Have you ever been driving down the highway and seen smoke billowing over the top of a hill and wondered what in the world was going on? You think to yourself, “Maybe I should call 911 to report the fire.” But as you approach the smoke, your thoughts about the situation change because it’s a grass fire, there are people watching it burn and it looks under control. Today’s blog post will help you understand a little more why we use this practice called controlled burn.
Controlled or “prescribed burns” have been used for many, many years. They have a long history in land management. Pre-agricultural societies used fire to regulate both plant and animal life. Fire history studies have documented periodic land fires ignited by indigenous peoples in North America and Australia. Since 1995, the US Forest Service has slowly incorporated burning practices into its forest management policies.
In our area, we use controlled burn on our rangeland for several reasons. Controlled burns are used most frequently to maintain and restore native grasslands. The burning can recycle nutrients tied up in old plant growth. We also use it to control many woody plants, trees and herbaceous weeds. Burning improves poor quality forage, increases plant growth and improves certain wildlife habitat. To achieve the above benefits, fire must be used under very specific conditions, using very specific techniques.
Controlled burning is usually overseen by fire control authorities for regulations and permits. When we decide to burn a pasture, we are responsible to obtain a burn permit, and we must state the intended time and place. Controlled burning is typically conducted during the cooler months to reduce fuel buildup and decrease the likelihood of serious hotter fires. In our area of Nebraska, controlled burning usually takes place from February – late April.
We begin our controlled burn by back burning. Back burning is a way of reducing the amount of flammable material during a rangefire by starting small fires along a man-made or natural firebreak in front of a main fire front. It is called back burning because the small fires are designed to ‘burn back towards the main fire front’. The basic reason for back burning is so that there is little material that can burn when the main fire reaches the burnt area. This is a way for the fire to burn out. The firebreaks that may be used could be a river, road, bulldozed clearing or a tilled strip.
We don’t burn every pasture every year, but use a rotation. We are done burning for the year. The grass grew really fast this spring, so all the green makes it difficult to burn. The new grass in the burned pasture begins growing back days after we burn. If we get some rain, we can turn cows out in it 4 to 5 weeks after we burn. The cows love the lush grass!
What are you going to do the next time you are driving down the highway with a friend and see a controlled burn? You can inform him or her of why farmers and ranchers use this practice to improve their rangeland!