Native Grass Gazette: A Culture of Prescribed Fire (and a Safety Note)

It’s been a while since I’ve posted to the blog. Part of the reason for that is one of the topics I am covering in this post. I apologize for being so long between posts.

Make Safety a Priority

Lucky to be alive after being hit by a falling tree. Imagine what my head would look like if I had not been wearing the helmet.

This is off topic for a grassland blog … but not entirely. However, I think it is an important message to share. When I was working as a conservation contractor, felling trees, for one reason or another, was part of that work. As a result, I established a policy related to using chainsaws. There were three simple rules: 1) always wear saw chaps; 2) if felling trees, always wear a helmet; and 3) if felling trees over 8” dbh, always have another person present.

Earlier this year I was taking out some frustration on some trees (that’s how grassland people release frustration, that or burn something) when a 20” dbh tree I was felling started to lean one direction then took an unexpected change in direction, falling back towards me. I ran, but was unable to get out of the way before it came down on top of my head. I suffered a severe concussion along with some nerve and muscular injury to my neck and back. Had it not been for rule #2 and #3, rules I still follow though not doing contracting work any longer, it is likely I would not be writing this blog.

The message I want to share: always wear your safety gear. If you don’t have it, buy it. It’s a cheap investment. In this case, the quick action of the person that was with me and a $75 helmet, I’m convinced, saved my life.

 

A Culture of Prescribed Fire

Ranchers in the Flint Hills and other areas of Kansas are well equipped for conducting prescribed burns. Many coordinate with neighbors to facilitate burning. In some areas, Prescribed Burn Associations or rural fire departments conduct or assist with burns.

One of the projects I’ve been working on is a video on prescribed fire for cattle production in rangeland. Recently I was in Kansas shooting video, upon completing shooting for the day I headed from Kingman, KS to Medicine Lodge. At one point during the drive I could see no less than a dozen smoke plumes rising into the sky. In any other part of the county there would be general alarm at such a site, but in some parts of Kansas during the spring it’s part of everyday life, the people are accustomed to it. Though seeing a dozen smoke plumes was significant enough, it wasn’t nearly as significant as where it was. Last year, the Anderson Creek wildfire, which gained the dubious distinction of being the largest wildfire in Kansas history (312,427 acres) occurred just south and west of the town of Medicine Lodge in Barber County, KS (and other counties). This year, just 30 miles west of the area impacted by the Anderson Creek wildfire, the Starbuck wildfire in Clark and surrounding counties eclipsed the previous year’s record fire consuming 502,000 acres. You would think that following two consecutive years of record breaking wildfires, ranchers and citizens would be leery of fire, but not so. The locals have learned, many passed down through generations, that fire is good for rangeland; in that part of the country ranching is the primary industry and the economy is based on the productivity of the rangeland.

I certainly don’t mean to minimize the effect of wildfires on the ranchers and homeowners who were directly affected. Losing their homes, cattle and miles upon miles of fence will certainly have its financial and emotional impact, my thoughts and prayers go out to them, as well as my respect and admiration of what they are enduring.  But if there is any silver lining in the tragedy at all, it is the fact that the rangeland will be more productive, which will translate to better cattle performance and hopefully better returns at the sale barn.

Scene from the Starbuck wildfire which burned March 6th and 7th in Clark County, KS. Rangeland wildfires fanned by high winds and low humidities are non-discriminatory, consuming everything in their path across large landscapes.

Post fire green-up in the Starbuck wildfire. As devastating as the loss of infrastructure is, the silver lining is rangeland thrives following fire. Depending upon timing, green-up can be as quick as 3-5 days. Trees, consuming up to 30 gallons per day of valuable water, killed by the fire no longer compete with grasses.

Driving back to Missouri through Kansas took me through the southern Flint Hills. Arguably, the Flint Hills are the longest, most continuously burned landscape in the US and world. Indigenous people burned this landscape to facilitate bison hunting and that legacy has continued ever since as free roaming bison herds transitioned to domestic cattle production. Burning the Flint Hills is an annual ritual and part of the culture. If you live in or around the Flint Hills, you expect a good portion of them to burn each year. In some cases, too much burns; to the detriment of wildlife through the destruction of cover over a wide range, sometimes thousands of acres in one block. But given the choice of burning or not, in this landscape, burning is better.

