AMES, Iowa — Adam Thoms, assistant professor of horticulture at Iowa State University, researches sports turf maintenance to help keep young athletes safe while competing. He focuses on athletic fields, with natural and synthetic surfaces, at public schools and those in community parks and recreation departments because of their smaller budgets and higher use rates.
“Every school district has a few athletic fields, and every town has at least a baseball diamond or soccer field anymore,” Thoms said.
He estimated there are nearly 1,900 school athletic fields in the state and at least one field in each of the 947 incorporated Iowa communities. And more are being installed each year.
“The sports turf industry is a booming business, everybody is building these facilities and they need to maintain them at a higher level. Even the synthetic surfaces are not maintenance free,” he said.
Thoms works with those who manage athletic fields in Iowa including members of the Sports Turf Managers Association, and has conducted informational extension programs with middle and high schools, and community parks districts.
His research projects assess the condition of turf and how to improve them to optimize play and prevent injuries.
Easing compaction in fields is a big effort, because the harder the surface, the higher the likelihood of a head injury.
“We know about 20 percent of head injuries come from the football player’s head hitting the ground, soccer is even higher,” he said.
Running a machine on turf at the Horticulture Research Station near Ames to simulate the down force of a 280-pound player, researchers test different management systems that limit the fields’ compaction. A device dropped on the ground measures how hard the surface is and can be related to the likelihood of getting a head injury.
“We're trying different things out there at the research station to try to minimize surface hardness and find what we can do during the season — after they’ve played a few games and beat up the field — that won't tear up the ground, because many machines tear up the surface trying to relieve the compaction,” he said.
Another device measures surface stability to assess the likelihood of the lower leg getting stuck when making a move or sliding out from underneath the athlete.
Thoms said the goal is to provide enough footing that the athlete can trust that they could make a move but not so much that their foot is going to get stuck or slide out from under them. If their foot sticks the body’s energy moves into the lower leg and might cause an injury in the knee or ankle.
One of his new projects is testing turf that combines synthetic fibers and natural grass to offer the benefits of playing like a natural grass with the durability of a synthetic turf system. The project includes researchers at Michigan State University and the University of Tennessee.
On the environmental side, research is evaluating the potential of replacing some of the Kentucky bluegrass with tall fescue turf, because it is more drought tolerant and has lower nitrogen needs. The tradeoff is that it is a bunch-type grass that doesn’t spread as well.
This growing season was a difficult one for sports turf managers, and even synthetic turf surfaces had issues with the large rain events, he said. The extremes in temperature, and excess rain bringing diseases, problems growing grass and missed fertilizer applications were conditions shared with agricultural producers.
“We always joke that we’re urban farmers,” Thoms said.