Sports turf maintenance has come a long way from the days when the people who practiced the craft were referred to as “groundskeepers” and their tools may have consisted of only a few hand rakes and a push mower. Now, those individuals are known as “sports turf managers,” and their tools are expensive, high-tech grooming machines that cut their labor in half.
There's good reason for these changes. With the proliferation of youth sports, field use is at an all-time high. And with the tremendous growth and visibility of professional sports, people are coming to demand that the fields they or their children play on be conditioned much like the pristine fields they see on television.
The fact of the matter is that most sports turf managers have limited budgets and manpower, so keeping their fields in top shape with the tremendous amount of play they receive can be quite a challenge. That's why the machines they invest their scant budget dollars in must be reliable and do a solid job.
Perhaps all-important, then, are the mowers sports turf managers use to keep their fields looking sharp. No machine in their arsenal logs more hours and, therefore, these machines have to be tough as nails while at the same time offer a quality cut to withstand the scrutiny of discriminating athletes and fans.
WHAT YOU WANT
Sam Blackburn knows all too well the importance of maintaining a top-notch mower. As grounds and maintenance supervisor of Vale School in Vale, Ore., he oversees six different athletic fields: a football, baseball, softball and practice field, plus two fields at the elementary school. That's 30 acres of mowing, twice a week normally and three times during fertilization. His weapon of choice? An older model New Holland tractor and a John Deere 1145 front-mount mower with a mulching deck, the kind of deck Blackburn prefers.
“We don't like side discharge because then you have to sweep after it,” he says.
Blackburn has run the mower ragged, to the point of having to replace the deck after seven years because, as he said, it simply “wore out.” Still, it outperformed a particular rotary drag-behind he used to have that he described as “horrible.”
One eyesore that no sports turf manager wants to see is scalping, where, because the ground is uneven, turf gets mowed too close and appears as an unsightly yellow scar. Blackburn typically experiences scalping when mowing on sidehills and around the bleachers at his fields. Ideally, he would like a mower with a feature that would eliminate scalping, such as a floating deck. Several manufacturers have come out with mowers with this feature, but all are still out of Blackburn's price range.
Blackburn also prefers diesel engines for fuel efficiency, the ability to lay down the “striping” effect sports that fans are used to seeing on television, and high horsepower. “The engine needs to support the deck, give you proper RPMs, and be able to move the mower ahead,” he says.
Like Blackburn, Kevin McCombs has his hands full with nine athletic fields he must maintain for St. Joseph High School in South Bend, Ind.: two baseball fields, two soccer fields, two soccer-sized practice fields, a softball field, a football field and a practice football field. And like most sports turf managers, he has felt the pressure to improve his quality of cut. With that in mind, he is currently eyeing a John Deere 797 zero-turn mower and hopes to make a purchase soon.
“We currently use a Deere 4310 tractor with a 72-inch deck,” says McCombs. “But we're looking at the 797 Z for a closer cut, better adjustment to cutting height, high horsepower and less weight.”
He, too, likes to stripe his fields to make them more aesthetically pleasing to fans and players, but he currently has to use a roller with his tractor. With the zero-turn mower, he won't need the roller because of the closer cut it will offer.
“It also did well in the rain and didn't clump and made the grass look nice and short,” McCombs says. He also likes the fact that it sits closer to the ground with a small wheelbase and doesn't bounce around as much, reducing the tendency to scalp.
The final thing McCombs likes about a smaller zero-turn mower is that it is lighter, which is essential for his fields because, since they're made mostly of clay, they hold a lot of water. And a tighter turning radius translates to big-time savings.
Brad Albridge has definitely noticed the increasing demand for high-quality athletic fields. As product manager for John Deere, he has had to look at the market and decide what features sports turf managers would want in a mower. One thing they want for sure is a better cut.
“The industry is definitely going toward more quality than productivity,” Albridge says. “And that trend is trickling into the residential market as well.”
The finest cut a sports turf manager is going to find is going to come from a reel mower, which doesn't have rotary blades but rather multiple blades mounted on a cylinder. Many golf courses use reel mowers because they can cut at a very low height and still maintain turf quality. Reel mowers can involve more maintenance, however, which Albridge says Deere has worked to eliminate.