 

A smoky haze fills the air across the Flint Hills of Kansas during the spring time. Look closely to see the wind farm, just less than 4 miles away from the vantage point of the picture.

 

Native Grass Gazette: NatiVeg – Helpful Tool or Curious Tchotchke?

I hate answers that begin with “it depends.” That usually means you are about to be inundated with tons of detailed, probably useless information which ultimately ends up with no clear answer to your question.

So, is NatiVeg a helpful tool or just a curious tchotchke? As much as it pains me to say this, it depends. How are you going to use it and what do you expect to get out of it?

First, for those not familiar, NatiVeg is a mobile website (https://www.quailcount.org/NatiVeg)  developed by NBCI to aid planners in selecting the correct native vegetation for their geographic location (limited to the 25 NBCI states) for their intended use. Released publically for comment on Nov. 16, 2016, NatiVeg can be used either as a desktop application or with a smartphone with GPS capability. An internet connection is required.

Many land planners dealing with working lands have limited knowledge of native vegetation, let alone its adaptability to a specific site or for specific purposes. NatiVeg was developed to provide planners with no or limited knowledge of native vegetation a tool for identifying native vegetation adapted to their selected location for their selected use. The target audience is persons providing technical assistance to landowners and/or landowners with the primary objective of incorporating native vegetation into their working lands.

NatiVeg uses Plant Hardiness Zones (PHZ) and Major Land Resource Areas (MLRA) as spatial components for search criteria of a database of Natural Resource Conservation Service Plant Material Center (NRCS-PMC) releases. NatiVeg returns a list of species known to be adapted to your selected geographic location. Herein lies the answer to the question of whether NatiVeg is helpful or a curious tchotchke.

Plant materials in the NRCS-PMC database have been through a process to document a variety of criteria, depending upon the intent of the release. In a majority of cases seed is commercially available or foundation seed is available for commercial increase, many of the releases have been planted in growing trials and their area of adaptation is documented, cultivars and selections have been made for desirable characteristics and there are some areas where local germplasm releases have been made with no selection criteria. (Both of those last two attributes are either good or bad depending upon your intended use and location) However, there are some limitations to the NRCS-PMC database; there are a limited number of releases (306 in the NBCI modified database) compared to a list of species that would have historically occurred for a location and there is skewed geographic distribution of native species releases, leaving limited choices for selected areas within the NBCI states.

MLRA’s are large geographic areas that are geographically associated land resource units based upon the dominant physical characteristics using physiology, geology, climate, water, soils, biological resources and land use, and they are thousands of acres in size. Obviously, there is variability within these areas, so though you may be in an MLRA where little bluestem is adapted, your specific location may be mesic or wet mesic and not suitable for little bluestem. For that reason, it is also important to consult the “Details” section of each species in NatiVeg to determine its appropriateness for the site. Information about collection location, comments or site adaptations can provide additional information to aid in decision making. If you still have questions or would like help there is a link to the state agency to help you find local assistance.

What about our non-target audience? Since the launch of NatiVeg I have received several comments from ecologists  wishing the application were more specific in relation to local ecosystems and vegetation communities. Fair comments, though those changes wouldn’t particularly serve our target audience any better. Remember a few lines above where I was listing the attributes of using the NRCS-PMC database; “There are some areas where local germplasm releases have been made with no selection criteria?” In some areas within the NBCI states there have been ecotype collections made and seed increases done. South Texas and Iowa/Missouri are two examples. Ecologists working in those regions will find plant materials suitable for restorations. Unfortunately, there is limited species availability and our database returns still don’t give a “big picture” list of species endemic to the location.

We are working on ideas to address this and determine if we even need to. It appears, based upon feedback, there is some need/desire for this type of product. At this point we don’t know if we will develop an entirely new product or work to expand NatiVeg, but we are examining options using NatureServe data or NRCS Ecological Site Description data. There may be others and we’ll examine all options.

Knowing some of the limitations of the database and spatial criteria, and understanding how to use additional resources to deal with those limitations, NatiVeg should be a helpful tool for our target audience … and in some instances our non-target audience. If you’re expecting a list of species endemic to your local ecosystem, then NatiVeg is probably a curious tchotchke.

