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Post-Fire Management on Eastern Colorado Rangelands

By   /  April 3, 2017  /  6 Comments

Some areas of the country have already seen range fires. With a hot summer on the way, here’s what successful post-fire management looks like.

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A 32,000 acre fire in Logan and Phillips County, Colorado destroyed 4 homes and killed about 200 cattle.

While range fires can be chaotic and deadly, most of the impact comes after the flames and smoke have ended.  Replacing lost forage (as well as future grazing) will be a challenge.  But recently burned pastures will come back stronger if livestock are not re-stocked too early.  Post-fire, the period of recovery on rangelands is determined by moisture, past grazing management, recovery period, and severity of erosion post-fire.

Burned plants will need abundant moisture to recover.  Stocking rates will be still likely be depressed for the first few years following the rest period.  Below is a chart outlining possible years of post-fire rest for two common shortgrass soil types.  Each pasture is unique, and should be determined on a case-by-case basis.

With few exceptions, your range plants are still alive and will come back.  Think of your forage community as a boxer healing between fights.  Management objectives should focus on retaining and improving existing plants, restoring soil cover and water capture, and allowing for recovery of the forage community to support livestock production again.

Range Management

The Gray County Fire in Texas burned 100,000 acres and killed 5.

The loss of reliable fence – and the ability to control grazing livestock – should alone be enough to avoid the temptation to turn cattle out following the first flush of green forbs.

Don’t be in a rush to begin grazing burned areas.  At a minimum, burned pastures should not be grazed for one growing season.  Ask yourself, how was the range condition before it was burned?  If you have problem pastures, they could probably use some extra rest.

Fire presents an opportunity to change the layout or design of your pastures.  This is probably the largest “silver lining” of a fire – the ability to re-develop fencing and water into a new system.

If possible, keep livestock water running (even if at a reduced flow).  Your water tank might be the sole source of water for deer, antelope, and birds of prey still living on the land.

Recommendations for four-wire fences usually incorporate a 12 ½ gauge barbless (“slick”) bottom wire, hung at 16”.  This allows for movement of antelope, while keeping your cattle enclosed.

Establish permanent monitoring points, and account for them in your infrastructure plan, like you would a windmill or trailer. I am with CSU-Extension which has fencing supplies available for this purpose, and can assist in the design and implementation of exclosures and photo points.

Click to download

More detailed monitoring information can be found in the Colorado Rangeland Monitoring Guide, available for free download here. Even if you’re not in Colorado, monitoring principles carry over to other areas, so check it out.

Try not to overgraze unburned pastures.  This will create a lose-lose situation, with increased supplementation costs, decreased livestock gains, and doing long-term harm to the rangeland.

Livestock Management

Do not plan to return to normal stocking rates for several years on burned areas.  Base your future decisions on the amount of actual forage available on the ground.

When making herd management decisions (i.e. culling, maintaining, dry-lotting etc.), work within the timeframe of the fire recovery time.  In most cases, multi-year planning is required.

Continue to monitor livestock for secondary effects of the fire – partial blindness, respiratory problems, foot damage, and starving calves (udder damage).

Early weaning can expand your grazing period for a few weeks in a cow/calf herd.

Emergency Erosion Control

The Kansas Cattlemen’s Association has collected information on how to assist victims of the fires this spring. Click here for that information. In addition, the USDA has announced $6 million in aid to farmers and ranchers affected by the fires.

Some sandy sites are extremely vulnerable to erosion.  In these sites, agronomic methods (such as seeding) are likely a waste, as any new plants will be buried or sheared by moving sands.

Management of sand blowouts should focus on increasing surface roughness.  A low-rate manure application (2 – 3 tons/acre) and rolled out bales of hay/straw are some short-term solutions.

When controlling blowouts, start at the windward leading edge and lay the treatment down in parallel strips.  Focus on the areas of erosion, and not the areas where soil is being deposited.

Other Resources available:

University of Nebraska Extension has an excellent, modern guide called “Grassland Management with Prescribed Fire”, EC148.  This document also covers post-fire recovery and management practices.  Available for $1 here.

University of Wyoming’s Dr. Derek Scasta has published a free, detailed, and relevant technical resource called Wildland Fire in Wyoming: Patterns, Influences, and Effects,” B1271.

Since you’re here …

We need your help to meet the $15,000 annual match for our Conservation Innovation Grant. The grant keeps On Pasture going for the next 3 years, but only if we can meet the cash match. If we meet our goal this Spring, we won’t ask again in the fall. (And it’s our fourth birthday, so when you give we’ll send you a party favor as a thank you!)

