Why do ranchers burn their pastures? Five beneficial reasons to put up with the smoke

Less than 4% of the original Tallgrass Prairie remains in America and most of that is in the Flint Hills of Kansas. The prairie is comprised of native grasses--not planted by any human. Even though it was designed by Nature, it is mankind's responsibility to help maintain the prairie. 

"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.

4.  Weed control -- Kill woody shrubs and trees. Some people may claim that this is the #1 reason to burn, and frankly, all five reasons are all very closely tied together.  Back when the Indians and buffalo roamed free on the Kansas prairie, lightning storms lit fires that raged over thousands of acres in one big bonfire.  Once the grass began to regrow, the buffalo came to the fresh, tender grass.  The inhabitants also noticed that fire kept killing back the woody weeds and that kept trees from invading the native pristine prairie. So the Indians began lighting the first controlled burns and history was made!   In addition to controlling weeds, burning the grass promotes diversity in the grassland. The beauty of the native prairie is that it isn't comprised of only one plant. Many different grasses and forbs combine to make a healthy, sustainable grassland.   "The ranchers in eastern Kansas are really kind of stewards of one of the last pieces of the most important ecosystem in north America,"   Karl Brooks, EPA Region 7.

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 tough there. It doesn't taste as good to them, and they ignore it.  So we burn off the tough, 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 fewer 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:

Freeze Branding Registered Cattle

All the cattle on our ranch are identified by a specific number.
Registered cattle must be permanently identified, so we either put a tattoo in their ear, or a freeze brand on their side.

The brass irons are cooled in a bath of methyl alcohol and dry ice.
We also put our legal identifying brand on their hip.
Immediately after applying the iron, the skin layer is frozen, which changes the structure of the hair follicle so the hair grows in white forever!
For more information about freeze branding, see my previous posts:

How do we train new cowhands?

This post is a collaboration with Beef. It’s What’s for Dinner. on behalf of the Beef Checkoff. I received compensation, but all opinions are my own. 

Kids...Cows...and Grass...I didn’t choose that name by accident. Those are three of the things I am most passionate about, and in my life, they are all very intertwined! It is not a surprise that our main source of labor on the ranch is our family—mostly our kids. These days our kids are also adding significant others to the mix, and since working with family is important to us, it is also important that we encourage them to help us care for the cattle if they are interested. Working on the ranch is a great family activity—as well as a way to get the work done.


My son Trent started dating his wife Brier when she was a freshman in high school and a few of their early “dates” included helping on the ranch. Brier had not been around lots of cows, so when she started helping on the ranch, she needed to learn not only how to stay safe while working among the cattle, but also how to do the best job possible. So, we sent her to school! Yes, seriously, there is a school of sorts for handling and managing cattle. It is called the Beef Quality AssuranceProgram (BQA) and it is a series of online, or in-person modules that teach things like how to give various vaccinations, how to move around cattle to keep them calm and doing what you need them to do, and even how to tell if cattle are sick. There are so many useful topics that I cannot list them here without taking up too much space.

Before someone new is able to help us, we need to teach them how to handle cattle correctly and how to do certain tasks to ensure that cattle are well cared for. Naturally, cattle are prey animals, so they see unfamiliar people as predators and are afraid of them.  In addition, fear increases stress and stressed cattle don’t eat well, may not rest easily, and they get sick more often. Calm, unafraid, cattle are easier to work with, but they are also healthier, and easier to tell if they are hurt or sick. We raise our cattle from newborns to not be afraid of us and to be calm and quiet when we are with them; so when Brier started working with us, we taught her how cows think, and where to stand to make them move in the direction she wants. We don’t yell or wave our arms to frighten them, but instead give them space to go the way we need them to go, and step closer to them from the side to encourage them to move that way. It really is a learned skill!

Throughout the year we sometimes need extra help, particularly when we are vaccinating the young calves before they go to the pasture with their mamas in the spring. In the pasture, they will have lots of grass and water and room to run all summer, but it is more difficult to treat one if they get sick. We coordinate with our veterinarian to plan the vaccinations they need and before we take them to the pasture, we gather them all and give them those vaccinations. Brier has been given the job of giving each calf a vaccination. Before she started working with our cattle, she learned how to properly give vaccinations. There are two main ways we give a vaccine: subcutaneous (under the skin) and intramuscular (in the muscle). For the most part, we give vaccinations under the skin of nearly all ages of cattle, it is extremely important that we all understand how to do that safely.

