“If you have any problems on your ranch at all with cedar encroachment, then fire necessarily has to be a part of your operation. It is the best management practice. Any other way to deal with red cedar is only short-term effective.”
That’s the conclusion of David Engle, Regents Professor Emeritus of Oklahoma State University, as well of many ranchers who have seen the benefits of fire to their own operations.
Ranchers who turn to prescribed fire do it because it’s a good tool for controlling the trees and brush that can reduce forage for livestock. It’s also a tool that works when other options, like mechanical removal and herbicide, don’t. As Cody Sanders, a rancher from Woodward County, Oklahoma, says, “We spent a lot of money over the last 20 years cutting cedars and didn’t really seem to be getting anywhere. They kept coming back. We’ve probably been burning about 15 years and you can see a dramatic change in our property, not just with red cedar but with other invasive species as well.”
Benefits of Prescribed Fire
“Fire is not a tool,” says John Weir, research associate at Oklahoma State University. “Fire can be used as a tool, but fire is not a tool. Fire is part of the ecosystem process and it is just as important as rainfall on the land.”
That’s probably why there are so many benefits that come from including this ecosystem process in our management.
Removing brush and trees on the prairie can mean more water. Seeps and springs return, not because of increased water run-off, but because the water table rises thanks to the elimination of water hungry trees. And the change can happen quickly. Ten days after a wildfire on his ranch, Cody Sanders saw that ponds that hadn’t been full since he was a kid began filling up and have stayed full since.
Carrying Capacity Increases
Ranchers find they have more grass, and in the places where fire has run through, the grasses are taller and healthier. Rancher Tom Barr, says that his Dad calculated a cow calf pair for every 15 acres, including adjustments for drought. Thanks to fire, he says they could drop that to 10 to 11 acres per cow calf, increasing the number of cattle he can run on his ranch.
Improved Forage Quality and Animal Performance
Cattle prefer burned patches and gravitate towards them over unburned areas. The reason? Burned areas provide more nutritious forage. Studies comparing burned vs unburned grasses show that unburned grasses run 5-8% crude protein, while the same grasses recovering from a spring burn run 16-18% crude protein.
That means improved animal performance as well. Studies of prescribed fire and grazing have shown improved average daily gain for stockers by 10 to 15% average daily gain and cow calf body conditions scores increase by a factor of one according to John Weir, OSU research associate. He points out that “You don’t see that benefit with any other management practice that people put on the ground,” whether it’s herbicides, mechanical treatments or mowing. Ranchers note that weaning weights and conception rates increase because of improved forage quality and quantity.
Reduced Expense/Increased Effectiveness
Each of the ranchers in this video described inexpensive using fire was when they compared it to other treatments they had tried. They also noted that fire was a long-term solution. When they cut down all the trees, five years later they’d have just as many as when they started. With fire, trees don’t return as rapidly and are much easier to manage on steep terrain.
The list continues with an increase biodiversity and soil health, a reduction in the amount of ticks, face flies and horn flies on livestock grazing in burned areas, as well as tamer cattle.
But most importantly, using prescribed fire develops landscapes that are resistant to wildfire. David Engle says that when multiple ranchers work together to create fire breaks with a combination of grazing and prescribed fire across 39% of landscape, wildfires will not be able to carry across a landscape.
Why Don’t You Use Fire?
Most of us list concerns about liability, and a lack of experience, equipment, labor as reasons we don’t use prescribed fire. Becoming a part of a prescribed fire cooperative or association is one way to solve those challenges. Getting together with neighbors to help each other burn means more people involved, less risk and reduced costs. Use these links to find someone in your area.
These benefits and more are described in a video that comes to us from the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative. We don’t usually recommend videos this long, but this one is well worth the viewing.
Here’s the full version:
And here’s a 6 minute version: