Pastures prosper or perish by the flames

It is thought cavemen first discovered fire as early as 1.5 million years ago and it was a breakthrough that changed the realm of possibilities for club-carrying homo sapiens. In modern times, fire is a game changer for land management in the agriculture world—if used effectively.

“It is very important for landowners to practice good pasture management because that is the resource that is providing the base for all their income and everything they do,” said John Weir, Oklahoma State University associate Extension specialist for prescribed fire. “I think a lot of times people put too much thought into their cattle and genetics. The land is the best thing that we’ve got, and if we take care of it, it will take care of everything else in the meantime.”

Weir says controlling cedar trees, utilizing fire, keeping wooded plants suppressed and practicing proper grazing management go a long way to adding value. These measures also give the land resilience and stability and helps it to bounce back during harsh circumstances, such as drought. Additionally, Weir says some of these points are intertwined. If proper stocking rates are applied, fire can be better utilized because there will always be adequate fuel to burn pastures. To Weir, fire is at the top of the list for achieving all of these bullet points of proper land management.

“It controls cedars, puts nutrients back into the system, rejuvenates plants and makes them grow better, and increases livestock gains,” he said.

Cedars are the central problem for most pastures. Carl Bunch, president of the Oklahoma Prescribed Burn Association, says the Eastern Red Cedar population is not under control, but steps are being taken in the right direction. He says the OPBA has burned 3,090 acres so far this year. Last year 900 acres were burned and the year before only 400 acres. 

“I think word of mouth is getting around and a few years ago we were still in a significant drought and guys were just afraid to burn,” he explained.

The roots of the cedar problem

Weir clarified that Eastern Red Cedar are native to this region, however, they have become extremely problematic because they are growing in areas they are not supposed to be, such as open pastures where they reduce grass availability and increase fire risk. 

“Historically, they were limited to major river drain ditches and canyons where fire really couldn’t get to them,” Weir said. “The problem with the cedar trees we have now is caused by a lack of fire.” 

Although prescribed burns and mechanical removal are always encouraged, not all landowners consider it a priority. Bunch says 10 years ago it seemed like the government was doing more cost share programs and funding for things like cedar removal. 

“It seems like since 2011 to 2012, there’s not a lot of people cutting down cedars or paying to have it done,” Bunch said. “I wonder if people just gave up on the government cost share because they’re not really giving out as much funding as they were.” 

Weir says many people look at cedar trees as being great windbreaks or wildlife habitat, but they impose far greater problems than they solve. 

For instance, the Anderson Creek Fire cost $1.5 million to suppress and that does not count the livestock losses, fences destroyed or even the damage the fire did to Oklahoma, where it originated. Apart from being the fuel for wildfire ignition, cedar trees also hinder forage growth. Weir says it does not take many trees to reduce grass availability by half.

Additionally, pests and insects, such as horn flies, are using cedar trees to lay eggs and stay cool in this hot climate. Horn flies are one of the biggest economic impactors of beef cattle and it has been proven cattle gain less when they are constantly fighting off flies instead of grazing or feeding their calves.

One of the most talked about reasons landowners fear cedars is water use. 

“The myth is that cedars utilize a lot of water, but really the biggest problem is they intercept the rainfall and do not allow it to get to the ground so a lot of it evaporates in the canopy before it reaches the soil,” Weir said. “Anywhere from 40 to 60% of the rain water can be lost just due to cedar tree canopy. The more trees you’ve got the less rain fall reaches the water table and can be used by the plants.” 

The Natural Resources Conservation Service estimates in Oklahoma, the number of Eastern Red Cedars is increasing at a rate of 852 acres a day or over 300,000 acres a year. At this rate, the cedar population will double every 18 years. The take home message is landowners cannot just sit on their hands while their cedar trees get out of control.

“If we don’t cut the cedar population, they’ll take us over and what we’ll be set up for is an enormous wildfire that will be catastrophic,” Weir said. 

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Burning up the bad

To some, the idea that prescribed burns are the solution to preventing wildfires might seem counter-productive, but to experts like Bunch and Weir, it is the only answer.

“It’s not the private landowner who is afraid to burn, it’s really the people who live closer to town and in town that really don’t have a good comprehension of it,” Bunch said. “They just see the wildfires on TV and are scared of that kind of fire.” 

Although he is heavily involved in the OPBA, Bunch also runs a cedar tree removal business called Frontier Cedar Cutting in Perry, Oklahoma. Bunch says once he cuts trees off a property he always recommends burning the property afterwards because the cedars probably will not come back for another 10 years. He says if they are just removed mechanically, the cedars might be back in the next three to five years. Additionally, they gain the benefits fire has on plant life and livestock gain. Bunch says more people are becoming interested in burning in the summer as opposed to the spring. 

“I tell producers if we can do this in the fall, you’re going to get the same return in March or April on your cattle for them to graze as you would if you burned it in March and you waited the next two or three weeks for that green stubble to come back up,” Bunch said. 

He says this will do the same thing for producers if they burn in October or November, which is safer because the winds are less volatile than they are in January or February. 

“We’re almost getting completely out of springtime burns because they’re so unpredictable when it comes to weather,” Bunch said. “It’s a challenge because a lot of these producers are well into their 70s and that’s the way they’ve always done it so it’s hard to get them to change their frame of mind.” 

Bunch says cattlemen can complement burning with rotational grazing. 

“We can do patch burning for the next five or six years while you rotate cattle in and out and it will keep it maintained,” Bunch said. “That way you won’t have to burn every year. Some people are able to burn every year because of the fuels that they have, where others aren’t.”

Bunch says the biggest mistake he sees landowners make is not utilizing government programs designed to improve their land and save them money. 

“The majority of people who I run across as landowners don’t know that USDA, Farm Service Agency and NCRS are there for educational purposes and can help with these issues.” 

Weir says maintaining land is not just for agricultural use. It affects the landowner, but also everyday citizens. Wildfires can spread from the edge of pastureland and on into town and human health issues, like asthma and allergies often stem from cedars pollinating in the spring.

“I think we all have a responsibility to the land and managing it correctly,” Weir said. “We’re just passing through during the short time that we’re here, but while we’re around we need to take care of it and utilize it.” 

Lacey Newlin can be reached at [email protected].