Southern land-grant universities making turf fields safe
Friday, September 22, 2023
Media Contact: Alisa Boswell-Gore | Office of Communications & Marketing, OSU Agriculture | 405-744-7115 | firstname.lastname@example.org
As the whistle blows, referees across the nation are signaling teams to take the field. From elite college football players to children in pre-school and elementary soccer leagues, athletes of all skill levels are busy running, kicking and throwing across a variety of surfaces.
Athletes face the risk of injury when their bodies make contact with the ground. For this reason, researchers at southern region land-grant institutions are improving turfgrass conditions to keep athletes safer. They are also studying how to minimize the negative environmental impacts of maintenance practices used on the surfaces.
Research projects in the southern U.S., range from developing different varieties of turfgrasses to studying the underlayment and construction of stadium and community soccer fields, golf courses, home lawns and more.
Oklahoma State University
Researchers at Oklahoma State University have developed and commercialized 10 turfgrass varieties with two more varieties expected to be released soon. The university’s most recently released bermudagrass variety, Tahoma 31, can be found on golf courses, football fields and soccer complexes nationwide, as well as in the stadiums and/or practice fields of the Philadelphia Eagles, the Washington Commanders, the Baltimore Ravens and the Chicago Bears.
Todd Tribble, athletic field superintendent at OSU, learned about turfgrass management as a Clemson University student studying under the tutelage of Lambert McCarty. Although the distance between the two universities is about 1,000 miles, Tribble said the knowledge he gained while studying at Clemson directly correlates to his turfgrass role at OSU.
“Both universities are in USDA Plant Hardiness Zone 7,” Tribble said. “So, the grasses we grow here are the same type of grasses grown at Clemson. Most day-to-day management tasks are very similar. The only real difference is the amount of winterkill we see on bermudagrass here because our winters can sometimes be quite severe.”
Clemson University and North Carolina State University
Researchers at Clemson in South Carolina and North Carolina State University in Raleigh have written a playbook for managing sports fields. Best Management Practices for Carolina Sport Fields, written by McCarty and Grady Miller at North Carolina State, contains research-based information and serves as a reference guide for sports field managers and students, as well as regulatory agencies worldwide.
“Information included in this book is the most current available and includes traditional and recent agronomic trends necessary to provide desirable yet safe playing conditions,” McCarty said. “This information applies to natural grass fields as well as synthetic (turf) fields. It pertains to most fields and budgets, from professional to local parks and recreation fields, including football, soccer, baseball, softball, lacrosse and rugby.”
Large patches of diseased grass or discoloration from nutrient issues present an opportunity to provide guidance to turfgrass managers.
This is where Miller’s expertise comes in. As a distinguished professor of sustainability and an Extension turfgrass management specialist at North Carolina State, Miller’s research focuses on several areas, including irrigation practices and turfgrass nutrition.
“Irrigation normally is just needed to supplement rainfall since the southern region of the U.S. usually gets adequate total rainfall amounts to meet the needs of turfgrass,” Miller said. “However, there are times when rainfall frequency or distribution can result in drought-stressed turfgrasses.”
This can be especially problematic in areas with sandy soils with low water-holding capacity.
“Periods of high heat can hasten water loss from plant surfaces,” Miller said. “So, states with both sandy soils and high evaporative rates rely heavily on irrigation for consistent turfgrass health. A soil with a greater percentage of clay will have a greater capacity to hold water, so that irrigation may not play as critical a role in maintaining turfgrass health.”
University of Tennessee
At the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture, researchers for the UT Center for Athletic Field Safety compare natural grass-playing surfaces to synthetic surfaces with the goal of improving athletic performance and reducing athlete injuries.
Distinguished professor of plant sciences John Sorochan, the center’s director, also serves as a consultant to the NFL Players Association, the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) and other groups associated with turf venues and their management. Sorochan has been selected to oversee a massive research and installation project for the 2026 FIFA World Cup, which has expanded to include 48 teams playing at 16 venues across Canada, Mexico and the U.S.
Sorochan and the UT turfgrass team also research how different balls bounce when they land on different grasses and have designed a device to test the stress involved when different-sized shoes perform on different turfs.
University of Georgia
University of Georgia turf research program scientists are taking turfgrass information to a new level by providing information to Spanish-speaking audiences abroad. Led by Alfredo Martinez-Espinoza, a professor in UGA’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and a UGA Cooperative Extension Service plant pathologist, members of the UGA Turf Team were recently invited to develop a training and certification program to support the field managers of Mexico’s premier soccer leagues as they prepare for the 2026 FIFA World Cup.
“Our jobs are to filter through all the problems presented to us and pinpoint research-based, actionable solutions that can be taught so our clients are competent and prepared as a result of working with us,” Martinez-Espinoza said.
So, whether it’s a professional athlete or a student-athlete blazing across a field, turfgrass scientists at land-grant institutions are advancing the aesthetic appeal and performance of turfgrasses to ensure they meet the highest standards. From community parks and front yards to NFL and World Cup fields, the safety, economic and social benefits of sports fields are enhanced by fundamental turfgrass research and development at land-grant institutions.
Clemson University, North Carolina State University, Oklahoma State University, University of Tennessee and University of Georgia are part of a system of 15 agricultural research centers at land-grant universities in the southern U.S. where scientists collaborate to conduct research and outreach focused on conserving the region’s natural resources and sustainably feeding a growing global population.