The Kansas Prairie is "Up in Smoke!"

Spring is a very busy time of year on a Kansas cattle ranch. So many jobs, and thankfully, more daylight to do them in. But that makes for very long work days! Recently, we've been concentrating on pasture management by burning the prairie grass.  We have approximately 2,000 acres of prairie land that we either own or lease and this week is the perfect time to burn it.

There is a very specific time to set a fire, completely independent of the weather and wind conditions. The old farmer's tale of when to burn is when the green warm season grass is as tall as your second knuckle of your finger when you point it downward into the old dead grass. At that time, the grass is not too far along in its growth pattern that it will recover and grow again within hours, while the scrub brush and cedar trees are just starting to bud out and will be injured and possibly killed by the fire.  One of the biggest reasons to burn is to control the growth of brush and cedar in the native pastures. If you burn too early in the season, it will take too long for grass to sprout and erosion may occur, and if you burn too late the grass will be too tall to get a good fire that will carry through the brush and trees to kill them. When it is time to burn, that is all we ranchers do:  burn pastures! Everything else must wait!

This grass was not planted by any human--it is a native grass. It is the same grass that grew here for the buffalo and many, many years before them. Kansas is lucky to still have this region of native grass, as there are only two in the world and none other in the United States.  This grass has been maintained for a number of reasons; first, the pioneers tried to tear it up to plant crops, but the large number of rocks near the surface and the rolling hills kept them from being very successful.  Don't get me wrong, there is some very good crop ground in the Kansas Flint Hills, but most of it is still in grass. I talked about the Flint Hills in my blog post "Cattle Ranchers are True Environmentalists."

Another reason that the grass has been maintained is because of its high nutritive content for grazing animals.  The Indians hunted buffalo that had fattened on this grass, the early ranchers walked their herds of Longhorn cattle through this area to take advantage of the grass, and today we recognize the ability of cattle to graze without any needed supplement of energy.  We do feed a mineral in a free-choice tub to make sure that all their mineral needs are met, but the grass is the sole source of energy and protein during the summer.

Therefore, we do all we can to protect this grassland.  This past weekend, my family planned and executed managed burns of nearly 1,500 acres. If our pasture is next to another pasture, we try to coordinate with the neighbors and burn together--thereby increasing safety and the number of people to help with the burn.  If the neighbor doesn't need to burn this year, we must set backfires to keep the fire from crossing into their pastures.  We start downwind, and set a line of fire inside the fence on our side, then using water and a sprayer on the back of our pickup, put out the fire as it burns toward the neighbor's side, leaving the fire burning into our pasture.  As it creeps into the wind, it burns very slowly, usually allowing us to finish the full perimeter before it reaches the other side of the pasture.  The last backfire that we set is the side that is upwind, so that the headfire will burn large and hot as the wind carries it to the original backfire set at the other side of the pasture.

As it goes, it burns off dead grass and fallen trees; kills scrub brush like buckbrush and sumac; and red cedar trees sometimes go up in flames like a torch reaching into the sky 10-20 feet high! After burning a pasture for a few years in a row, you may be able to skip a year of burning and set up a rotation. But when you are initially getting control on the brush and trees, you must burn every year to make a difference.  At right is an example of a pasture that has not been burned in a few years. Notice the cedar trees that are growing.  Those cedars will take over a pasture, crowding out the grass--and cows do not eat cedar trees!

I spoke to a friend today about pasture burning time. She commented that she is glad that it is nearly over as her allergies are really bothered by the smoke. The smoke from thousands of acres being burned within a short time window is very heavy and without a wind to disappate it, will hang in valleys and around the area looking very much like fog. But I reminded her that without the burning, the pollen from the cedar trees would overwhelm her allergies anyway! I am also allergic to some trees and even the grass when it is pollinating, but I would much rather use fire as a management tool than chemicals or risk losing the historic native grassland.

Once a properly timed burn is complete, within days the new grass begins to grow. It is amazing how fast the black earth turns green with new grass. Depending on the warmth of the days and nights, there may be enough grass regrown to allow cows to be turned out and graze in only two or three weeks.

1 comment:

  1. I had never thought about the pollen we're not getting by stopping Cedar trees. I'll have to pass that along. Excellent post!


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