To answer the question,” Is NatiVeg a helpful tool or curious tchotchke?”  It depends.

Images from the Grasslands

Hardwoods get all the attention this time of year for their fall color but ask me and I say the prairies are just as colorful.

Fall Color

Fall Color

 

The full moon on November 14th, which coincided with perigee, resulted in the closest supermoon since 1948 promised to provide some excellent opportunity for lunar photographs. I set up in a prairie planting in anticipation of the rare event, hoping to capture some once in a lifetime images. Unfortunately, clouds obscured much of the moon that evening in my location. What do you do when you are all set up with camera gear then can’t get the conditions you want? You take pictures anyway. Here are some of the shots I took.

bluestem-super-moon_reduced

Bluestem Super Moon

 

I used the moon to silhouette a senescing stem of big bluestem. After taking this shot I wondered how different it would look if the bluestem were illuminated.

 

Illuminated bluestem supermoon

Illuminated bluestem supermoon

 

 

I can’t decide which one I like best. What do you think? After taking this shot I decided to experiment with a technique called light painting, where you use a light source to illuminate the foreground while the exposure is being made. You can come up with some interesting results using this technique.

light-painted-bluestem-super-moon_redcued

Light-painted bluestem

 

 

 

Not to be denied a lunar image, a couple of nights later, under clear skies, I got a shot of the waning gibbous moon. It’s not the supermoon, but it’s pretty good. I call it Perigee Minus 2.

 

Perigee minus 2

Perigee Minus 2

 

 

Don’t let the weather keep you out of the prairies. Get out there and enjoy their beauty, regardless of the conditions there is always something picture worthy.

Miscellany November ’16

save-the-date-poster_reducedThe Fire Summit 2016: Changing Fire Regimes, a regional conference on fire science in the Great Plains, is set for Dec. 7-9, 2016 at the Hilton Garden Inn Conference Center in Manhattan, Kansas.

Landowners, fire managers, firefighters, agency personnel or anyone with interest in prescribed fire are invited to attend. The history of prescribed fire, current status and future will all be topics of the conference. Discussions will include national policy, partnerships, prescribed burn associations, smoke management, wildlife, funding sources, burn planning and much more. A tour of the world renown Konza Prairie is being offered as a post-conference activity.

Registration and additional information can be found at: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/fire-summit-2016-changing-fire-regimes-tickets-27490002337

 

Northeast Oklahoma Trex – Monday, March 13, 2017, 8:00 AM – Friday March 17, 2017, 5 PM
Vinita, Oklahoma

TREX is a prescribed fire training exchange that brings together fire practitioners from diverse backgrounds to obtain hands-on fire experience, share knowledge and expertise, and better understand the art and science of fire management and ecology.

In the field, hands-on training in prescribed fire planning, preparation and implementation, along with classroom sessions on fire ecology and fire line communications, will combine to form a busy week for participants in this first TREX (training exchange) ever for Oklahoma. We will be burning on several sites in an oak-pine ecosystem in northeast Oklahoma.

This training is for all interested fire practitioners and no NWCG certification is necessary to participate. College students, private landowners, tribal members, and fire fighters who are interested in learning more about utilizing prescribed fire as a land management tool are all welcome.  Registration for this training is limited to 20 people.

To Register: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/northeast-oklahoma-trex-tickets-29086926781

 

Progressive Cattleman – an online publication from Progressive Publishing recently posted a two-part series, Straight Talk on Native Grass Forages – by Patrick Keyser of the Center for Native Grasslands Management.

In my opinion, this is one of the best, most comprehensive, straightforward presentations of the facts about native grass forages, as well as some practical information. It addresses many of the myths and long-held misconceptions about native grasses as forages and backs it up with research evidence, not hearsay. Well worth the read and worthwhile to save to have on hand for future reference or to provide a copy to anyone interested in the facts about native grass forage.

You can find Part 1 at: http://www.progressivecattle.com/topics/range-pasture/7439-straight-talk-on-native-grass-forages. Be sure to click on the link to Part 2 to get the full story.

