First Prescribed Fire of the Season

To be perfectly honest, this post is mainly to build my own morale.  Last week, we were finally able to squeeze off our first prescribed fire of the season.  Typically, we get several good windows of opportunity during the month of March, but this year it was late in the month before the combination of wind, temperature, and relative humidity all lined up – and even then it was a very short window.  We woke up to temperatures in the mid 20’s and a couple hours after we wrapped up the fire we had thunder/lightning and sleet.  However, between late morning and mid-afternoon, we had very nice conditions for a prescribed fire.  It looks like that will be the only fire we get done in March – we have snow on the ground again, and while temperatures are forecast to rise toward the weekend, the wind speeds are too, making it unlikely we’ll burn again until at least next week. 

Looking at these photos from our successful first fire helps distract me from the list of other fires we’re still waiting to complete during the next couple of weeks (not to mention the long list of later-spring fires that will follow!)

The cold overcast conditions of the morning gave way to mostly sunny skies by early afternoon, which warmed and dried the grass and helped it burn more completely. For this fire, our burn crew size was bolstered by the addition of several staff from the nearby U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Refuges office.

Our objective for the fire was to remove the thatch/litter from approximately 1/3 of the 175 acre prairie as part of our patch-burn grazing management. Beginning in early April, this site will be grazed by cattle, at a light/moderate stocking rate. Those cattle should graze the burned patch fairly intensively, while leaving the unburned patches largely ungrazed.

 

As the fire unit was finally ringed, a big plume of smoke rose into the air. Because our Platte River Prairies are near Interstate 80, we have to be very cautious about keeping smoke away from highway traffic. On this day, we had two things in our favor - the excellent lifting of the smoke (because of heat of the fire and the unstable atmosphere) and the east winds, which kept the smoke off of the Interstate to our north.

As the fire consumed the remaining grass inside the unit, our crew extinguished the last flames along the edges. We then began the long process of mopping up, which in a grazed prairie primarily means raking smoking piles of dried manure away from the edges of the fire unit. As we mopped up, we watched the half a dozen Swainson's hawks which, attracted by the smoke, had come to feed on the voles and other small mammals that were too slow to find new cover as they escaped from the fire.

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.
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14 Responses to First Prescribed Fire of the Season

  1. Matt O'Toole says:

    Great job, Chris! I really appreciate that you take the time to educate and share your experiences with us. I look forward to future postings!

  2. Ben Haberthur says:

    Hi Chris,
    Looks like a good burn, we’ve had pretty marginal weather the last week here at the Forest Preserve District of Kane County(IL) as well.

    That’s a pretty slick looking water rig the crew is pulling behind the Polaris, is that a custom setup or did you purchase that somewhere? What’s the water capacity? We have side-by-sides with Lesco pumps here, but we’d like to add an ATV (preferably a 6×6) to the fleet, and that trailer would fit in nicely!

    Thanks,
    Ben

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Hi Ben,

      I’ll send you an email with a better photo and description of the unit. We’ve got two of them, and we love them. They’re custom built in-house, but we’ve built a few for others as well. Maybe we can make you a deal!

      They’re handy, in that we can pull them with a regular ATV, rather than having to buy something we don’t already have (like a 6×6 or a UTV). They have 120 gallons of water and a high pressure/low volume pump. The biggest advantage is that one person can both drive the unit and spray the water, and can respond quickly to an escape if needed. It also makes our necessary crew size a little smaller than if we were using trucks with slip-in sprayers (which take 2 people each). The only disadvantage over something in a UTV or 6×6 is maneuverability – you want to be sure the driver can back up a trailer, and that you don’t get it into really tight spots. But for working in the open grasslands, we’ve never had any problems.

      Chris

      • Ben Haberthur says:

        Thanks for the photos!

        I’ll be working on getting some ATV funds together, then you may hear from me again.

        Thanks again,
        Ben

      • Chris Zeiner (McHenry County Conservation District) says:

        BH good to see you following here, that setup behind the ATV is pretty slick Chris, have you had any trouble pulling it through wet spots, we use the ATV 6 x 6’s in our wet spots as they have pretty low ground pressure but they look like they would be more useful than the little 25 gallon tanks we put on the back of ours.

        • Chris Helzer says:

          Chris Z – We burn through a fair number of wet swales with no problems, but they mostly have a sandy bottom. The 120 gallons of water is the main issue with wet spots – that kind of weight would make them liable to sink in the muck, I think. On the other hand, having the ATV separate from the weight helps get leverage sometimes, and if nothing else, you can always get the ATV out by unhooking it and just leave the trailer behind until later! Overall, the extra water capacity and the high pressure pump makes the unit worth any downsides. At least for the kinds of areas and burns we have here.

  3. James C. Trager says:

    Curious — In what other seasons do you burn?

    • Chris Helzer says:

      We do most of our burns in either early or late spring, depending upon objectives, but also have been trying to do more summer fires. With our patch-burn grazing, I’ve really liked some of the results I’ve seen with summer fire. The intense grazing in the fall and spring in that burned patch seems to do a good job suppressing invasive cool-season grasses and really opens things up for forbs. We’re still early in our evaluation of them, and need to do some more before I have a solid feel for results, but so far so good! We’ve also done some late fall burns when we get the windows – which helps reduce the pressure on our early spring burn list. I’ve not seen a big difference between the results of late fall (November/early December) and early spring burns, except that the soil can dry out a little.

