Vermillion hasn’t seen snowfall yet, but winter storms have already hit most of South Dakota. The USD grounds crew is watching weather forecasts to make sure they’re ready when the snow finally hits Vermillion.
During the waiting game, the USD grounds crew prepares to make the transition from mowing lawns to moving snow.
Nate Steele, director of grounds at USD, ensures the grounds crew has the resources to maintain the 14 miles of sidewalks and 40 acres of parking lots on campus. This includes making sure all necessary equipment is ready for action.
The grounds crew maximizes the use of their equipment by converting their summer lawn mowers into snowplows with heated cabs for the winter, Steele said. The effeciency of the dual-purpose machines allows the university to avoid buying different sets of equipment for each season, but they can only perform one duty at a time.
Seasonal crossover brings the uncertainty of still-growing grass and possible snowstorms, putting stress on the limited number of machines. This, Steele said, makes timing essential when making the switch.
“We don’t want to transition to snow too early, but we don’t want to be waiting so long that we’re behind the eight-ball and we don’t have our equipment ready,” Steele said.
When the grounds crew isn’t moving snow, they use the winter to catch up on maintenance and repairs. They work in the shop fixing equipment and repairing things like the wooden barricades that are used for events and construction on campus.
“Winter can be a hurry up and wait game,” Steele said, “We are always looking to be creative in finding projects that [the staff] can work on so they can still be productive when we are waiting on snow removal.”
When the snow does finally come, grounds crew workers clear it out while the rest of the campus is asleep.
“Usually at 2 a.m. we start plowing parking lots and then we’re starting sidewalks around 4 a.m. The goal is to have 75 to 80 percent of campus cleared by 8 a.m. when everybody arrives for the day,” Steele said.
Kody Gentry, a full-time groundskeeper for USD, said the weather dictates her work schedule more than anything else.
“We could get called in at three in the morning to start plowing,” Gentry said.
If snow continues to fall throughout the day, those same grounds crew workers are in plows and out shoveling, making for what Steele calls “a very long day.”
The drop in temperature also brings a drop in seasonal workers. Steele said they’re always looking for more workers during the winter season.
“We use them to help with the snow removal process, scooping some staircases and some things around campus,” Steele said.
The custodial staff also helps by shoveling snow away from areas the grounds crew’s equipment can’t reach.
Every October the grounds crew and custodial staff sit through a training session to refresh their responsibilities. Each worker must know how much space to leave beside buildings for the plows and snowblowers.
The grounds crew has many responsibilities beyond landscaping work and snow removal on campus. They also make time for furniture moves, freight deliveries and event setups across campus.
“It just kind of falls to us because we have the equipment,” Steele said. “It’s always a battle with resources whether that’s staffing, funding or purchasing new equipment.”
The extra duties complicate the grounds crew’s already busy winter schedule, but they always find a way to get everything done, Steele said.
“Staffing is always tight,” Steele said, “we have to kind of move people around and manage the labor hours, but we make it happen.”