So far, there's been no noticeable difference in cattle performance in patch-burn pastures that are part of a long-term study at Kansas State University (KSU).
“Forage growth has shifted toward annual grasses and forbs, and there's been a decrease in basal cover. Sericea lespedeza plants have decreased in height because of the grazing pressure,” explains Walt Fick, KSU Extension range management specialist. “Most importantly for producers, though, is maintaining the long-term health of the pasture; with increased grazing pressures, the pasture may not be able to recover. We have three more years to determine this.”
This is the third year of the six-year project aimed at evaluating the viability of patch-burn grazing. Though it’s a relatively new concept in rangeland management, Fick says it has occurred naturally for hundreds of years.
Historically, Fick explains Native Americans purposely started prairie fires, and lightning did the same thing naturally. Bison and other native herbivores were attracted to the new growth that comes up after the land burned; consequently, these animals moved from grazing area to grazing area searching out the most attractive areas of new growth.
Some ranchers are mimicking that grazing pattern by sectioning a large pasture into three or more burn areas.
“Every year, one of those sections is prescribed burned, concentrating the grazing pressure in specific areas of the pasture,” Fick says. “The cattle are free-roaming over the entire pasture, but tend to gravitate toward the one-third area of the pasture that has been burned, because that's where the most attractive new growth has occurred.”
The main purpose of patch-burn grazing is ecology-driven; it has a high potential to increase biodiversity and wildlife habitat.
“Through our research, we would like to determine how it affects livestock performance, if it will compromise the health of the prairie, and if it can control the highly invasive plant, Sericea lespedeza,” Fick says.