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Sod farmers: key players in the sports turf industry

We asked some prominent sod farmers the questions listed below about quality thick-cut sod, sod grown on plastic, and preparing to play on recently placed sod.

  • What details define “quality sod” to you?
  • What questions should inexperienced sod customers be asking when visiting your farm?
  • Are your best products always available?
  • What should someone do to prepare their field when fresh thick-cut sod or sod grown on plastic, is scheduled and they intend to play on it immediately?

Jimmy Fox, Evergreen Turf

Chandler, AZ

Quality is an overused and under-defined term. As it relates to thick-cut sod that is to be played on, the number one characteristic that defines quality is “superior playing surface.” The surface has to be mature, low thatch (if not zero thatch), with great shear strength. So much attention gets drawn to the looks of the sod, or the bottom of the sod, and people always ask questions like “Is it grown on plastic? Are the roots massive? Is the sand compatible? How does it look?”

All of these are important characteristics, but no one is playing on the bottom of the sod, they are playing on the top. If the top isn’t the best possible quality, you will have failure, slips, divoting, shearing, poor performances by athletes, potential injuries, and you may get shredded on the evening news or ESPN. The number one definition of quality sod is sod that has a superior playing surface.

Inexperienced sod customers should ask:

  • How much experience do you as a grower have in delivering a thick cut product that is played on instantly?
  • How old (mature) is your sod? Sod grown on plastic (depending on the method) can be mature in 6-12 months. Sod grown conventionally can take up to 18 months to have good maturity.
  • How much sod can you harvest and truck in a day comfortably?
  • Do you have a back-up sod harvester, or a back-up plan if your machinery breaks down?
  • Can you verify the source of your planting stock? For bluegrass that means sod quality, certified seed. For warm-season grasses that means certified planting stock, or a proven paper trail of where the grass originated. When your job depends on the sod, it needs to perform like the grass that has been tested and proven, the grass that you are expecting to get.
  • Is your soil or sand compatible with the field the sod is being installed on? If your stadium field has a percolation rate of 15 inches an hour, and your sod growing medium has a percolation rate of 7 inches an hour, you just slowed the drainage in your field down by 50%! It really sucks to spend $500,000 on a high-end stadium field, and then screw it up with one sod install!
  • If we get a lot of rain or snow, can you still harvest?
  • Do you have a list of references? Satisfied customers?
  • What kind of mowing equipment do you have? Can you produce a mowing height compatible with my existing field?
  • How much notice do you need to fulfill my order?

Our best products are never available all the time. We plan 18 months ahead, and then take a second look at our inventory at 12 months before potential harvest. Our sod field planting happens in the summer time, and once we hit October, we cannot make any adjustments to our planting schedule. If we have not made plans for thick-cut sod, on a specific type of sand before October, it will be 2 years before we can have more mature, quality sod to deliver. Managing inventory for thick-cut sod is difficult, and expensive.

If you are planning on playing on new sod immediately, the first thing to do is make sure you know the thickness of the sod so you can have the removal of the old field taken out at the right depth; if you can arrange for an actual piece of sod to be delivered prior to the removal process, that can be a huge benefit. You don’t want to get the depth wrong and have to make adjustments after the sod is delivered.

Know your access points. Where will you begin sodding, where will you end? Make sure you have minimized traffic on the field when planning your installation strategy. If possible, aerify the field prior to sodding. Solid tines are all you need; you don’t want to pull cores. All of the equipment from the removal process and sodding process will compact your field. Just a simple quarter inch solid tine aerification can make a huge difference in water percolation and sod rooting.

If you have time, rototill and laser level. You don’t get many opportunities to expose your subsurface and alleviate compaction issues or level issues on your field. This is a great time to hit the “reset” button on your subsurface. Budget time and money for rototilling and leveling if possible.

Gary Wilber, Oakwood Sod Farm

Delmar, MD

Quality sod is healthy, clean, high tensile strength sod. Specifications that focus on sod age often don’t account for the improvement/decline of sod strength because the growth potential of different species varies with the seasons.

The customer visiting the farm should come with an understanding of his/her need for sod in the future. The customer can then ask if the farm’s production can meet that need. If the customer has a deadline or event, production can be reserved. Also, if the customer has specifications like soil type or sod thickness, they can be discussed and understood by all parties.

Farms want to please their customers. Unfortunately events like severe weather i.e., high heat/severe cold/drought/excessive rainfall can cause shortages because of unforeseen demand or production issues.

We do not produce sod on plastic and rarely do thick cut jobs. The keys to any successful sod project are site preparation and water. Is the base firm and properly graded? If the base is not stable or holds water the best sod can fail. Likewise, if water is limited then sod will stress and deteriorate.

Joe Traficano, West Coast Turf

Mesa, AZ

For quality, we look at root mass, turf density, shear strength, mowing height consistency, consistent harvest depth, and nice green color.

Make farm visits as much as you think is necessary; most turf managers make a trip out 3 months before delivery and then another 2 weeks before installation. If necessary, a few come out when we are harvesting their sod. Possible questions include:

  • How old is the material?
  • When was it planted? Seed or stolons?
  • Has this material been harvested this year?
  • What is the mowing height at the time of harvest? Can I have it mowed at the same cutting height as my field?
  • When was it last fertilized? What product was used?
  • What is it grown on? (analysis of growing medium)
  • Do you use plastic netting to help grow in?
  • What varieties do you grow?

All our products are not always available; it depends on time of year and how much work this is. Best policy is to reach out to sales staff and give them a heads up on project and depending on quantity, we request a deposit to hold the material in inventory.

When preparing for thick-cut sod, plan ahead; make sure you have all the contractors scheduled, make a visit to sod farm, and have a plan B if bad weather is in the forecast, especially when dealing with the sod farm. It might not be raining at the facility but might be at sod farm. Typical thick cut sod ranges from 1 to 2 inches in depth; most like 1.5 inches if a quick turnaround is necessary.

Cost plays a big factor, due to thicker cut the sod weighs more and the trucks carry less material, so more trucking is necessary which not only increases costs but also increases the chances something might go wrong on delivery. If you have a quick turnaround it makes for a stressful time waiting on trucks.

Your field must be prepared for the thick cut depth, so if you have existing turf you must prep the field so it matches up correctly. We don’t want any uneven surfaces. The field must be graded and firm so no rutting occurs during installation. Depending on access to field, plywood must be placed in areas where unloading of sod onto the field is placed to help with damage. Also to help speed up install process, a plywood path is placed on the field to the far end so the forklift can drop sod closer.

Once all sod is installed and you have a quick turnaround, water in the sod with a hose, roll, and mow if necessary.

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James Graff, Graff’s Turf

Fort Morgan, CO

Quality sod covers three major areas for us: strength, density and color. Lacking in any of these areas makes for an unhappy customer and a project no one is proud to have his or her name on.

Re questions, ask about soil, ask about seed, ask about fertility plans, ask about age of turf. The answers don’t have to be complicated but there should be answers. Make sure no corners have been cut. You must have a supplier you trust and one that views your relationship as a mutual partnership. You must help each other out to be successful. Listen to each other. Learn the difference between maintaining a playing field and producing a field of turfgrass and respect the differences.

Our best products are in high demand. Our inventory runs tight and making plans far in advance is critical.

Grades are the most critical point. If the grade is solid, level and stable it will be a safe playing surface. The best sod on a poor grade will be difficult to get right. After the turf is down, don’t complicate it. Don’t turn the field into a science project. And as my dad has always said, “Relax . . . it’s just grass.”

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