On October 25, 2019 a crew of 20 friends, neighbors, and volunteer firefighters, including Northern Prairies Land Trust biologists, teamed up to burn 290 acres of pasture in the Middle Niobrara Biologically Unique Landscape (north-central Nebraska). The burn is unusual because ranchers in the area have been hesitant to burn grasslands in the fall. They worry that the loss of plant cover could cause sandy soils to blow away over the long winter.
The landowners and their grazing tenant have burned before and enjoyed multiple benefits from their prescribed fires. They appreciate that the burns improve grass production and control eastern redcedar trees and seeds before they grow tall enough to reduce grazing potential and increase tree removal costs. This year they decided to experiment with some different timing.
Burning in the fall allowed the cattle producers to avoid the pressures of spring calving season that can interfere with burning. It was easier for them to find help and the fall weather was more predictable. By including fall and early winter in their burn plans, they had more opportunities to burn. As of February 2020, they have not observed any soil movement on the burned area.
Burning in the fall has benefits for woodlands as well. Woodlands burn better in the fall than in the spring because dry, freshly fallen leaves carry the fire. Woodland burns control the number of cedars in the forest, especially in areas where terrain limits the ability to cut or spray cedar seedlings as they emerge. Fewer cedars in the forest means fewer cedars spreading out into grasslands and allows more sunlight to reach the forest floor. More sunlight means more forage for cattle and more native plants to support pollinators and insects in general, which are the anchor for woodland food webs. The direct sunlight is necessary for the next generation of oak and pine trees to grow.
Hunters take note: exposed acorns in forests burned in the fall are a magnet for deer and turkey throughout the remaining fall and winter. A game camera left on a tree during one of our burns in November 2016 documented deer using the burn area the same night of the burn, undeterred by the unusual activity. In the spring, those same deer and turkey will be drawn to the burn because the dark-colored ground is the first place to warm and green up. In the long-term, healthy forests produce abundant acorn crops for game animals and insects for turkey broods.
We benefit the most native plants, pollinators, and other wildlife species by burning at different seasons over the years, including spring, growing season, and fall burns. Our grasslands and woodlands need fire to be healthy. Different plants and animals benefit most from fire at different times of the year. By changing fire timing in a pasture or woodland over time, we can maximize our cattle production and our biodiversity.
Interested in burning for improved cattle production and wildlife habitat? Consider joining your neighbors in a local prescribed fire association.