For Release April 11, 2000
Fire - An Essential Pasture Management Tool
by Chuck Otte, Geary County Extension Agent
As the smoky haze descended upon the city last week, the phone calls and questions started coming in. "Why do we have all this burning?" "Isnít there something else that they can do, other than burning?" "Isnít there a law against this?"
Any April, when we have good soil moisture and cooperative weather, the Flint Hills pastures will be set on fire. Any April when we have a lot of pasture burning, and especially when a lot of smoke drifts through town, I will receive a lot of questions, gripes and complaints about that pasture burning. To understand why we burn pastures, and why I encourage and support proper prescribed burning activities, you have to understand a little bit about grassland ecology.
When the settlers moved into the Great Plains in the 1800ís, there was one thing that always stood out. A treeless sea of grass. There was one constant, natural, factor that created these grasslands, fire. For several thousand years, periodic fires swept across the prairies, sometimes lasting for days and moving hundreds of miles, consuming everything in sight.
If you burn off a tree a few times it will eventually die. But a grass plant maintains 80% to 90% of itís mass underground. When a fire consumes the above ground portion, it is quite easy for grasses to regenerate new above ground parts. Since these grasslands were shaped and developed by fire, fire needs to remain an integral part of the management scheme.
When fire is removed, even for one or two years, we start to see a sudden shift in the species composition of that pasture. One of the most obvious new invaders is the Eastern Red Cedar. The cedar tree does not like fire. It is a non-sprouting species, and once you remove all the green growth, it is dead. Fire is a very inexpensive way to control cedars. There are several other brushy species that are also well controlled by fire. Sure, you can use herbicides to control these species. Unfortunately a few gallons of herbicide costs a lot more than a few matches. And how many times has agriculture been criticized for all the chemicals that they use?
When you donít burn a pasture for several years, you build up a thick layer of mulch on the ground, made up of the past years worth of growth. When this catches fire it burns very hot and is very hard to control. When you burn every year or every couple of years, this thatch layer doesnít develop. If a fire starts by accident it is much easier to control without that thatch layer. So regular burning actually reduces the wild fire hazard. Forest managers finally figured this out after the Yellowstone fires a few years ago. Even forests develop under periodic burning and this burning is necessary for the overall health of the forest.
Prescribed burning allows for better utilization of the grass forage by cattle. It evens out uneven grazing habits and makes it easier for cattle to get to the new, highly nutritious grass each spring. Raising beef cattle is an expensive operation. We donít need to be replacing cheap fire with expensive labor and chemicals. Yes, the annual prescribed burning can be a bit of a nuisance to everyone involved. But given the options available, fire is our best option and possibly our most critical one!
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