 

The National Provisioner reports on a study from Mississippi State University about native grass grazing and beef quality. Bottom line, no difference in quality but research also found steaks from cattle fed a big bluestem, indiangrass and little bluestem mix were less susceptible to lipid oxidation and had lower total fat percentage compared to cattle fed bermudagrass. You can read the article here: http://www.provisioneronline.com/articles/103632-does-native-grass-grazing-affect-beef-quality  Related article: http://mafes.msstate.edu/discovers/article.asp?id=18

The Root of It All … Don’t Forget Natives’ Role in Soil Health

2015 was the International Year of Soils and the fervor over cover crops that resulted still continues today. It seems every time I turn around I’m seeing another notice about a workshop or webinar addressing cover crops and their benefits.

Though the line between fact and commercial claim is somewhat blurred, it is generally recognized that cover crops provide the advantages of reduced soil erosion, increased water infiltration and water holding capacity, increased soil organic matter, reduced compaction and nutrient recycling.

To a large part, owing to their multiple benefits, is their claimed deep rootedness. With many of the common cover crop species, their roots fall within 2 to 3 feet of the soil surface, with some

Relative Root Depths of Various Grasses

Relative Root Depths of Various Grasses

reporting rooting as deep as 5.5 feet. Impressive to the uninformed, but amusing to those familiar with the roots of native vegetation.

As early as 1919 research of the roots of native prairie plants was conducted, followed by a number of other research projects through the 1930’s. While there are a handful of prairie plants whose roots lay within the upper 2 feet of the soil, the vast majority of native grasses and forbs root to a depth of over 5 feet with many well beyond that, some to depths greater than 15 feet.

In healthy prairie, below ground biomass far exceeds above ground biomass by two times or more depending upon species. Studies on big bluestem and little bluestem reported 5.4 tons/acre and 4.4 tons/acre respectively of root material in the upper 12 inches of soil. Talk about erosion control … every one of those root fibers is like re-bar in concrete!

All of those roots in the upper soil lead to increased water infiltration by increasing the macropore space (along with earth worms and other in-ground fauna), allowing the water a route to travel into and through the soil. Those roots and their ancillary structures also increase the micropore space which creates the water-holding capacity along with soil organic matter.

Over a three year period, depending upon the species and environmental factors, a very small percentage to as much as 100% of the root system dies and is regenerated. Using 50% just to provide an example and the examples of big bluestem and little bluestem above, 2.7 to 2.2 tons per acre of organic matter are added to the soil. It is a perpetual cycle that constantly replenishes itself.

The sources of compaction on native grasslands are entirely different than on cropland, thus the issue is different; however, when crop land is converted to native grass/forb mixtures, compaction issues are eliminated, or at least significantly mediated, through the deep rooting structure of the native plants.

A large part of the nutrient recycling provided by cover crops is due to nutrient uptake and subsequent release through decaying plant material. In a perennial plant such as native grasses or forbs this is much less significant, but the deep roots are able to tap into nutrients otherwise unavailable. This, in combination with associated mycorrhizal fungi, make native plants very efficient users of nutrients and moisture, thus their reduced or lack of need for supplemental nutrients and drought tolerance.

Following the International Year of Soils and all the attention given to cover crops, give some consideration to the value of the roots of native vegetation and their role in supporting soil health.

 

Native Grass Gazette: 2 Upcoming Meetings of Importance to the Grassland Community

July 17-20 the 24th North American Prairie Conference kicks off at Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois. Information about the conference can be found online at: http://nap2016.illinoisstate.edu/. This year’s theme is From Cemetery Prairies to National Tallgrass Prairies. The conference includes plenary and breakout sessions on Monday and Wednesday with a number of field trips to choose from on Tuesday.

The 10th Eastern Native Grass Symposium is in Evansville, Indiana August 29-31 at the Tropicana Hotel. Follow discussions and announcements about the symposium on the Eastern Native Grass Symposium Facebook page, along with an agenda. Conference registration and information is online via Eventbrite service. Hotel registration can be made by calling 800-544-0120 and using the group code: GEGGSYM. This block of rooms has been set aside for Monday – Tuesday on a first-come, first-served basis. The symposium rate is $89 per night and reservations need to be made by July 29.

Anyone interested in exhibiting or sponsoring the symposium should contact me at jhodge34@utk.edu.

