Managing Athletic Fields on a Limited Budget

Managing heavily used sport fields can be a daunting task; managing them with limited funds may seem impossible. But, with a little creativity and a lot of hard work, producing a safe, playable surface can become a reality. It was not long ago that budgets seemed endless. If you were unable to get a piece of equipment or build a new complex this year, you were able to do so the following year. At every opportunity schools and municipalities were adding parks and sport complexes. It was as if the fun would never end. Then came the technology bust of 2000, then 9-11, then homeland security costs, then the war in Iraq, all at the expense, it seems, of budgets. Municipalities stifled development of new parks and even closed some existing facilities. Schools are feverishly trying to pass local tax increases to keep and expand sports, and colleges and universities are cutting maintenance budgets. So at least for the short term, many of you will be operating on a limited budget.


While the budget difficulties may seem endless, they more than likely are not. There will come a time, once again, when the coffers are full. In the meantime, now is the time to prioritize your activities and plan your attack, not only for the short term but well into the future.

Divide your facilities into separate categories such as A, B, C and D based upon the intensity of management. Then, without putting all of your eggs in one basket, manage your best field(s) at a high level (category A) and make sure you are using your available resources in the right places. This will show you have the talent to do the job. It will also be a source of pride for you and a showcase of what could be done elsewhere when proper turf management practices and budgets are in place. This should be your premier field. The one where the championship games are played. The one most people will see. The one you want to showcase. On this field, make sure you overseed regularly, have a sound fertilization plan in place and ensure it is watered properly. Aerate frequently and, if you have the resources (more on that later), work with the coaches and administrators to limit use if possible.

On management levels B, C, and D, you can reduce your maintenance slightly by using a little less fertilizer, maybe aerate only once a year or aerating only the bad areas of your fields.


Now that you have prioritized your sports fields it is time to prioritize the turf management practices you perform on them. Look at those management practices that are the most important agronomically, then break them into “hard costs” and “soft costs.” Hard costs are things like fertilizer, seed, pesticides, herbicides, equipment, etc. Soft costs are labor, repair and maintenance and “miscellaneous” line items. If hard costs are being cut, review your fertilizer practices. Maybe you can save by cutting back on fertilizing some of your common grounds or in between fields but keep your fertility high on your athletic fields. Dr. Peter Landschoot at Penn State University says, “Dollar for dollar, fertilization does more to improve poor quality turfgrass or maintain good quality turfgrass than any other single management practice”.

After fertilization, the most important cultural practice for maintaining healthy turfgrass is aeration. The benefits are many: aeration loosens compacted soil; it introduces oxygen into the root zone; it increases water infiltration; it improves nutrient uptake; it stimulates root growth; it helps control thatch; and it creates a very good seedbed. Core aeration, solid tine aeration and deep tine aeration are all good maintenance practices and you should perform them at least annually on your fields.

Core aeration actually does the best job of relieving compaction because it brings soil out of the compacted ground and deposits it on the surface of the grass where it helps in controlling thatch. The disadvantage of core aeration is that it is more labor intensive than solid tine aeration because you have to pick up the cores or break them up. It also disrupts the surface and should not be done during periods of high stress or activity.

You can perform solid tine aeration during periods of medium stress. While this does aid in gas exchange, it also can increase compaction or bulk density around the hole especially when soil conditions are moist. Deep tine aeration can penetrate 10 to 12 inches to break up any deep compacted layers and should be done every year or two.

Finally, seed is relatively inexpensive. Keeping high-quality viable seed in the ground at all times will ensure your seed will sprout when the proper environmental conditions exist. In cool-season turfgrass, this means seeding in conjunction with aeration, slit seeding when the prospects for germination and survival are the best or spreading seed in wear areas before a game and letting the players “cleat” the seed into the ground.

If your labor has been cut, you might have an argument for more productive equipment. In general, most administrators will tell you that equipment is less expensive than labor. Take advantage of any opportunity to get new equipment; then, when the labor crunch lessens, you'll have the best of both worlds. Equipment technology has come a long way in the past several years. Productivity has increased dramatically, reliability has improved and there are many types of purchasing options such as leasing, renting or paying cash to fit most budgets. Often, the cost of maintaining old equipment along with the expense of “downtime” justifies the purchase of new equipment.


Within each field, divide it into smaller areas yet. Dr. David Minner at Iowa State University calls this the “field within a field” concept. For example, on a soccer field, the wear areas typically are the goal mouths, the center circle and the sidelines. On a football field, it might be the area between the hash marks and the sidelines. These areas usually need to be aerated, fertilized and overseeded more than the rest of the field and can be done for a lot less money and labor than doing them on the entire field.

If broadleaf weeds are a minor problem on your fields, you might be able to skip a year and spot treat broadleaf weeds. If you have been treating for crabgrass or other annual grassy weeds with a pre-emergent annually, you might be able to skip a year also or spot spray post-emergent herbicides if they become a problem.

You may have difficulty justifying the purchase of specialty equipment such as aerators, slit seeders and dethatching equipment, especially during times of budget constraint; however, do not overlook short-term rental or borrowing equipment from neighboring communities or golf courses. Establish a local network of turf managers with whom you cannot only share equipment but also share ideas.

Use volunteer groups to help with field maintenance. This usually works best with baseball and softball programs but can work elsewhere. Volunteers or user groups traditionally take a lot of pride in field maintenance. It is amazing to see what can be accomplished on a baseball or softball field with 8 to 10 volunteers on a Saturday morning.


Managing athletic fields on a limited budget can be challenging, no doubt. But by planning to succeed, you can play through economic hard times and end up a winner. Keys to success are:

  • Prioritizing your fields into separate management categories;

  • Designating a “high priority” field; and

  • Further dividing each field into management areas and concentrating maintenance in those areas.

You should also evaluate eliminating or reducing management practices with little upside for your fields such as:

  • Weed control if weeds are not a big problem.

  • Fertilization of outlying areas.

  • Spend your dollars and hours on sound agronomic practices.

  • Develop a good fertilization program and stick to it.

  • Aerate often even if it is in smaller more compact areas.

  • Keep viable seed in the ground at all times.

  • Work with administrators to control field use.

  • Use volunteers to help with field maintenance.

Dale Getz is sports turf sales manager for The Toro Co.'s commercial products division (Bloomington, Minn.).

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