfields.
How do we deal with these reductions at an operational level while maintaining the performance and playing quality we have achieved in the past?
Options include alternative funding sources, or higher fees and subscriptions that increase the finance available for providing playing surfaces. Inevitably, the latter option is likely to be highly controversial.
A preferable option in the first instance is a 'back to basics' approach, where the focus falls on the essentials - i.e. those tasks that need to be carried out to provide a quality playing surface. This process involves systematically evaluating current performance, practices and inputs. The key is to then apply the most cost effective practices and inputs to gain the best outcome.
When thinking about maintaining sportsfield performance, consideration needs to be given to how this is measured. Is it through:
• Field closures
• Audit results - internal or external
• Usage records
• Past records to work from
Given the present economic climate what standards are appropriate?
Once you have determined the performance level that is to be maintained and how it is currently measured, or will be measured in the future, you can set maintenance requirements to meet these performance targets.
The first part of your strategy should be to prioritise the fields under your control and establish a quality or expectation for each. This allows you to provide different levels of quality depending on factors such as usage, expectation etc. In other words, the same overall budget will be used, but inputs to each field will be apportioned on the basis of the expected standard.
Next, consider those tasks which are currently carried out to maintain the sportsfield(s). Having identified all the maintenance requirements and tasks, determine which tasks are considered as essential maintenance, e.g. mowing, fertilisation, weed control, pest control, line marking, field monitoring, or additional tasks that aim to improve the surface. e.g. verti-draining, oversowing, turfing etc.
The next step is to question why these tasks are being carried out and if they are all necessary? How do we apply the resources we have available and is this being done in a cost effective way that maintains performance?
Inevitably, what is considered additional maintenance for one situation could be viewed as essential in another. Therefore, it is important to tailor a maintenance programme to your individual needs.
Start with the essential tasks required on the field. Core maintenance cannot be eliminated, but perhaps it can be reduced, or the way in which it is applied can be altered to improve outcomes. An example of this is the addition of a growth regulator to the line marking paint to give longer intervals between marking, thus providing savings for labour and materials.
Other strategies that may allow inputs to be reduced are:
Thresholds - adopting a policy which involves setting threshold levels for pest and weed content, below which chemicals will not be applied - opposed to carrying out pesticide and herbicide applications at set times to all venues. These thresholds can be revised in accordance with budgets and public feedback.
Mowing - mowing frequency should be based on a height specification rather than a calendar basis. When growth slows mowing frequency can be reduced without impacting on the playing surface. Mowing specifications (height, presence of seedheads etc.) for areas outside the playing surface can be reduced.
Selection of appropriate equipment for mowing, i.e. most fuel efficient, correct cutting heads, sizing of machinery for the areas being maintained is important. For example, the use of rotary mowers rather than reel mowers could assist in cost reductions with minimal impact on playing quality.
Consider the use of growth regulators such as PrimoMaxx. Research has shown savings in the order of 50% are possible.
Fertilisation - adequate fertilisation is essential to maintain turf cover. The important issue is to apply those nutrients which are limiting (most commonly nitrogen) rather than a 'shotgun' approach. Soil testing and, in particular, adopting a 'sufficiency level of available nutrient' as opposed to base cation saturation ratios will allow genuine deficiencies to be identified.
When purchasing fertiliser consider the cost/kg of actual nutrient (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium etc.) rather than the price of the fertiliser.
Rather than taking a 'blanket approach' focus fertiliser applications, particularly nitrogen, on the high wear/use or damaged areas. Often, in junior grades the wear is concentrated down the centre of the field, there is no need to broadcast fertiliser across the entire field.
For the vast majority of sportsfield situations, nitrogen will provide the best return for your fertiliser dollar.
Usage Control - this is a very blunt tool, but is very effective at critical times - especially during winter for maintaining turf cover. Additionally, it reduces the renovation costs required to reinstate the field at the end of the season. Education of end-users and those responsible within sports clubs is required to encourage play, and particularly training, across all the designated grounds.
Grass Selection - selecting the best suited grass species for your region and climate will impact on recovery from wear, irrigation requirements and fertiliser requirements. Choosing the species that is best suited to your environment can have a significant influence on maintenance inputs and costs.
Oversowing - results from oversowing can be variable at best and new seedlings are especially susceptible to damage and dry conditions. Often, newly oversown areas will be worn bare by mid-season while mature plants survive.
Look at the seeding rates used. There is no need to exceed sowing rates of 25kg/ha/pass. Rates higher than this result in inter-row competition retarding the rate of establishment, i.e. it is better to sow in multiple passes at recommended rates rather than using a single pass and very high sowing rates. Given seedlings are very poor competitors, oversow those areas that have a weak cover rather than the entire field.
Do not seed when environmental conditions are unsuitable, e.g. when there has been little rainfall and the soil conditions are dry. Increased fertilisation, to maintain density of mature grass plants/recovery of existing plants, may be a more effective use of your resources rather than trying to establish new seedlings, with a limited turn around between seasons.
Spring Aeration - aeration is often carried out on a calendar basis. Reductions in spring aeration can provide savings, particularly on those grounds which aren't irrigated. Where fields aren't irrigated, autumn treatments generally provide the best return - improving winter drainage.
Material Quantities - options to consider include minimising soil removal during renovations, thereby reducing the amount of new soil that needs to be purchased. Also, consider incorporating soil/sand with coring and, where appropriate, working this back into the surface, thereby reducing the amount of topdressing materials required.
Innovation - Look to new products, equipment or techniques that will provide long term savings. Another example is to increase maintenance inputs to reduce the frequency of expensive reconstructions of surfaces. The extended renewal period allows potential for capital monies to be redirected into maintenance.
In the future we will likely see hybrid technology from the car industry being adopted on turf machinery. Some turf equipment, particularly in the golf sector, already uses this technology and it is anticipated this will progress into large area mowing equipment.
Training/Communication - the potential options for reducing costs raised above rely on having effective monitoring systems for each field. This will require having well trained staff that can recognise issues as they arise and report them back to decision makers - alternatively an independent audit process could be used, but this in itself may add costs at a time when you are looking to reduce them.
Constant feedback is required both from and to stakeholders so that all parties are aware of the reasons for the changed maintenance and the impacts of this change.
In summary, each groundsman's requirements will be different. The key to managing with less is determining and prioritising the standards for each ground, apportioning resources according to stated standards and distinguishing between desired and needed practices.
Everett Darlington, Agronomist, NZSTI