Meetings like these provide an opportunity to meet and network with many other like-minded people, hear the latest news related to grasslands and help shape the direction of future grassland issues. Don’t miss an opportunity to be educated, make new friends and be involved in the process.

Keep the tall grasses growing and burn on!

Native Grass Gazette: Fescue Toxicosis and Native Grasses

Cattle gathering under shade is a telltale sign of fescue toxicosis

I believe most of you are at least somewhat familiar with fescue toxicosis. I was prompted to blog about it because of the time of year. Over the past several weeks, driving around during my daily activities, I noticed tall fescue seed heads emerging and cattle grouped under shade trees and in ponds — all three visual reminders about fescue toxicosis.

There are an estimated 35 million acres of tall fescue in the United States with as much as 85% of that infected with the endophyte fungus. An examination of fescue pastures sampled in Virginia in 2013 showed 95% were greater than 80% infected (incidence of the endophyte), with the lowest being 50% infected. Fescue toxicosis is estimated to cost US beef producers more than $2 billion annually in losses.

For those unfamiliar with fescue toxicosis or a brief refresher for others, cattle grazing endophyte infected tall fescue, compared to those not, exhibit reduced weight gain, reduced pregnancy rates, reduced milk production, lower weaning weight calves and reduced reproductive efficiency in bulls. Conditions that cause these symptoms are immunosuppression, vasoconstriction and poor thermoregulation.

The endophyte fungus is greater in the seed stalks and seed heads than in other plant parts so impacts on grazing animals are greater during this time of year; and this, combined with reduced forage quantity and quality during the late spring and summer months (remember the cool-season grass growth curve?) coalesces into poor animal performance during the summer. Recommended pasture management when seed heads emerge is mowing to remove their availability to grazing. However, in the same Virginia research mentioned above, alkaloid (alkaloids are the class of compounds produced by the endophyte fungus that causes fescue toxicosis.) concentrations were above the reactionary threshold level regardless of pasture growth stage or grazing management.

Figure 1: Alkaloid content by growth stage. Source: What we've learned about tall fescue management by Matt Booher for Progressive Forage Grower, published 1/29/16.

Figure 1: Alkaloid content by growth stage. Source: What we’ve learned about tall fescue management by Matt Booher for Progressive Forage Grower, published 1/29/16.

 

Therefore it did not matter when or how you grazed your endophyte infected tall fescue, it had the same impact on the animals. You can’t manage around it.

Experts do agree that you can dilute the intake of infected tall fescue by diversifying the planting … adding clover, orchardgrass, timothy or warm-season forages, but you don’t eliminate the effects of fescue toxicosis. Even then, you don’t address the slump in cool-season production during the summer months, with the exception of using warm-season forages.

The most effective way to eliminate fescue toxicity is to eliminate all toxic alkaloids from the animal’s diet and that is a practice many farmers and ranchers are undertaking today. Their option is to replace it with endophyte free, novel endophyte tall fescue or other forage that doesn’t carry the endophyte fungus. Endophyte free fescue doesn’t compete well with other plants nor does it persist under heavy grazing. As it turns out, the endophyte fungus provides a positive benefit to the plant. Novel endophyte tall fescue has beneficial endophyte fungus, just not one that creates the toxic alkaloids. However, if converting to novel endophyte tall fescue, all of the endophyte infected fescue MUST be eliminated before planting. Thus the recommended method for converting is to graze down the pasture, spray with herbicides, plant a cover crop, graze the cover crop, spray with herbicide and plant.

Guess what? This is the same method recommended for planting native warm-season grasses.

With all the steps being the same, it stands to reason the cost of establishment, for comparison’s sake, is the same except for seed, lime and fertilizer – because those will be different. I recently called a local seed supplier to get the price for novel endophyte tall fescue seed and their recommended seeding rate and a native grass seed supplier for the same information on big bluestem, indiangrass and switchgrass. The following table breaks down the variable costs. Note that it is difficult to make an exact comparison when talking about lime and fertilizer because those inputs are dependent upon the location and the soil test results. Most establishment guidelines recommend lime and fertilize per soil test recommendations, however native warm season grasses don’t need lime unless the site pH is less than 5 and only need P and K if they are measured in the low category. Nitrogen is seldom recommended for NWSG establishment, yet nearly always for CSG establishment. For the sake of this discussion let’s say that the pH is neutral and the P and K recommendations are the same.

