"If we want it to be here for the next generation, and the next generation, then we gotta do what Mother Nature did before we came here, and we've got to burn it quite often to keep the grassland a grassland." --Mike Holder, Flint Hills Extension District. Mike is one of my heroes--an old cowboy who loves the prairie and isn't afraid to fight for it!
In late March and April, the skies in Kansas are often filled with smoke and even metropolitan areas may see the haze of smoke and smell the fires. Often, people with breathing problems have even more trouble with the smoke. So, why do ranchers set their grass on fire? Here are the top five reasons my family sets controlled fires on our prairie grass:
5. To encourage wildlife population -- what's good for the livestock, is good for wildlife!
"Fire is critical to prairie chickens and other grassland birds, because it keeps those trees out of the prairie. If you do not burn, you end up getting woody encroachment out into those grasslands and what that does is provide habitat ...for predators that prey upon prairie chickens and other grassland birds." Jim Pittman, Ks Dept of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism.
3. Promote better utilization of grasses by livestock. Cattle like to eat where it is the easiest to get to the grass, and as they eat, fresh tender grass regrows. There may be luscious, nutritious grass on the next hillside, but often the cattle stay where they are content. So they don't eat down the other hillside and the grass grows tall and lank there. It doesn't taste as good to them, and they ignore it. So we burn off the lank, old grass to encourage fresh, tender and more nutritious grass to grow on that hill as well, luring the cattle there. That is better for the land, not just because there is more to eat, but also it helps control erosion and compaction from cattle walking all over the same land.
2. Better weight gain on livestock with fresh, green, more nutritious grass. The Kansas Flint Hills is mostly Cow Country! Yes, there is plenty of crop ground, too. But for the most part, the hillsides and tops are too rocky to farm. So we manage the grass for cattle to use it. Much of this land isn't fit to grow crops, so we bring nearly a million head of cattle here for a few months in the summer to eat the grass and turn it into something we humans can consume. I can't eat grass--but cattle can convert it to protein. It has been proven that calves grow better on new, fresh grass that doesn't have the old dead grass it must grow through.
1. Use less chemicals. Mother Nature is amazing and constantly changing. One of the biggest reasons we have lost 96% of the native prairie is because it was either good enough land to grow crops, or it has become infested with trees. Cattle don't eat trees and when the eventual infestation of Eastern Redcedar engulfs a part of the prairie, we have lost use of the land as well as the positive impacts of deep-rooted, carbon-sequestering native plants. Without fire to control the woody invasion, we will have to turn to chemicals for widespread control. That not only increases expense, but also labor and safety.
A few years ago, farmers and ranchers participated in a program to voluntarily choose when to burn pastures, based on wind patterns, meteorological data and amount of land to burn. This video explains much about the science of burning pastures, and the science of ozone and what we as caretakers of the land do to manage the fire and choose when to burn. And if you watch the whole video, you may see me a few times--along with many of my grassland management mentors!! (Be sure to leave a comment if you watch it all and if you saw me!)
"Fire is the only way to maintain it. It's too important an ecological asset to lose..." Brian Obermeyer, The Nature Conservancy
Through the years, I have written lots of blog posts about the pasture fires that farmers and ranchers set in April in Kansas. Here is a compilation:
- Pastures up in Flames, April 5, 2011
- Photo Blog - Grassland Management Via Fire, April 15, 2010
- The Kansas Prairie is "Up in Smoke!" April 12, 2010
- Cattle Ranchers are True Environmentalists, October 15, 2009
It all started in 1986--I went to Japan to promote Kansas beef in the Daiei supermarkets and I was hooked! Through the years, communication has changed and consumers have changed. I often hear criticism for the "Millennial" consumer, and I vehemently disagree! These young people are interested in many of the things that farmers and ranchers also care about: protecting the environment, caring for animals and making things better! What a perfect opportunity to answer questions about how food is raised.
I have been involved in connecting with consumers for many years--both in person and digitally. A few examples are below. In addition, I routinely host people to visit my ranch and a few blog posts about their visit are also listed below.