  4. Wes Pokorny says:

    I have two nice sized wildflower/native grass plots next to our house. I have been working hard to keep the Broam grass down. Would burning in mid April help knock it back a bit? Maybe I could hit a few spots with Round Up before the warm season grasses wake up. What would you do? Chris I enjoy your postings. Thanks for keeping the prairie alive.

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Wes,

      If you burn to suppress smooth brome, I’d wait until the last week of April or even the first couple weeks of May to do maximum damage. And yes, I think you’ll good (but temporary) results from that. Don’t do it every year though, or only burn a portion each year, or you’ll lose your early spring flowers and any native cool-season grasses or sedges you have.

      If you have distinct patches that are near monocultures, it might be worth spraying those with Roundup in early-mid April. The tricks with spring spraying of brome seem to conflict with each other somewhat… 1. you need to get enough leaf area on the brome that you carry enough herbicide to the roots (later is better) 2. you have to be early enough in the season that most other plants haven’t started to green up (earlier is better) 3. You need to spray when the temp is 65 degrees or so – and having a 65 degree day the next day helps a lot too because it allows the plant to finish moving the chemical down.

  5. I’m getting different stories from different people about how well cattle stick to the burned portion and the fidelity they display for grasses versus forbes in patch-graze management – especially in something as small as 175 acres. I see the potential for bias either way, depending on the agenda supported – where can I find objective information?

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Ted – it’s a great and difficult question. You’re right, information on patch-burn grazing is usually biased, but I think that’s true with any other management as well. People measure success by what they want to see (which makes sense), but that makes it difficult to look at the whole spectrum of impacts. Missouri has a unique and fairly volatile situation in which people with very different objectives are measuring the impacts of the same management treatment. It’s important to remember that all of those people have the best interest of prairies in mind, they just disagree about what those prairies should look like (and/or they disagree about what the impacts of the patch-burn work to date have been). Some of that is due to biases on both sides. Some is due to inadequate data collection because of limited resources and the short time that the system has been used. In addition, the patch-burn grazing on public lands – which has gotten the attention – was set up so that it was very similar between sites (to facilitate research). I think some experiments with more varied application of patch-burn grazing would give people much more to look at and evaluate from their individual perspectives. It might be that people would find more common agreement if given a wider spectrum of applications to look at.

      Along those lines, something else that makes patch-burn grazing difficult to measure and generalize about is that it’s really a broad conceptual idea that can be applied in many different ways. Stocking rate alone can have a huge influence on the impacts of patch-burn grazing. The heavier the stocking rate, the less selective cattle are between plant species within the burned area, and the less fidelity they have to the burned area. I tend to use a lighter stocking rate than others, and my objectives are more related to plant diversity than habitat structure. Those looking at habitat structure as a primary objective might not be satisfied with the intensity of the grazing in my burned areas…

      There are many other differences between each patch-burn grazed prairie, of course. Regional differences in plant commnities affect the species of plants available to cattle, and differences in the relative abundance of plant species between two prairies can influence the way cattle interact with them in each place. In other words, in my sites, compass plant is relatively uncommon (we’re at the edge of its range here) but in other places, compass plant is much more common. Cattle might graze more compass plant in places where it’s more abundant – partly because they develop a taste for it, and partly because it’s just so abundant that it’s more likely to be grazed. Other differences between patch-burn grazed sites can include timing/frequency of fires, upland vs. lowland prairie, types of livestock used (yearlings vs. mature cows, etc.) and many others. It’s just really variable.

      What I’ve tried to do in my blog posts about patch-burn grazing (and grazing in general) is to share my own experiences, and that of others I’m familiar with, so that people can absorb that information into their own thoughts and plans for prairie management. In some prairies, grazing might not make any sense at all. In others, it might be a useful tool. I can’t prescribe grazing (or other management tools) for prairies I’m not familiar with, and my objectives are likely not the same as the managers of those other prairies anyway.

      One final thought. As I’ve said in several posts, there’s a big difference between a wildflower (conservative or otherwise) being grazed, and a wildflower being “grazed out” (inferring mortality). A single defoliation event is extremely unlikely to have long-term consequences on a wildflower of any species. Overgrazing for a single season is unlikely to have long-term impacts on any prairie (within limits). However, if the lens you view prairies through is one of visual abundance of flowers, grazing isn’t going to be pretty. If the primary objective is to maintain the current levels of plant species relative abundance, grazing may not be the best tool either. On the other hand, there are lots of things that grazing CAN add to a prairie – including structural heterogeneity, selective suppression of plant competition, etc. – that are difficult to obtain with other methods. My hope is that people will evaluate the potential for grazing on their own sites by looking the experiences that I and others have had with it.

      You (and anyone else) are very welcome to come visit my sites to see for yourself what our work looks like. I’d love to give you a tour and get your input. We tweak our fire/grazing management every year based on what we’re learning. And we keep learning every year.

      Does that help any? Please follow up with more questions. – Chris

  6. rachelle beardsley says:

    we are a bear den from cubscouts

    we are also looking to see one after it takes place….after for safety of course

    it would be really great to get copies of this editorial in print for our den….
    so we can talk about it with the pictures and the print….

    any possibility of that, please contact us….

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