Material

Recommended seeding rate

Unit cost

Cost range

N fertilizer

End-cost range

Estancia Tall Fescue

20 – 25 lbs./acre

$3.50 bulk pound

$70 – $87.50

$21.00*

$91 – $108.50

Big bluestem

8 – 10 lbs./acre

$8.00 PLS pound

$64 – $80

$0

$64 – $80

Indiangrass

8 – 10 lbs./acre

$14.50 PLS pound

$116 – $145

$0

$116 – $145

Switchgrass

4 – 8 lbs./acre

$10 PLS pound

$40 – $80

$0

$40 – $80

*50 units of N @ .42/unit. (Recommendation of U of K Extension publication; N cost based on call to local supplier.)

 

The Myths

Native grass is too expensive to establish.

The above table fully debunks the myth that native warm-season grasses are too expensive to establish. If you’ve made the decision to convert from endophyte infected tall fescue to novel endophyte, the cost argument is no longer valid.

I lose too much grazing time waiting on establishment.

When converting from endophyte infected to novel endophyte tall fescue there must be a “break-crop” planted in the interim and recommendations are to not graze seedling pasture the first winter; so you are losing grazing for one year. When planting native warm season grasses a “break-crop” is not necessary (though not discouraged either) and with proper planting methods and good weed control, it can be grazed a year later. Assuming the weather cooperates, under either scenario, there is no difference.

Native grasses require more management.

Really? Tall fescue experts recommend not overgrazing novel endophyte tall fescue, in fact you need to be more careful to avoid overgrazing; pastures should be rested and stubble heights should be no less than 4 inches. Native warm-season grass experts recommend not overgrazing native grasses, in fact you need to be more careful to avoid overgrazing; pastures should be rested and stubble heights should be no less than 8 to 12 inches, depending on geographic location. Hmm, sounds the same except for stubble heights.

The Advantages

During the summer months the advantage goes to native warm-season grasses. The summer months are their peak months of quality and productivity, whereas tall fescue, toxic or not, is at nearly its lowest point of quantity and quality. Average daily gains on NWSG during the summer are regularly at or above 2 lbs. per day, much better than tall fescue during this same time period, at 0.5 to 1 pound per day.

Care must be taken to not re-infect an infected fescue converted to novel endophyte tall fescue field. Cattle grazing infected fescue need to be “quarantined” for a day to avoid transferring seed in manure. Also infected hay cannot be fed in a novel endophyte pasture. Once a field is infected, it only gets worse because of the competitive nature of the endophyte infected plant. You have to ask, how easy will it be to find non-toxic hay and how much hassle is it to “quarantine” cattle for a day, knowing that unless it is in a field planted annually, will eventually be infected with the toxic endophyte? No need to worry in a NWSG pasture. If fescue invades, simply spray the field with a non-selective herbicide in the fall or spring while the native warm-season grasses are dormant and the cool-season fescue is actively growing.

We’ve already discussed the problems with animal performance related to fescue toxicosis so know that by removing them from the source of the problem, those performance issues are eliminated. That should be incentive enough but if you still aren’t convinced, the following probably won’t sway you either but it is important to know that NWSG’s improve soil health, water infiltration, nutrient filtration and carbon sequestration, above and beyond tall fescue, toxic or not. Oh and by the way, they are significantly more drought hardy; something producers wished they could have had in 2011 and 2012!

Seems logical if moving away from endophyte infected tall fescue that native warm season grasses should be part of that plan.

Anderson Creek Wildfire: Devastating loss, ecological challenge, societal challenge, glimpse of history, revitalization

I have been captivated by the Anderson Creek Wildfire. Partly because I was in that region of Kansas this last summer and met several ranchers from the area. My thoughts and prayers go out to those ranchers, though I barely know them, I am concerned about their safety and livelihood. The other part of my captivation is, well, it’s fire and fire captivates me.

