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Planting a diverse cover crop now will help cropland recover from wildfire

No-till cropland with burned residue is subject to erosion, needs cover quickly.

Walt Davis 1

April 6, 2017

4 Min Read
COVER CROPLAND QUICKLY: Cropland that lost no-till residue to this spring's wildfires will benefit from planting a diverse cover crop mix as soon as possible to help the soil recover maximum populations of biological life.

If you have cropland that burned during the wildfires of early March, the best thing to do now is to get something up and growing. Likely the best option for that something is a mix of cover crops that can be used for forage grazing through the summer.

"If you were planning to plan a row crop this spring, you can probably still do that, but you could be facing challenges," says Keith Berns with Green Cover Seed in Bladen, Neb. "If you have no-till residue that burned off, you are going to need to plant something that will encourage all the different populations of biology to recover."

Planting a cover crop mix with 10 to 12 different varieties of crops gives you the diverse mixture that you need.

Green Cover Seed even has a bargain for you if you are looking to rehabilitate some acres of burned cropland. They call it Remix and sell it cheap in all circumstances and even cheaper to people who are in fire recovery mode.

"It is a mixture of all the stuff that we have spilled or mixes that we goofed up and didn't get what the grower wanted in the mix," Berns says. "We pick it up, clean it again and mix it again. It might have 80 different things in it, some of which will do really well and some of which may not be ideal for the region or the soil and won't do as well. But it is by far the cheapest way to get a lot of diversity. I'd recommend letting it get some good growth and then turning cattle out for light grazing. Let it regrow and graze it again."

Get more INSIGHT: Download Cover Crops: Best Management Practices now!

Berns says that a Remix cover crop can be grazed three times in a season and still have a decent stand in the fall.

"Managing the grazing is important," he says. "In a single season, you won't complete the healing process, but you will get a good stand."

Remix is not a good fit if you plan to plant wheat in the fall because some of the grasses in it might create weed problems for the subsequent crop.

"If it is wheat ground that burned, you will probably be better off with millet, cowpeas, mung beans, sunflowers and flax," he says. "The best thing is still a diverse mixture and will be far more remedial than a single crop such as sorghum or soybeans.”

Nature will heal rangeland
Green Cover Seed agronomist Dale Strickler works out of his home in Courtland, advising Kansas growers about the best mixes for their situation.

Strickler says that most prairie soils evolved with fire and that burning does not typically cause harm.


RANGELAND RECOVERY: Well-managed native rangeland, like this pasture on the Alexander Ranch in Barber County, will recover quickly from wildfire. This pasture was among the 350,000 acres that burned in the Anderson Creek fire in 2016.

That said, wildfires are not always typical prairie fires.

"If you had a 50-year stand of 30-foot-tall red cedars, you have more of a forest fire than a grass fire, and that can get hot enough to cause some soil sterilization," he says. "You can actually lose some microbiology in an extremely hot fire. And you can have situations, especially with little bluestem, where the fire burns deep enough to damage the crown of the plant. In those situations, recovery will be slower."

Pastures that had not been burned for a long time, have been over-grazed or have been chemically treated for weed control may have additional problems.

"If the pasture has a thick, even stand of grass, you can turn cattle out as soon as the grass is 6 or 7 inches high," he says. "Cattle will typically bite off about 4 inches of grass. The goal is to still have stubble after a 4-inch bite."

Stocking rates will vary with pasture condition, he says. Pastures that were well-managed before a fire will typically come back with very good grass, and rates can be maintained at last year's levels. However, pastures that were overgrazed or have thin, clumpy stands may need to have stocking rates reduced.

Healthy native rangeland will come back healthy and strong following fire, Strickler says. There is no need to interseed to help productivity.

Rangeland that has been treated repeatedly with weed killers and that has prairie grasses, but not a lot of other prairie wildflowers or forbs, may benefit from interseeding with a product such as Berseem clover, sweet clover or even alfalfa to increase productivity.

"Bereem clover is a really good choice for interseeding," he says. "It doesn't cause bloat, dies off after a year and fixes nitrogen to give the native grass a little bump for next year."

The important thing to remember is that grazing will require management to help bring grasses to their best health.

"You need the seed head to be bitten off," he says. "That makes the plant put out more tillers and thickens the stand. If it doesn't get grazed, it just grows straight up and doesn't tiller. You want to manage for maximum tillering."

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