Spartan Stadium. (Photo credit: Jenna Chabot)

When the Spartans stampede the football field at Spartan Stadium every fall, their proudly displayed green and white uniforms do not go unnoticed with their eye blacked cheeks, their bulging biceps or the wrath on their faces. But what often goes unnoticed is the lush green grass with the colossal white “S” marking the center of our field, the perfectly even playing surface and the environmentally friendly products used to maintain the fields that turf grass experts and athletic turf managers at Michigan State University provide our players with.

MSU is known for our Turf Grass Management program and in compliment, our high quality athletic fields. Students of the turf grass program at MSU learn reactions of different grasses, mowing and fertilizing techniques, weed control, irrigation methods, fertility information and even how to construct athletic fields. Classes range from language classes to match the demographic of their workforce, to pesticide and fertilizer application lessons.

MSU Professor of turf grass management Trey Rogers, is an expert in turf grass education and a vital part of the system MSU has to actively maintain our athletic fields.

“Maintenance determines the field quality, not the grass,” Rogers explains. “MSU is known worldwide for providing outstanding playing conditions,” said Rogers.

But what exactly goes into keeping MSU’s football, baseball, softball, soccer fields and golf courses Spartan green? According to Rogers, it takes a realm of daily activities to keep up the field’s safety and playability.

“The environmental aspects and the aesthetics are important, but the most important part of the maintenance is assuring athletes that the field is playable and especially safe. If the fields are unsafe for players, it’s a liability for MSU, and we’re preparing the fields for, not only daily practices, but also games with visiting schools. Visitors have expectations of safe playing fields,” said Rogers.

Maintaining the fields that host so many Spartan victories is not an easy task, however. During the athletic seasons someone is maintaining the fields on a daily basis, whether it is mowing the grass, fertilizing it or laying down pesticides, according to Rogers. While the grass requires the most upkeep, the skinned areas, or areas where grass is absent, are not to be forgotten. The holes on the baseball fields call for repair after every game, for instance.

MSU’s campaign to “be Spartan green” is an underlying guideline for the methods of maintenance chosen by the athletic turf managers and turf grass experts at our university. “Bad application of bad pesticides and fertilizer will kill grass,” explains Dr. Rogers. “I feel very confident that our staff are environmentally conscious. Pesticides coming to the market now are different than the products used in the 60s and 70s that were troublesome. Pesticides used now are biodegradable, and the turf grass absorbs the pesticide, so the problem with chemicals getting into the water is rare and the issue is minimized,” said Rogers.

With the Red Cedar River flowing throughout our campus, MSU has valid concern with the safety and purity of our river water and the resources we have access to.  A popular item on the market now for field maintenance is “designer pesticides” that are designed specifically to kill harmful organisms, yet leave beneficial ones alone.

“I’m quite happy with the pesticides we have now that are targeting specific organisms,” said Dr. Rogers.

The turf grass management program at MSU has served many graduates since the 1950s when it began, including Athletic Turf Manager Amy Fouty.  Fouty, accompanied by a staff of anywhere from two to fifty people, is in charge of athletic field preparation on our campus. The staff is a combination of people who have graduated with a degree in Turfgrass Management, or are in the process of completing that degree now, according to Fouty.

But when it comes to managing the fields in Michigan, there are sure to be some challenges, including typical unpredictable Michigan weather and adequately maintaining the football fields for the pressures of a Big 10 football game.

“Dealing with the challenges of the weather and consistently providing the best conditions as the number of events that occur in those facilities increase, are challenges. I have one full time staff person, and in the seasons March-November staff increases to 4-11 people during the summer. But during football game days, my staff can range from 5-50 depending on the preparation needed,” said Fouty.

As expected, the Big 10 football season for MSU is the most hectic time for athletic turf managers due to the sheer popularity of the sport and the high profile status it embodies. Fouty and her staff use a myriad of techniques to assure our athletes, coaches and fans that Spartan Stadium is prepped for victory.

“Our goals for every facility are, that they are first, safe for participants and spectators, have the best playability possible for the athletes, and then look great.   In the football stadium we prepare the stadium grass through proper fertilization, irrigation practices, aeration, top-dressing, and seeding. Our growing window in Michigan is end of April-beginning of October, so the grass must be very dense and healthy to stay stable for the later part of the Fall football season.  This can be very challenging,” Fouty explains.

As Rogers previously addressed, a main concern for the athletic field staff and turf grass professors at MSU is being stewards of the environment, and Fouty and her staff are no strangers to this notion. Methods to stay “Spartan green” include using efficient and proven products such as the designer pesticides, and paying attention to the detail of the labeling of products to make certain they are friends of the environment as well. But with a small budget, as Fouty noted, the emphasis in maintenance remains on productivity and efficiency.

MSU’s world renowned, environmentally friendly turf grass program has been recognized internationally. Countries including China have adopted our methods and programs similar to those that have been implemented at MSU are beginning in China.

Dr. Ronald Calhoun, an Environmental Turfgrass Specialist at MSU, is responsible for creating a turf grass program in Beijing, China. The program is similar to ours at MSU. Chinese universities now offer a turf grass management major through their institutions and online learning. Uniquely, MSU did not construct any facilities for the teaching of our program. Instead, classes are taught in Chinese facilities, but are recognized as a program of MSU, meaning students graduate with the names of both their Chinese university and Michigan State University on their diplomas.

According to Dr. Calhoun on www.mlive.com, the turf grass program in China is very successful so far.

“We actually have more undergrads in our turf grass program in China than we do in East Lansing, and we’ve doubled the number of trained turf grass professionals in China in the last five or six years we’ve had the program going,” said Calhoun.

MSU turf grass experts, athletic turf managers and turf grass professors at this university have stretched their talents not only to improve our campus, but have served other campuses internationally as well. While remaining a friend to the environment by selecting non-damaging maintenance methods, the experts at MSU portray fine examples of what it means to “be Spartan green.” And to the approximately 1,500 turf grass majors and graduates also watching the game, that grass underfoot is something to be just as proud of as the entering team.

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