Let ‘Er Burn!

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.

This is a pasture before we start to 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.

This is the pickup with a water tank. It's a necessity to have water available when conducting a controlled burn.

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.

I am using a weedburner torch to start a fire. It is fueled by a propane tank that sits in a carrier on my four wheeler.

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.

A controlled fire burning across a pasture. The wind and dry grass fuels the fire across the pasture. This is why wind speed and direction is extremely important when burning a pasture. We can only burn when conditions are right.

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.

A fire burning across a pasture.

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!

If the conditions are right, we burn at night. This is a fire I just started.

A fire I just started.

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!

This is a handful of grass before we started the controlled burn. Notice the dry grass in my handful. This grass has less nutrition value than the grass that comes back after a burn. The calves perform much better after the dry grass has been burned off.

This is grass that that grew back after a controlled burn. This picture was taken about 5 weeks after burning. The cows think this grass is very tastey!


About Husker Cowgirl

I am a regional sales manager for Turnkey Computer Systems feedyard accounting software and an avid Husker fan. I am passionate about agriculture and especially beef cattle. I enjoy ranching the old fashioned way - using horses. I also enjoy taking my horses to town and competing with them at local, state and national events on the weekends.
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2 Responses to Let ‘Er Burn!

  1. Lorna says:

    Wow, it is pretty impressive – the difference. Do you have to plough and re-seed at all? It looks like your grass regrows once it is burnt off.

    • Lorna – its amazing how fast the grass grows back. The cool seasons grow fast and then by the end of May the warm season varieties fill in. These are the grasses that the cows and calves do very well on. We don’t have to plough or reseed. These native grasses are a perennial, so they come back on their own.

      I’m glad you liked this post!


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