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Control red cedars with prescribed burn

Slideshow: Learn to prevent invasive eastern red cedar from taking over rangeland.

Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series on how to control red cedars in pasture and rangeland.

If you’ve let eastern red cedar get a toehold on your rangeland, it’s only a matter of time until it could cut your stocking rates dramatically, even by as much as 75%, and shrink profits along the way. That’s what ranchers in a four-county area along the Missouri River in southern South Dakota are seeing.

You’ll have to make a choice between red cedar or grassland, they say, and the sooner you make that choice, the better, because the expenses grow either way.

“Just absolutely nothing will grow under those thick canopied cedar trees,” Brule County rancher Doug Feltman says. “We’ve lost over half of our grazing.”

Downriver, Gregory County rancher Rich Grim says he knew something had to be done when a study showed red cedars had overtaken 30% of the rangeland in his area.

The two are among the landowners actively using prescribed fire to rein in the spread of invasive red cedars. Decades-old photos prove there were few red cedars years ago on their ranches along the Missouri River in southern South Dakota. Natural and controlled fires set by Native Americans encouraged a greater plant diversity that helped control woody invasives. But when homesteaders stopped using fires, cedars flourished.

Prescribed fire cost-effective

“If you have a pasture with little cedar trees, fire will take care of them, and it’ll be much more cost-effective with a fire than trying to go out and clip all the little cedar trees,” says Sean Kelly, South Dakota State University Extension range management field specialist at Winner.

“If we can get a handle on these trees when they’re 2 and 3 feet tall, it’s a lot more economical and beneficial to burn them than when they’re 20, 30 feet tall,” says Rod Voss, rangeland management specialist with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service in Mitchell.

“When you’re talking thick cedar stands of 20- and 30-foot cedars, you have to cut some down and stuff the dead carcasses into the thicker stands to build a ladder fuel that’s hot enough to burn the live, standing trees,” Kelly adds. That extra mechanical work is avoided if trees are burned when they’re small.

Feltman, who’s already conducted several burns on his ranch, knows it’s best to burn young trees. “These trees should have been burned 20, 40, or 50 years ago, when the trees were small,” Feltman says of an area overgrown with tall cedars. “You don’t have to have a terrible roaring fire to kill a small cedar tree.”

Prepare ahead

A detailed plan is a must to achieve a successful prescribed burn. A professional plan considers everything from fuel needs to kill various-sized trees, to mapping all the water facilities, gates, escape routes, hazards, likely wind directions and ignition plans using GPS.

Time is critical to build enough fuel for a successful burn. “You can do that by managing your grazing,” Feltman says. “Have your fences set up to keep your cattle out of the area for maybe a year before you’re going to burn. Build the fuels to make the fire that will kill the trees.”

Kelly shares a good example as a pasture that Grim has deferred from grazing for almost two years. “He’s got an awesome fuel load of tall grass, at least 4,000 to 5,000 pounds per acre of fuel.”

Safety first

A burn plan that carefully details what will be done, when and under what conditions is essential to a safe burn, Kelly says. Also a volunteer firefighter, he has helped with a number of prescribed burns through the landowner-driven Mid-Missouri River Prescribed Burn Association, started in 2015.

The association has experience and qualified volunteers who will assist landowners in Gregory, Charles Mix, Brule and Lyman counties with safe burns and handle paperwork, as well as the burn itself. More than 2,000 acres are scheduled for prescribed burns in 2021.

For more information on prescribed burns to control red cedar trees or invasive cool-season grass, contact your local NRCS office or get more information at

Betts writes from Johnston, Iowa.

TAGS: Weeds Pasture
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