By Whitney Baxter
The first Iowa State University home football game of the 2022 season will not only be a test of Iowa State’s football team, but also of the new, homegrown turfgrass installed earlier this spring.
Harvest and installation of the new turfgrass took place at the beginning of May, the culmination of a year-long collaborative project between the Department of Horticulture, Iowa State Athletics Department, ISU Horticulture Research Station and Iowa Sports Turf.
The playing surface at MidAmerican Energy Field at Jack Trice Stadium used to be a synthetic turf mat on concrete, said Josh Tvrdik, director of turf and grounds for the Iowa State Athletics Department and 2010 horticulture graduate. In 1996, Mike Andresen was hired as facilities and grounds director for the department and made the decision to convert the field to 100% Kentucky bluegrass grown over a sand base.
The last time the turfgrass, or sod, was replaced at the stadium was in 2008 – far exceeding the average 7-8 year lifespan of synthetic turf. With a desire to have the replacement turfgrass be similar to the existing surface, the decision was made to try and grow replacement sod at Iowa State.
“You can go anywhere to buy sod, but I think if you can tailor it to the way you want to do it and the way you want to grow it, you’ll have a really good product,” Tvrdik said.
In early spring 2021, preparations got underway to begin growing sod on six acres of land at the ISU Horticulture Research Station, north of Ames. Approximately 120 dump truck loads of specially sized sand were brought in to create a four-inch layer of sand to match the sand base at the stadium. Iowa Sports Turf, which employs several College of Agriculture and Life Sciences alumni, laser graded the sand so it was level and ready to be seeded.
“We build a lot of different athletic fields, but this one is the first of its kind for us, as well as the university,” said Eric Van Ginkel, construction operations manager of Iowa Sports Turf and 2011 horticulture graduate. “We knew it would be a challenge, but we were willing to take part in it.”
Growing the turfgrass at the Horticulture Research Station was a perfect fit, as the project aligns with many of the research station’s objectives, said Nick Howell, ISU Horticulture Research Station superintendent and 1985 horticulture and 2015 professional agriculture graduate. Those objectives include offering learning and research opportunities for students, faculty and staff; helping generate revenue for the research station; and supplying products back to the university.
“It’s just another reason to be proud of Iowa State,” Howell said of the project. “It’s been pretty amazing to watch it come up and grow and turn out as nice as it has, as quickly as it has.”
Tom Gould, who earned his bachelor’s degree in horticulture in 2020 and is working on his master’s degree in the horticulture department, was in charge of the day-to-day management of the field. Using knowledge gained from his classes at Iowa State, he was able to make educated decisions related to seeding, mowing, irrigation and more.
“I learned everything I know about growing grass here at Iowa State,” Gould said. “Basically, every question I could have had, I at least had some background from my coursework here at the university.”
Adam Thoms, assistant professor of horticulture and 2006 horticulture graduate, said the turfgrass project has been a great teaching tool for Iowa State students, especially those in turfgrass management classes.
“We’ve been able to teach hands-on management, and that’s something you just can’t teach in a classroom,” Thoms said.
The project also fits well with the university’s land-grant mission. Thoms said they can use the project for research purposes, have given talks about it for ISU Extension and Outreach and have showed it to other schools.
“Not every school has that ability to have all of those tools and resources right here, and so the fact that we can grow our own football field is really exciting,” Thoms said.
Gould said it was a great collaborative effort of many Iowa State horticulture alumni to grow a product that is very close in quality to that of Jack Trice Stadium.
“I’m most proud of all of our alumni that were part of this project – really kind of a homegrown effort to bring in all of these people that are formerly out of the turfgrass program and have been so involved,” Gould said.
With the success of the project, Iowa State now holds bragging rights for being one of the first universities to grow their own sod for their football field within a year.
“No one has ever really done this, especially no university has really grown their own sod successfully and then used it on a game field within a year. I think we’ve proven that it’s now possible and you can have a really great product,” Tvrdik said.
Looking ahead to the first football game, scheduled for Sept. 3 against Southeast Missouri State University, those behind the project are eager and nervous to see the new turfgrass in action.
“It will be a very stressful first five minutes of the game, for sure, but I’m very excited about it,” Gould said. “Obviously that’s the end goal is to have a surface that we think is safe and aesthetically pleasing, so being able to provide that for Iowa State University is going to be very exciting.”
Future plans are to use the rest of the turfgrass that was grown this past year to replace the practice fields. Then, more sod will be grown to replace Iowa State’s synthetic soccer field in 2023.