Many you may not even be aware of the Anderson Creek Wildfire, but it is getting plenty of news coverage in my part of the country. The wildfire is now being reported as the largest in Kansas history (at least recorded) and among the largest in the U.S. The fire began last Tuesday (3/22) in Wood County in northwest Oklahoma and quickly spread north into central, southern Kansas into Comanche County pushed by 30 mph winds with gusts to 60 mph, then with a westerly wind shift into Barber County. It continued to burn through Saturday (3/26) until mostly extinguished by a blanket of snow on Sunday (3/27). Cities as far away as Memphis and St. Louis reported smelling smoke from the fire. Estimates have the size of the fire at roughly 620 square miles or about 400,000 acres.

Figure 1 Estimated area of Anderson Creek Wildfire, Oklahoma Forestry Services

Figure 1: Estimated area of Anderson Creek Wildfire, 3/24/16, 11:42 AM. Oklahoma Forestry Services.

 

This area of Kansas is known as the Red Hills or Gypsum Hills. The terrain is characterized by gently rolling plains to rolling hills and mesas heavily dissected by rugged canyons. The flatter more level ground, where enough soil exists, is mostly dryland wheat with some irrigated crops and the rest is mixed grass prairie rangeland. Much of it heavily infested with red cedar. Based on this description you can imagine how difficult it would be to fight wildfire in this type of terrain with a heavy fuel load. Firefighter reports were of an active fire line 30 to 40 miles long.

Figure 2 Satellite image of burn scar of Anderson Creek Fire. Compare to two other fires in Texas

Figure 2: Satellite image of burn scar of Anderson Creek Fire. Compare to two other fires in Texas.

 

Devastating Loss

At this time there haven’t been any estimates of livestock loss. It is known some livestock has been lost, but how many? Ranchers have been too busy trying to save their structures and fences, and really haven’t had a chance to examine the damage to their herds. In other cases, they are still trying to roundup their cattle. Amazingly though, there have been numerous accounts of livestock surviving the fire, with reports of cattle or bison standing in scorched pastures in the aftermath, apparently no worse for the wear. Some are speculating that the new calf crop hasn’t fared so well, choosing to hunker down rather than escape the fire. Critical infrastructure, primarily fence, has been one of the biggest casualties. One rancher ventured to guess thousands of miles of fence have been destroyed; if fence posts were wood, and in the fire’s path, they’re gone.

Ecological Challenge

Almost immediately the Kansas Livestock Association sent out a call for hay donations to help support ranchers who lost all their hay or forage to the wildfire. Ranchers and farmers, being who they are, responded in a big way; by Saturday KLA called off the request stating they had enough hay and were running out of storage.

As notable and generous as donated hay is, and I’m sure the ranchers who need it are grateful, there is an underlying concern. Throughout the majority of the burned area is native rangeland, what if donated hay is from Caucasian or old world bluestem pastures, or fescue pastures or contaminated with sericea lespedeza? Where that hay is fed those sites will be contaminated by the introduced species and range quality will be diminished. A short-term solution will lead to a long-term problem.

Perhaps ranchers can consider using source identified hay, where they know they won’t be contaminating their rangeland. Another alternative would be to utilize fields of wheat in the area until the range grows enough to put cattle back. Sure, it is likely the wheat crop will be lost but the value of keeping rangeland quality should be worth that consideration. It is also important to remember that this time of year the rangeland will be greening up within days following this wildfire and that grazing could be possible within just a few weeks. Admittedly it’s not the best scenario for grass health, but one that with proper management (long-term rest) following defoliation will provide sustainable forage.

Societal Challenge

Drive through the Gyp Hills and it is obvious fire has been excluded from much of this landscape for years from the scattered red cedars to outright cedar forests covering the landscape. Prescribed fire is just beginning to gain acceptance in the Gyp Hills of Kansas. In the last few years the Gyp Hills Prescribed Burn Association has formed and has been slowly converting prescribed fire disciples. And though they are believers, the Gyp Hills PBA is still only burning 10,000 to 15,000 acres annually. One of their largest hurdles has been the local fire departments. I am fearful this wildfire will set back the recent advances in gaining acceptance for prescribed fire. In addition to inappropriately reinforcing difficult attitudes with fire departments, a wildfire of this magnitude is likely to cause those fearful or uninformed to dig in their heels. Hopefully that isn’t the situation and a case can be made for prescribed fire being beneficial and one way to help minimize these types of catastrophic events.

