Purdue News

May 19, 2006

Timing and research result in new surface for Purdue football field

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Purdue University's football fields will have a new improved surface thanks to years of research, the evolution of new grass varieties, unusually hot weather and a special machine that simulates football players trampling turf.

Joel Lopez and James Goebel remove turf
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This week a crew is installing a new natural grass surface at Purdue's Ross-Ade Stadium and the south football practice facility. A new, cold-hardy, durable Bermuda grass will replace the traditional Kentucky bluegrass that had not performed well over the past few years.

"Bermuda grass is the pickup truck of the grass species," said Cale Bigelow, a Purdue agronomist and turf expert. "If you buy a pickup truck, it wants to be driven and it wants to be used. Bermuda grass is the same way: It wants to be beat up, and it wants to take the load. It's not the prettiest grass in the world, but it's extremely durable when it's actively growing.

"Professional athletic field managers like to manage with Bermuda grass because it tolerates late summer/early fall sports use, including the intense traffic and movement the players inflict on it."

Bigelow and others in the turf program added to the knowledge of Bermuda grass's advantages through more than three years of study of three different Bermuda grass varieties. They challenged the grass, which grows best in the summer months, with different fertility treatments, Indiana winters and a modified turf-aerating machine set up to simulate the type of damage caused by football players.

The research behind this new grass surface was launched long before Purdue athletic officials decided that a change was needed to provide a more reliable and durable surface for the Big Ten conference Boilermaker football team.

Bigelow said his original motivation was twofold. He's an outdoor and sports enthusiast who plays golf and knows grasses. And he wanted to help organizations that don't have the management resources of a Division I sports program, but do have athletic fields frequently used by youngsters and adults.

"My biggest concern was how I could help some of the turf managers at high schools, smaller colleges and community facilities where the fields receive very intense traffic through the summer and the fall," Bigelow said. "They have multiple events and multiple teams using a single field."

Many athletic fields use Kentucky bluegrass, as did Purdue. It's a beautiful grass that is useful in some settings, but it grows best in the late fall to early spring and requires more water, fertilizer and fungicides than Bermuda grass to look its best, Bigelow said.

In the past five to 10 years, researchers have developed visually attractive Bermuda grass varieties that can reliably survive climates like those in the West Lafayette area and in Blacksburg, Va., where Bigelow earned his bachelor's and master's degrees at Virginia Polytechnic and State University (Virginia Tech).

"Blacksburg has a similar climate to West Lafayette, and some of these new Bermuda grasses had worked on Virginia Tech's athletic fields," he said. "Although West Lafayette would be the farthest north the species has been used on an athletic field, I had a feeling that Bermuda grass could work here, too."

Bigelow set up test plots of Bermuda grass, which scientists also refer to as "bermudagrass," at the W.H. Daniel Turfgrass Research and Diagnostic Center. Certain varieties of the grass and various treatments did well over three years at the West Lafayette facility even when the turf aerating machine was fitted with a plate bearing metal football cleats to weekly to stomp and scuff up the grass.

Last year when the playing surface in Ross-Ade Stadium seemed unusually damaged, Purdue Intercollegiate Athletics asked Purdue Agriculture agronomists to recommend a replacement for the old bluegrass. They also wanted to keep intact the sand-based layer of the Prescription Athletic Turf (PAT) system over which the sod is laid. Created by Purdue turf research center namesake and late Department of Agronomy faculty member "Bill" Daniel, the PAT system is preferred because it creates a firm, dry surface by draining off water.

Unlike bluegrass, Bermuda grass can continue to grow in unseasonably hot weather, such as that experienced last fall when temperatures were close to 90 degrees in early October, Bigelow said. In addition, Bermuda grass produces both below- and above-surface stems that help hold sandy soil together and enable the grass to rapidly recover from damage.

"I was watching my plots very closely last fall and really felt confident with Bermuda grass," Bigelow said. "Bermuda grass roots more heavily during the summer months. So, if the football team wants to heavily use the practice field through August, the field will be in great shape.

"Additionally, the grass on the fields can be kept shorter than in the past. The Purdue football fields' Bermuda grass most likely will be maintained at about three-quarters of an inch, which helps a football team composed of fast runners."

The grass on the Ross-Ade Stadium and practice fields will remain green and recover from damage naturally through September, he said. Divots can be repaired by adding some sand on top, giving the grass a new surface in which to root.

The one drawback with Bermuda grass is that it doesn't remain green late in the football season in central Indiana's climate. However overseeding with perennial rye when Bermuda grass begins its winter dormancy can help maintain the fields' green color and protect the turf from late-season football action, Bigelow said.

Oakwood Sod Farms on the eastern shore of Maryland supplied the new surface. It is a type, or cultivar, of Bermuda grass called Patriot, developed by Oklahoma State University to reliably withstand colder temperatures. It was selected for its dark green color, density and durability.

"We are very excited about this new Bermuda grass football field surface, and it should provide the highest quality and safest field possible for the Purdue football players and their opponents," Bigelow said. "This is truly a practical application of many years of diligent research and hard work."

Writer and media contacts: Susan A. Steeves, (765) 496-7481, ssteeves@purdue.edu; Beth Forbes, (765) 494-2722, forbes@purdue.edu

Source: Cale Bigelow, (765) 494-4692, cbigelow@purdue.edu

Ag Communications: (765) 494-2722; Beth Forbes, forbes@purdue.edu
Agriculture News Page


Related Web sites:
Purdue Department of Agronomy

Purdue Turfgrass Program

Purdue Intercollegiate Athletics


Joel Lopez, from left, and James Goebel remove turf from the Ross-Ade Stadium field Wednesday (May 17) morning. The turf will be replaced with Bermuda grass sod in the coming weeks. Lopez and Goebel work for Landscapes Unlimited, a golf course development firm in Lincoln, Neb. (Purdue University photo/Tom Campbell)

A publication-quality photo is available at https://news.uns.purdue.edu/images/+2006/ross-ade-turf.jpg


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