Extension helps keep athletic fields healthy
STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Coaches win championships, teach high school classes and are expected to maintain perfect playing surfaces on their athletic fields, so sometimes they get help from the Mississippi State University Extension Service.
Michael Richard, an Extension associate in turf grass management, has begun offering clinics to help high school coaches, park and recreation directors, and others maintain the playing surfaces they oversee.
“What we’ve found is they want to learn so they know how to maintain their fields, because they don’t have much experience beyond operating a mower,” Richard said. “They know that lack of care can lead to injury for their fields.”
Brad Jones, Extension agent in Stone County, said he spends a few hours every month with area high school coaches advising them on weed control, sprayer calibration, fertilization timing and more.
“We realized pretty quick that we were spending so much time working with the athletic fields that we should get some specialists involved,” Jones said. “The recreational field managers may not have access to the funds the big golf courses have, but they need to do the same things.”
Those responsible for athletic fields take a lot of pride in their playing surfaces, knowing that a good surface not only looks nice, but also can help prevent injuries.
“They know that even if they’re not trying to manage it for an extremely manicured look, if they don’t do some basic weed management and fertilization, it’s just going to be a pile of dirt,” Jones said. “If they don’t do anything, they won’t have anything.”
Keith Whitehead, Extension agriculture and natural resources agent in Franklin County, wrote a management plan for the Franklin County School District’s athletic fields.
“Extension agents in other counties are doing the same thing,” Whitehead said. “Any time we can educate our coaches in turf management, they can be a little more confident about what they do, and they don’t have to call me for advice as often.”
An athletic field is a significant financial investment, and costs for a quality playing surface can exceed $250,000. And, as anyone who maintains a home lawn knows, it takes expertise to manage weed control, irrigation, fertilizer needs, and insect and disease control.
“The people in charge of maintaining the playing fields are usually the coaches, and their expertise is in managing a sports program and teaching, not in turf management,” Whitehead said.
In 2018, the MSU Extension Service offered two clinics to teach the basics of field management to coaches and parks directors. The curriculum included cultural practices such as weed control, sand top dressing, irrigation and fertilization, and proper mowing and aerification. Richard plans four or five clinics for 2019.
Classes this year were offered in late winter when athletic fields are least used and coaches usually have fewer responsibilities, although many are teaching.
“We hope to turn this into a yearly program offered at different locations around the state,” Richard said. “So far, it has been all classroom instruction, but we would like to do more on-site training.”