We’ve made it to $1,000 in our first 2 weeks of the fund drive. Your help will mean so much!

Please help!

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6 Comments

  1. Hi Don,
    To follow up on Chips comment, we have been studying post-fire grazing on eastern Colorado’s rangelands for the past 20 years, and have found that unless we go into an extreme drought, post-fire grazing at moderate stocking rate does not negatively affect plant composition or productivity. To the extent that burned areas have received the recent rains, there may be no need to rest burned pastures. In fact, grazing post-fire regrowth can in some cases enhance cattle growth rates. If you are interested, I’ve listed below a series of publications examining post-fire grazing in eastern CO (pdfs are available on my USDA-ARS webpage):

    Augustine DJ, Derner JD, Milchunas DG (2010) Prescribed fire, grazing, and herbaceous plant production in shortgrass steppe. Rangeland Ecology and Management, 63, 317-323.

    Augustine DJ, Milchunas DG (2009) Vegetation responses to prescribed burning of grazed shortgrass steppe. Rangeland Ecology and Management, 62, 89-97.

    Augustine DJ, Derner JD (2014) Controls over the strength and timing of fire-grazer interactions in a semiarid rangeland. Journal of Applied Ecology.

    Augustine DJ, Brewer P, Blumenthal DM, Derner JD, Von Fischer JC (2014) Prescribed fire, soil inorganic nitrogen dynamics, and plant responses in a semiarid grassland. Journal of Arid Environments, 104, 59-66.

    Augustine DJ, Derner J (2015) Patch burn grazing management in a semiarid grassland: consequences for pronghorn, plains pricklypear, and wind erosion. Rangeland Ecology and Management.

    • Don Schoderbek says:

      Hello David,

      Your response is much appreciated (who knew the scientists read this?). I debated for a while on how to respond to your comment. I am aware of your reasearch, and agree that burning has many positive effects. The CPER results speak for themselves, especially in Colorado.

      However, a wildfire is very different than a prescribed burn. The primary concern is repairing infrastructure (i.e. fences and water). This will take years. The secondary concern is erosion. Erosion is already significant on several of the sandy sites, and these sites are very vulnerable this summer (as Chip mentioned).

      Also, I would like to point out that these are blanket management recommendations, and are conservative on purpose. I agree that patch burn grazing could have a positive effect. This is a management tool that local ranchers could implement depending on local conditions and previous grazing. I am working with affected ranchers to assess damage and implement monitoring programs.

      Thanks,
      Don

  2. Angela Safranek says:

    Good basic info to keep in mind, but nuance is always the name of the game with natural resources.
    Resting and allowing recovery for a year or two will certainly allow your grasses to recover more rapidly, but what if you want to shift the composition of your pastures? Earlier grazing–right as things are regreening–can promote forbs. If you are trying to diversify your plant composition, or enhance habitat for prairie chickens, a burn followed by grazing the first season could provide an opportunity to make that shift.
    There is lots of good research out there regarding patch burn grazing; check it out to see if it could be right for your operation.

    • Don Schoderbek says:

      Hi Angela,

      Thanks for your comments. I agree that patch burn grazing can have significant effects on shifting plant community composition when timed correctly. However, in many of the affected pastures, shrub (sand sage) encroachment is an issue. So there may be many (long-term) beneficial effects from the timing of this fire. I have been in pastures with > 90% shrub kill, and all the grass has survived. From a livestock production standpoint, this is optimal. Also, bird activity (passerine and bird of prey) is through the roof on burned areas.

  3. chip Hines says:

    Thanks, On Pasture for publishing different research trials and views on recovery of grasses after a fire. Later research has shown that what was earlier thought as correct may not be.

    Just as in managing grass through managed movements, there is always more to learn and sometimes old methods are upset.

    The Colorado burn has lately received beneficial rain in smaller amounts that did not run off and may grow some cover before summer thunderstorms that would cause a lot of gullying in the sandy soil.

    • Don Schoderbek says:

      Hello Chip,

      Good to hear from you. Hope things are going well in Yuma County! Thanks for your comments. The spring moisture they got out there will be very beneficial, especially on the sandy sites. There is some really impressive regrowth on the sand dropseed, as well as the sodbound blue grama on loamy sites. But as you mentioned, time will tell what the next six months bring.

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