Glimpse of History

As I monitored the daily progression of this wildfire I couldn’t help but think of how landscape scale burns like this happened regularly before man tried to suppress fire. And it was these exact conditions, low humidity – high winds, that propelled and accelerated fire across the landscape. These historic fires would burn for days and consume hundreds of thousands of acres before being naturally extinguished by precipitation or loss of fuel.

Revitalization

If I could offer anything to the ranchers affected by the wildfire, I offer the assurance that their range will be better. They will see greater forage growth this summer, better animal performance and better range health. It may not seem too positive right now, but give it a few weeks and, aside from the resources needed to repair fences, things will be better than they have seen in years. Killing the cedars alone will result in millions of gallons of available water for forage growth and range recovery. Studies have shown a single cedar tree consumes 33 gallons of water a day. To make math simple, over a 100-day growing season that is 330 gallons. It only takes killing 3,030 cedar trees to save a million gallons of water. I can guarantee you multiples of 3,030 cedar trees were killed by the Anderson Creek Wildfire. Springs that haven’t run in years will once again. Ponds will fill up and creeks will flow. Grasses will grow and animals will flourish.

Keep the tall grasses growing and burn on!

P.S. Anderson Creek Wildfire, thank you for the great sunsets.

Bird's eye view of the wildfires in Barber County

Bird’s eye view of the wildfires in Barber County

 

 

Introduction to the Native Grass Gazette

My first post is to introduce myself to you with a little bit about my background.

I don’t know for sure where my appreciation for prairie/grasslands came from, but I suspect it has always been a

part of me. I grew up, and still live in, the pre-settlement prairie region of west central Missouri known as the Cherokee Plains. All my formative outdoor experiences came from the rivers, streams and prairies (and yes, some woodlands too) of the region.

My earliest recollections of prairies, as a kid, come from Memorial Day weekends on my grandparents’ farm in St. Clair County, Missouri, where my cousins and I would frolic through the pastures and pick wild strawberries. I remember too, summer prairie hay harvest; an annual ritual during which my grandfather and all the neighbor men gathered to assist, my grandmother bringing mason jars of iced tea to the field for refreshment and a “harvest hands” lunch, big as any holiday meal. A few years later, highway construction en route to my grandparents’ farm detoured us through prairies where I remember seeing and marveling at prairie chickens in flight.

After graduating from the University of Missouri with a degree in Fisheries and Wildlife, my first introduction to prescribed fire was in 1980 when I helped an employer burn off some switchgrass he had planted. My father tells me differently, that the burns on our farm in the early 70’s were “prescribed” but somehow that’s not the way I remember it. Swinging a wet gunny sack as fast as you can to swat out fire, running to the well pumping another bucket full of water, then returning to the fire line didn’t seem “prescribed” to me. On second thought, it probably was prescribed … just not “controlled.” Regardless, the fire bug bit and I am an admitted pyromaniac; not recovering, mind you, practicing.

In the mid-80’s my work with the Missouri Department of Conservation had me planting native grasses. This was during the first two years of CRP and the department had a program that provided a native grass drill and operator (me) to encourage landowners to plant native grasses instead of tall fescue. During two years working that program I planted about 2,500 acres. I’ve been planting native grasses ever since. I’ve lost track but it is now somewhere around 30,000 acres or more.

In the late 80’s into the early 90’s I gained 10 years experience planting, managing, harvesting, buying, storing, cleaning, packaging, warehousing and marketing native grasses and wildflowers for a native grass seed production business during the 5 years I was employed by them. I then went to work as the Great Plains Regional Director and Biologist for Quail Unlimited where I stayed for 15 years. Most recently I owned and operated my own natural resource consulting and contracting company. Since taking this job I have turned that business over to a manager and my son.

I am honored to have the position of NBCI’s Grasslands Coordinator and am excited about the possibilities. There is a long list of things to do that has been developed by the Grassland and Grazing Lands sub-committee of the National Bobwhite Technical Committee, all focused around advocating for native grasses, grasslands and prescribed fire. My task is challenging indeed, but I embrace that challenge and look forward to the opportunities ahead.

Keep the tall grasses growing and burn on!

JH

February 15, 2016