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!
"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.
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.