Budgeting maintenance of sports facilities

Setting an overall standard

We are today striving to achieve better results on our grassed playing surfaces. Improvements come with a cost but priorities and values can get easily distorted. It is vital to set an overall standard – a level of performance in keeping with our budget and aspirations. Yet little thought is given to the essential budgeting needed for maintaining sporting facilities. This particularly applies to local authority controlled grounds, schools and private clubs. Often it is just the formality of updating last year’s figures or as in current times there can be a need cut the budget by 20%.

Before we can look at cutting costs there is the need to consider forward plans in accordance with the standard to be sustained. Realistic estimates in procuring improvements are vital if any facility is to progress. Whether short, medium or long term plans they should be tabulated in accordance with priority needs. Investigations should be thorough enough to fully examine all the implications and problems involved.

Firstly, in today’s scene there must be an evaluation whether the full extent of annual maintenance can be cost-effectively carried out in-house or with the service of specialised contractors. This will depend to a large degree on the size of the facility. With the cost of equipment and the range required to undertake the variety of tasks needed, financing such an array of machinery is out of the question for most authorities and sports clubs. Even with the service of well equipped contractors the costs of some individual specialist treatments warrants considering a short or medium term programme.

Priorities

In today’s economic climate all clubs and local authorities are concerned with the annual cost. However if a facility is to be suitable for play there are a minimum number or treatments in the year that are essential if some degree of grass cover is to be sustained – often during prolonged wet winter months. Deciding on the priorities is the major decision. Sure, new priorities will emerge but major expenditure items should be planned ahead in a systematic programme that should not be changed. Frequency of treatments, formulation selection and rate of application all determine the extent of expenditure. Only by compiling the priority needs and the costs involved can a cost-effective programme be finalised.

1. Mowing

Mowing to the desired height should be frequent enough to maintain vigor of grass cover without leaving excess grass cuttings on the surface. On fine turf the cuttings should be removed. The efficiency of mowing equipment should be regularly monitored. The frequency of mowing needed in the year make this the most costly operation in terms of time spent – but it is the most vital.

2. Nutrition

Basic nutrient formulations have increased considerably in cost but treatments are relatively inexpensive in the overall budget. Slow release formulations reduce the need for repeat treatments but add to the cost. Adequate nutrition well into the autumn is vital in securing a good grass cover in preparation for the winter season. The cost of two to three applications in the year make them cost-effective in terms of the response attained.

3. Aeration

After a season’s play either the vertidrain or rotating tine (earthquake or groundbreaker) should be employed to reduce surface compaction. Decompacting the surface is invaluable in ensuring good vigorous growth in the following season. Depending on the pitch use this treatment could be provisional or on a two-yearly basis.

4. Pest control

Provisionally allowance must be made for the need to spray at least every two years for weeds. In addition, there are times when spraying to inhibit earthworm casts becomes vital if a good grass cover is to be sustained. There must also be awareness of possible invasion leather jackets and chafer grubs in coarse turf while disease control remains a vital concern in fine turf. Treatments can be costly but are vital when necessary.

5. Irrigation

Normally confined to fine turf the control of watering programmes is not only a concern with regard to cost but over-watering can rapidly reduce the health of the grass sward. The maintenance of an irrigation system must be regular or it can become a costly investment.

6 Annual renovation

On coarse turf, treatment is often overlooked because of the expense. Worn and damaged areas must receive due attention and annual scarifiying and overseeding are essential if an even stand of hard wearing grass cover is desired instead of the rapidly invading annual meadow grass. On fine grass cover, often dominated by meadow grass, scarifying is invaluable to remove excessive live and dead shoots. Overseeding is only of value if there is rigid plan to alter the management programme to the benefit of the overseeded grass species.

7. Housekeeping

These costs mount up and can become considerable in the overall budget. Line marking, litter picking, hedge cutting and boundary clearing can involve considerable man hours in the year.

This minimum selection of treatments falls far short of the requirements in maintaining high standard grass cover. On sports pitches where secondary drainage has been installed, annual sand dressings are vital if the slit drains are to remain open. As a costly item normally in the region of £2500 per pitch, it is often avoided – leading to the rapid deterioration of the expensive drainage system that has been installed.

On fine turf, regular verticutting, solid and hollow tining are needed treatments to provide required aeration and sustain a high quality grass cover. The further application of biotic stimulants and soil conditioners can add significantly to the annual cost as do regular top dressings.

To maintain a set standard with increased demand for sporting venues, annual improvements become an essential consideration and capital investment is an on-going requirement. Whether it is improving drainage, installing irrigation or upgrading the playing surfaces – there is always something. Realistically, an amount should be allowed annually and this amount should be part of a five year programme. Attending to an urgent unplanned need becomes a strain on cash flow.

Site administration is now vital

Whatever the budget and the assessment of priorities, proper control can only be attained where a sound recording system operates and the essential facts are collated so that they are immediately available for management decisions. Relying on inadequate diary entries cannot be satisfactory. Reporting back to the governing body on the performance and financial expenditure over the last month is an essential responsibility of the greenkeeper and groundsman. Comparing actual costs with budget costs must be the basis of a sound costing system and the correct allocation of item costs can only be established in the maintenance shed. . The whole budgeting exercise takes much time but if done properly it gives greater insight into realistic costing and priority planning. There are software programmes available but individual requirements differ and the most practical examples seem to be those developed in-house by someone fully involved.

Minimum cultural treatments

Gordon Jaaback

November 2009