Presentations available online:
- My testimony to the US Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry committee: Climate Change and the Agriculture Sector, May 2019. https://www.agriculture.senate.gov/hearings/climate-change-and-the-agriculture-sector
- State of NOW Twitter Conference #140You in July 2013 in New York City at the 92nd Street YMCA, Title: Have No Fear, Empower Yourself
- Podcast: The Truth about GMOs, Farming and Monsanto: Schweid and Sons, 2016. I'm a guest on this episode
- National Farm Mom of the Year, 2012: Farm Moms and City Moms have the same concerns
Posts by Visitors to my ranch:
"Truth is, my perspective was way wrong. I have been digesting all that I learned and have so much more to do. There is much more to come, but for now, I will tell you to please get the big picture and your own information. It is always important that you do your own research, so you can form your own opinion based on fact." --Dana Zucker
"Not long after piling into Debbie’s pickup truck with my three kids and mom, we were lucky enough to roll down our windows and witness the birth of a calf from about 5o meters away." --Liz Heineke
"The perception I had of ranchers like Debbie was not of them having herds that looked like a calm group of cows just hanging out. If they are poked and pushed and not treated with a gentle hand, why didn’t they just run to the open field when the gate opened. Truth is, these herds are treated well, very well. They are fed before the family and when everyone else is tucked into bed on a iced over day, the family is out making sure the herd has food and water." --Dana Zucker
"The family ranchers’ dedication to caring for their cattle and their land was mind-blowing. They said several times how they look at it a “gift from God” which explains their dedication and hard work. Their compassion and love of their way of life shined through every single person that we met." --Ashley Prescuitti
Relevant Blog Posts on KidsCowsandGrass by topic:
"I believe that we have a responsibility to treat our cows and calves with respect--that means we provide everything they need to have a good life including space to roam and abundant food and water."
"I am so grateful that you chose to allow your special person to become my hero. I cannot imagine the pain of losing your child, but I came very close. You are in my thoughts every day, and I want you to know that my boy is doing his best to live a good life to honor your child."
We have been married for more than 29 years, and have five kids: Meghan, age 27; Allie, age 25; Trent, age 24; and Tyler and Eric, age 22 (yes, they are twins!).
We have about 250 mama cows raising calves, and 350 heifers (cows that haven't had a calf yet). We sell bulls and heifers and sometimes feed out our steers at a feedyard. But usually our product is the genetics that other ranchers use to produce beef.
I post to this blog to share with people around the world what life is like in rural Kansas and how my family works every day to ensure a safe, nutritious supply of beef to consumers.
I am also on social media as DebbieLB most places. Look for me:
- Facebook at KidsCowsandGrass
- Instagram at @DebbieL_B
- Twitter at @DebbieLB
- Pinterest at @KidsCowsandGrass
|Often the first sign of a cow in labor is her raised tail. She will look for a place to be alone. The membranes may appear as a water "balloon" that will burst and you can then see the calf's front feet.|
|A heifer should calve within 30 minutes of the feet being presented. I check to make sure the calf is presented correctly by how the feet look. If they're upside down, the calf is backward and we need to help her deliver.|
|Uh-oh. She seems me! Cattle like to be alone and protected when they calve. Soon she is too busy pushing to worry about me. I hid behind the feed bunk!|
|You can see the calf's nose now. The front feet should come first, with the nose and head next.|
|Soon the head is pushed out with the calf's knees (or elbows?!). The membranes are still around the calf.|
|Very quickly the cow pushes the calf out. The shoulders can be a difficult part. But this time, the calf's shoulders slide right out.|
|The cow is really concentrating and I can sneak closer.|
|She has the calf pushed out to his rib cage, and he tries to breathe, but he can't yet because his rib cage is still compressed. His tongue is sticking out reaching for a breath!|
|As his rib cage is pushed out, he stretches out to take a breath. The mama cow is still focused on her contractions.|
|The hips can also be a point of difficulty. If the cow's pelvis is shaped wrong, or if the calf is very large, it may become "hiplocked." As the calf is born, it rotates slightly to free the hips.|
|Unfortunately as the calf rotates, this time his head becomes rotated and his body pushes it around. If he doesn't straighten out quickly, he may suffocate!|
|The heifer finishes pushing the calf out. She must now stand up soon and begin licking the calf to get him to breathe immediately.|
|Another successful delivery! Congratulations, it's a boy!|