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Cow-calf pairs: Underused wildfire prevention tools

Farmstead Forest: There is perhaps no better wildfire prevention tool than grazing cows and calves to reduce fuel load.

Curt Arens, Editor, Nebraska Farmer

July 5, 2024

2 Min Read
cattle grazing with rolling hills in background
FIREFIGHTING HEROES: Researchers, foresters and landowners are learning that grazing cow-calf pairs are one of the best tools at reducing grass and weed wildfire fuel within the forest canopy and in surrounding grasslands. Craig Lovell/Getty Images

Portions of the High Plains and West are very dry so far this season. But really, it is the wet years that we have to fear.

That’s because the wet seasons in wildfire country build understory brush in our woodlands, heavy weed and grass growth, and excessive woody debris. The wet seasons build fuel to ignite and expand wildfires that may come along during a drought season.

There are many tools available to help reduce fuel load in wildfire country, but Doak Nickerson — my friend and now-retired Nebraska Forest Service forester from Chadron — is fond of saying that a grazing cow-calf pair is one of the best tools we have in our toolbox to reduce fuel load and the potential impact of wildfires.

Lessons learned

After the massive 2012 wildfires in what is known as the Pine Ridge of Nebraska — basically the northern Panhandle region — researchers, foresters and landowners took note of ways to reduce fuel load and curb the impact of fires that come along.

More than 60 years ago, about a quarter-million acres of the Pine Ridge were covered in ponderosa pine. But since 1989, about half of the pine forest in Nebraska encompassing the Pine Ridge has been lost to wildfires, along with thousands of acres in the Niobrara Valley to the east, and other isolated pine woodlands across the state. Fires have changed the look of the landscape.

Related:Deal with suckers on trees around farm

With 97% of the state’s lands privately owned, preservation of the existing pine forest and reforestation efforts take coordination between federal, state and local agencies, and private landowners. Local Natural Resources Districts and landowners have taken a three-pronged approach, including grass and brush fuel control, ladder fuel management, and replanting.

Cows are key

“Grazing those grasslands and keeping grass fuel under control is the key to preventing wildfires in the extreme drought years,” Nickerson said in an interview with Farm Progress in 2020. “The cow-calf pairs play an important role in manipulating the grass fuel model that drives catastrophic wildfire in this pine ecosystem.”

He said that it is often challenging to help absentee landowners understand the importance of grazing the grass around and within the pine forest to protect the pine forest.

“Secondary to the cow-calf pairs,” Nickerson added, “will be our forest management tools like logging, thinning and chipping, to reduce and manage forest fuel loads in this grass-dominated landscape.”

Centuries ago, there were bison grazing heavily within the pine forest to help control the fuel load. So frequent, low-intensity and rapid wildfires would come through the region, keeping grass and ladder fuel controlled, but leaving the pine trees intact.

Related:Protect trees from herbicide drift

The idea of grazing must be catching on. I read often now about cattle grazing as a fire prevention tool not only in Nebraska and Plains states, but also in California and other Western states — where researchers and land managers continue to grapple with effective ways to mitigate wildfire potential.

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About the Author(s)

Curt Arens

Editor, Nebraska Farmer

Curt Arens began writing about Nebraska’s farm families when he was in high school. Before joining Farm Progress as a field editor in April 2010, he had worked as a freelance farm writer for 27 years, first for newspapers and then for farm magazines, including Nebraska Farmer.

His real full-time career, however, during that same period was farming his family’s fourth generation land in northeast Nebraska. He also operated his Christmas tree farm and grew black oil sunflowers for wild birdseed. Curt continues to raise corn, soybeans and alfalfa and runs a cow-calf herd.

Curt and his wife Donna have four children, Lauren, Taylor, Zachary and Benjamin. They are active in their church and St. Rose School in Crofton, where Donna teaches and their children attend classes.

Previously, the 1986 University of Nebraska animal science graduate wrote a weekly rural life column, developed a farm radio program and wrote books about farm direct marketing and farmers markets. He received media honors from the Nebraska Forest Service, Center for Rural Affairs and Northeast Nebraska Experimental Farm Association.

He wrote about the spiritual side of farming in his 2008 book, “Down to Earth: Celebrating a Blessed Life on the Land,” garnering a Catholic Press Association award.

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