Brier has helped vaccinate cattle for many years now and she has also helped with other tasks. When they were dating, she helped freeze brand bulls and as they worked, Trent knelt down to reach the area on the bull’s shoulder.... he didn’t realize then that he would be getting on one knee eight years later to ask her to become Mrs. Blythe! They have been married for more than three years now and she is still helping us with cattle, and she is a full-time kindergarten teacher!

We have recently added a new Mrs. Blythe to the family—Cece has taken the BQA classes and has her certification and has started helping us on the ranch! It really is all about the cattle and making sure we are not only keeping them healthy, but also calm and content—because stressed cattle get sick. It is important that each of us working with cattle knows the best way to handle them and that helps us all!

Our veterinarian is a vital ranch team member

 This post is a collaboration with Beef. It’s What’s for Dinner. on behalf of the Beef Checkoff. I received compensation, but all opinions are my own.

Sustainability is such a complex idea! Everyone around seems to be talking about sustainability. Ranchers and farmers are focused on being sustainable—and that means taking care of the land, cattle, and people, and it also means being profitable. Right now, on the ranch, our focus is taking care of the cattle. There are so many jobs that need to be accomplished, but the most important is to focus on animal care.

Most ranches in America are family owned and operated, so the animal care team is often the husband and wife who own the ranch, their kids and possibly their parents or siblings.  Another key member of the team is the local veterinarian. On our ranch, it is vital that the local veterinarian, Dr. Kathryn Miller, is familiar with our cowherd. She comes out to the ranch when we are vaccinating cattle, checking for pregnancy, or just needing a bit of advice on a cow’s health! But most importantly, Dr. Miller helps us plan our herd health program.

“What’s a herd health program?”

A herd health program is a very precise plan coordinated to keep our cattle feeling good and not sick! With Dr. Miller's help, we decide exactly what our cattle need at exactly what time of the year. This includes what dates to plan to be calving, when to vaccinate the calves and cows as well as what vaccines they need, and even when and how to wean the calves for the lowest amount of stress on them. Then we get the veterinarian scheduled on our calendar to have her help us assess them throughout the year.

Today, we are checking the cows for pregnancy and Dr. Miller brings her portable ultrasound machine—she can tell if the cow is pregnant, project when it will be born, look for twins and if we take extra time, she could tell the calf’s gender! We usually are just happy with knowing the cow is healthy and pregnant and the calf’s due date! When you have 285 heifers (those are young cows who are pregnant with their first calf) to check, we focus only on the cattle to get the job done quickly and efficiently!


The first job when we want to check the cows is to gather them up into a pen so we can walk them through an alleyway one at a time and catch each one so the veterinarian can use the ultrasound machine to check them each. Our cattle are calm and trust us, because we have always worked calmly with them, not raising our voices or waving our arms to scare them. They know that we are not to be afraid of, so they are safer to walk around and pose no danger to us or to each other. This is called “Low Stress Cattle Handling” and cattle ranchers actually can attend a training to learn about low stress tactics.

This year, we had great luck with our pregnancy exams, despite hot weather. Dr. Miller said we should be expecting 266 calves from these heifers starting in January! That means the rest of our team (a.k.a. the family) can start preparing for calving season when we will have hundreds of baby calves running around on the ranch! Looks like it will be a busy spring!

Supermarket beef is raised by farm families!

I have talked to people in grocery stores in Manhattan, Kansas and Manhattan, New York and they all have the same concerns--is supermarket beef safe and good for me? I actually love getting this question. I usually tell them that we own a ranch in the Tallgrass Prairie of Kansas. We are in the middle of cow-country with more grass than crops. We are focused on taking care of the environment, and frankly, the reason the grasslands still exist is because the ranchers figured out more than a century ago that this grass is highly nutritious for cattle and they fought to protect the native grassland.  Today, I work beside my husband and my kids to care for our cattle in good weather, and in bad weather. Every day we work to give our cattle and land the best care we can.  And...I love cattle!

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