Many of you may have noticed (cough, cough) that spring brings with it the annual pasture management practice of prescribed burning. The whole world, it seems, is a haze of choking smoke. Ash settles on absolutely everything, and most people are complaining of stuffy noses and a hacking cough, and are generally grumbling, “When will it end?! Why in the world do they have to do that!?”
Well, even though we join in on the smoky and oft-despised practice on our farm, I hate the constant smell of smoke, too. And all of my household are sporting uncomfortable allergy and cold-like symptoms. However, I admit I didn’t really know why we did it, other than maybe weed control. So, I learned why. And I will try to help you all to understand, too!
Here in my part of Kansas (Wabaunsee County), we generally burn from March 15 through April 15 (tax time), although according to some agricultural scientists, this can be extended through mid-May. This time is optimum to ensure burning does not hurt the new grass that is emerging, and that it helps control the weeds and brush starting to come out. It facilitates the growth of native grasses.
The timing of burning is specific to region, so if you are reading this to learn for your own information so you can burn your own grassland, please be sure to find out the proper time to burn in your area. The type of grass you wish to encourage, the timing of pasture leases, and the condition of the pasture (wet or dry) may also play a part in the timing of your burn. This time of year is before the usual start to the grazing season (mid-April or early May), so pastures have time to green up before cattle are put on them.
Another consideration when planning a burn is the weather. You should not commence burning if the wind is forecast to be above 12 to 15 miles per hour. In addition, humidity should be above 25 percent and temperature should be below 80 degrees Farenheit.
Obviously, burning can be very dangerous.
Every year there are hundreds of fire calls related to out-of-control pasture burns. Winds can change direction quickly and turn a nice gentle burn into a nightmare. It is important to be sure to watch the weather forecast, plan to have plenty of manpower, have emergency water on hand, and to notify emergency management of the burn.
There are a wide variety of reasons why pastures are burned in the spring. There are many more reasons to burn than just weed control. Prescribed (planned and controlled) pasture burning adds valuable nutrients to the soil, especially nitrogen. It promotes grass growth, and research has shown that cattle grazed on pastures that use prescribed burning as part of their management plan gain more weight, which translates to better returns for the rancher.
Burning helps eliminate those thick, patchy, thatched areas of grass sometimes seen in pastures. Those patches are areas that cattle (or other livestock) have avoided grazing for some reason. After the growing season, these patches will have tough stems left. If the pasture is not burned, these patches will still grow grass, but the tough, dead, sharp stemmy parts are still there, and livestock will avoid grazing because the stems poke them in the nose and mouth, are difficult to chew, and make it nearly impossible to get at the tender grass growing within the thatch.
It is recommended to use prescribed burning in conjunction with other pasture management methods such as rotational grazing. Pastures should have times of rest, too. These practices allow the grass to regenerate and provide better nutrition for the livestock grazing there. Pastures should be burned every three to five years. Ranchers will often rotate areas to burn. This practice encourages cattle to graze different areas of the pasture instead of favoring just one area and overgrazing it, which they are known to do. The new growth on a pasture that has been burned is more palatable, so the animals will favor it and graze where the rancher wants them to.
Another reason to burn (and my favorite) is that prescribed burning is a very effective way to manage pests such as ticks, grasshoppers and parasitic worms without using chemicals. Chemical control is not as effective, is much more expensive, and is certainly less desirable since it adds unwanted pesticides to the soil, the vegetation, and possibly to water supplies. Burning means the area is safe for pets and children to play in!
I often hear people ask why ranchers don’t just mow their pastures. Mowing is an effective pasture management strategy, and is often utilized in smaller areas. However, the pasture to be managed often is inaccessible to tractors and mowing equipment, not to mention the added cost of fuel and the equipment.
Simply put, burning is easier, cheaper, and more effective.
The pictures in this article are from the burn we did on our property and from neighboring farms during the recent burning season. And, this link shows Prairie fires on the Flying W Ranch in the Kansas Flint Hills. It is beautiful and mesmerizing, especially at night!