“Sports fields don't have big maintenance staffs so we knew we needed to reduce maintenance time,” Albridge says. “The reels and bedknives must stay sharp, so we have a backlap option which allows you to spin the reels backward and apply a backlapping compound as opposed to using a grinder, which most sports turf managers don't have.”
“We're also trying to design more comfort in, too, because we know these guys are on mowers all day,” adds Albridge.
Reel mowers are also ideal for striping, which gives sports turf manager the “wow factor” when visitors view the field. And talk about productivity — reel mowers can come in very large sizes. Deere's largest reel mower features five reels with a total width of 138 inches.
The average sports turf manager with limited funds used to stay away from reel mowers because they were cost prohibitive. Cost shouldn't deter them anymore, says Albridge, given the market for used reel mowers.
“We'll lease package reel mowers to golf courses, who then return them once the lease is over. Sports turf managers can they buy them used and still in very good condition,” he says.
One model Albridge says would fit well in the sports turf manager's weekly work schedule is the 3245C independent deck reel mower that cuts at up to a 7.5 mph clip, is 88 inches wide, and has a striping roller. A quick-notch system allows for easy height of cut adjustment, from ⅜ of an inch up to 3 inches.
At The Toro Co., John Caron is looking to meet the needs of sports turf managers. As senior marketing manager for sports turf, he says that Toro tries to offer variety in the equipment the company gears toward sports turf maintenance.
“The size of sports field equipment can vary a lot depending on the size of the sports venue,” Caron says. “At the top end there are soccer complexes with more than 12 fields, venues like that would typically use 9-foot or 11-foot-wide mowers. Entities that have only a few fields (four or fewer) may be more interested in a 6-foot mower. A smaller mower would typically be easier to store and be more maneuverable.” In addition to their main sports field mower, many sports turf managers will use a 6-foot trim mower to do surround areas near fences and around trees and other objects (assuming they use a larger mower for their athletic fields).
Caron says that he feels sports turf managers are looking for more professional results from their equipment. “Increasingly, sports turf managers want their fields to be striped. This is easy to do with the proper mower, one that incorporates rollers behind the cutting decks. Higher-end field managers will typically need to mow at a lower height of cut (maybe down to ¾ inch, depending on turf variety), which would require a high quality reel mower,” he says. Caron adds that some manufactures now make rotary mowers capable of cutting down to approximately 1.25 inch, which is much lower than possible several years ago. Lighter weight mowers are also desirable to minimize compaction on the playing surface.
Of course managers are always looking for a high quality of cut, too, he says. This means regular sharpening of blades whether reel or rotary mowers are used. Caron points out that high-quality mowers will help insure that the appropriate settings (reel to bedknife) are held for a reasonable time period. Turf cut with sharp blades will have a higher quality, cleaner look. Turf torn with dull blades may have brown tips, which is not desirable from an aesthetic standpoint and also makes the grass blades more susceptible to disease. Lastly, since operators spend many hours on their mowers, comfort is also an important consideration, he says.
To help fill the needs and meet specific challenges of turf managers, Toro has just introduced a new line of reel mowers for high-end sports fields and the golf market. They are lighter weight to minimize compaction and include new DPA (Dual Precision Adjustment) cutting units, Caron says. “These cutting units include EdgeMax technology made of harder materials to hold an edge up to three times longer than traditional knifes. All of these new Reelmaster products provide striping as well as improved comfort via seat suspension and a tilt steering wheel feature. Toro's new Groundsmaster 3505 rotary striping mower has a 6-foot width of cut and provides the stripe that many sports field managers are looking for. It can also cut down to a height of cut of 1.25-inch,” Caron says.
ON THE HORIZON
Manufacturers continue to invest significant research and development dollars on new mowing technologies. The future may include alternative power sources to lower emissions, improved efficiency and perhaps lower noise levels for operators and people nearby. In addition, work continues to make cutting adjustments easier and last longer to ensure the highest quality of cut possible.
Gabe Schneider is a freelance writer who resides in Ohio.
A SAMPLE OF SPORTS MOWERS
If you want to do some research or just make a wish list, you can go online to look at the latest offerings of sports field mowers. Here is a list to help get you started. Keep in mind that it's not meant to be comprehensive, so inclusion does not imply endorsement.
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