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5 ways to help grass recover from wildfire

Courtesy of Kansas State Research and Extension Pasture in Kansas recovering from the 2017 Starbuck Wildfire
RECOVERY: The pastures on Dave Bouziden’s ranch, near Ashland, Kan., are recovering from the 2017 Starbuck Wildfire. This photo from March 2019 shows that recovery two years later.
Grassland can recover from wildfire with proper management.

It’s always disheartening to see pastures after a wildfire has swept through. But experts say grassland can recover quite well after a wildfire with the proper management.

Dean Krehbiel, state resource conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, advised producers on grassland recovery at the Dec. 29 4-County Wildfire informational meeting in Natoma, Kan.

Starting with the Anderson Creek Wildfire in 2016, forage specialists at Kansas State University and other universities have done research on what producers can do to help that recovery move along.

“The one thing we know about grass and fires is that they’re extremely compatible,” Krehbiel said. “When you burn grass, it responds pretty quickly, typically. The rough part about this is that this happened in December, not in March or April. And so that grass is going to recover a little bit different.”

Weed concerns

The top concern of ranchers is that the fire burned up forages that were providing cover for the ground surface and helping reduce wind erosion. Unlike other wildfires that have occurred in Kansas in the past six years, this one occurred months before the growing season. And that means months of exposed surface before the grass can green up. In the meantime, weeds will be the first to emerge, Krehbiel said.

“Those weeds you’re going to see emerge in probably February, March, April time frame, those forbs, will diminish over time after the fire,” Krehbiel said. “You may not need to spray those unless they’re noxious and invasive plants. That’s just nature’s way of healing over an immediate burn scar, producing some kind of forage or plant material out there that can cover the landscape.”

Krehbiel warned ranchers to be careful when they feed hay that’s been brought in, because that’s been known to introduce problematic weed and grass species to pastures.

“You don’t want to introduce serecia lespedeza or old world bluestem or something that’s going to be problematic for you,” he said.

And while you’re out there, consider any trees that are left after the wildfire, Krehbiel added. “Cattle can’t eat trees, right, so can you take them all off the landscape and get them out of the way and let that grass recover even more?” he said.

5 ways to help

Other management tips include:

Prescribed fire. It sounds counterintuitive, but in partially burned pastures, it may be wise to apply prescribed fire to the unburned portion to keep livestock from overgrazing the burned area as it recovers.

Stocking. Always use proper stocking rates. Rotate livestock between pastures to allow for plant recovery before re-grazing. And change up the season of use by avoiding the same areas and plants at the same time each year.

Salt and mineral. Rotate your salt and mineral feeding areas to distribute grazing.

Cross-fencing. As you plan to replace fencing, now is the time to consider adjusting cross-fence locations to improve your management and plant health later on. Consider the terrain, plant communities, water sources and your long-term grazing patterns.

Monitor and adjust. Some areas may need to be deferred from grazing until plants have enough growth to sustain it. This can take longer in times of drought. Getting rain in May and June will be key for forage regrowth.

The encouraging news is that even though forage yield is decreased the year immediately after a wildfire, it actually rebounds quite well the second and third year after the fire, according to research conducted after the Starbuck and Anderson Creek wildfires by K-State range scientist Keith Harmoney in 2016 and 2017.

For more advice on how you can give your grass the leg up it needs after wildfire, visit bookstore.ksre.ksu.edu. Or visit with your local NRCS office.

TAGS: Management
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