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Responding to the devastation left behind by the Texas Panhandle and Oklahoma fires comes in layers, requiring time and patience, says a rangeland specialist. Learn more about pasture recovery.

Ron Smith, Editor

April 4, 2024

6 Min Read
donated hay, burned rangeland, Texas Panhandle
Shelley E. Huguley

More than a month after the devastating, historic, wildfire in the Texas and Oklahoma High Plains, ranchers are faced with the daunting challenge of creating recovery plans.

“We know this country can come back and it can come back stronger than ever,” says Texas AgriLife Extension Rangeland Specialist Morgan Treadwell, San Angelo.

“This country routinely burns. That goes back prior to European settlement and well after settlement. We've seen evidence of burn and recovery more recently from the 2017 fire (and earlier) up to now.”

Treadwell says the scientific evidence shows that wildfires do not kill native perennial grasses. “Below ground, immediately following fire, we know native perennial grasses can respond and recover quickly. Bud banks can switch from a dormant status to actively growing within hours of the fire catalyst.

“So, regrowth and recovery can occur quickly, and if we can tee up a rainfall to occur simultaneously, recovery speeds up even more.”

She adds that science and recent experience, “tell us recovery is very fast, and data support that it comes back stronger than ever.”

She says the science is hard to fathom “when you’re in the middle of it. When you have cattle somewhere and you need to get them back on pasture, it might seem dismal and hopeless.”

Related:Panhandle wildfire response in recovery mode

Layers of concern

She says responding to this kind of disaster comes in layers. “We have a plant community response, the ecological effect. But then there’s livestock and structure and homes and infrastructure like fences and water lines and water tanks.

“If it were just the grass that burned, it wouldn't be that heartbreaking. But there's the unavoidable human element, unavoidable because we live off of rangelands, we make a life ranching,” says Treadwell, who is also a rancher.

“It’s all intertwined. We need to do a better job of balancing our livelihoods with rangeland processes.”

Patience

She says recovery will demand patience.
Many who lost rangeland grazing are feeding hay or moving cattle to other locations, some distant. They want to get cattle back on home grazing as soon as possible.
“That's a tough call, and my heart goes out to everybody making that decision right now,” Treadwell says. “I encourage folks to find lease country if they can. I know that's almost straight up impossible right now. My ultimate goal would be to encourage folks to start connecting people to grazing leases.”

Putting cattle on leased acreage for a month or longer, she adds, frees up opportunities for grasslands to recover. “It’s a short-term solution to find alternative ground if you can find it.”

Related:Panhandle fires: Finding refuge in a wheat field

For ranchers whose only option is to keep cattle on the home range and feeding hay, she recommends concentrating them in smaller areas. “Congregate animals as much as possible. That acreage will be sacrificial ground. At least, don't open all the gates to allow access to all the pastures, just congregate animals in specific locations and buy your pasture some time to recover.
“It will recover,” she says, “but not overnight. Rangeland needs time to do its natural process of recovery. If we can get a rainfall, recovery will be that much faster.”

Time to assess

Treadwell says feeding hay is expensive. “But if a rancher is hellbent on holding onto cattle and feeding hay is the only option, this could be a great opportunity to look at a glass half full and evaluate the herd. Ranchers can consider this an opportunity to reshape the herd or scale back, cull older cattle and get numbers down to a sustainable level to match resources. 

“For now, we need to keep the animals off grassland until those below-ground roots are well compensated by their own photosynthesis, which hopefully will occur soon.”
Treadwell says the rangeland recovery timetable will be “site by site. Every manager going into this was probably at a different threshold of available grass. The bottom line is, if you had grass going into that fire, you're going to have grass coming out of that fire. There is absolutely no scientific piece of evidence to suggest that a fast-moving grassfire destroys the grass.

Related:Wildfire aftermath: Producer, landowner resources

Walk the range

“The grass will not die. How long recovery takes, I can't say because it depends on the type of grass and rainfall. The biggest thing now is to walk the pastures, make a mental inventory of species composition, identify the grasses that are coming back.”

She recommends documenting cool-season or warm-season grasses.  “Are a lot of forbs coming back? Remember, those forbs are high in free protein.”

Treadwell says where rapid production occurs in recovery areas, producers might consider flash grazing — a large number of animals grazing for a short period of time.

“Or they might stay off and allow that entire plant succession and recovery to occur. “

She says rangeland will come back with a better species composition.

Recovery timeline

“I can’t predict the timeframe for recovery,”  she adds. “We've seen good success within one growing season, maybe two growing seasons, but if we get a good rainfall, that could change. Recovery is contingent on conditions we set up for pastures in terms of regrowth and grazing pressure.”

She also notes that grazing depends on rebuilding fences. “Can that pasture even hold a cow? Is water available? It will take a lot of time. I think, as producers, we're anxious to get back. We feel that we have to get to work.

“I think now could be an opportunity to rethink what we were doing before the fire. Was that really working? Was that beneficial? Did I like the setup? Did I like the flow? Would I prefer to have extra pasture around headquarters to graze out or as a buffer in case of another fire? We can be strategic on how rotations are working and the size and locations of pastures, maybe consider developing new water sources.

“Not every rancher gets an opportunity to rethink his setup,” she says. “This could be a cool opportunity, perhaps a silver lining.”

Losses still unknown

The figures on cattle death and other economic losses remain uncertain.

“AgriLife Extension is submitting a proposal for rapid emergency funding from the USDA. We want to identify what our baseline cattle numbers were going into this fire. We hope to establish a database and update it annually.

“With that information, we will know what we're looking at in terms of productivity, in terms of infrastructure, in terms of cattle numbers — not having to start from scratch or depend on other universities or other states to tell us what the baseline should be.”

Treadwell says wildfires are part of the Plains' ecology. “Historic fire frequencies in the area range from two to four years, maybe three to five, depending on drought and if enough fuel is available to sustain fires during dry years.”

Treadwell also says updates on conditions and recovery efforts are important. “Don't forget about us just because we're out of the news cycle.”

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WildfiresCattle

About the Author(s)

Ron Smith

Editor, Farm Progress

Ron Smith has spent more than 30 years covering Sunbelt agriculture. Ron began his career in agricultural journalism as an Experiment Station and Extension editor at Clemson University, where he earned a Masters Degree in English in 1975. He served as associate editor for Southeast Farm Press from 1978 through 1989. In 1990, Smith helped launch Southern Turf Management Magazine and served as editor. He also helped launch two other regional Turf and Landscape publications and launched and edited Florida Grove and Vegetable Management for the Farm Press Group. Within two years of launch, the turf magazines were well-respected, award-winning publications. Ron has received numerous awards for writing and photography in both agriculture and landscape journalism. He is past president of The Turf and Ornamental Communicators Association and was chosen as the first media representative to the University of Georgia College of Agriculture Advisory Board. He was named Communicator of the Year for the Metropolitan Atlanta Agricultural Communicators Association. Smith also worked in public relations, specializing in media relations for agricultural companies. Ron lives with his wife Pat in Denton, Texas. They have two grown children, Stacey and Nick, and two grandsons, Aaron and Hunter.

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