NDSU Extension - Williams County


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October 22, 2015

Do Fires Benefit Grasslands?


With harvest being almost complete for most farmers, we are seeing some changes when it comes to the fields. Those that have cattle, are letting their cattle do some fall grazing. This helps remove extra stubble from the fields and lets the pastureland get some rest before the cold winter and snow comes. Driving around the country side at night, you might notice more fires than those from oil flares. We hope that the majority of the time, those would be planned or prescribed fires. Fires can be a nerve wracking experience when they are not planned, but looking back in history it was a normal occurrence in the Great Plains. Along with buffalo, fire helped create healthy and thriving grasslands.

Many questions come about when talking about fire; Is it good or bad? Are we losing plant species? Is it really needed if cattle are grazing the land?. Well these are all questions that ranchers are asked or even wonder themselves.

Fire was a natural disturbance to the grasslands, of course depending on the timing could create benefits to the land, and this option is still available. Kevin Sedivec, NDSU Extension Service rangeland management specialist says “And, fire will have no long-term negative impacts on plant community composition or productions. Even more interestingly, properly timed, prescribed fires can create positive impacts on plant species diversity and forage productions, creating a healthier, more productive rangeland for a variety of species”.  With early spring fires there tends to be little impact on grassland plants in terms of composition and forage production. Spring fires will remove all dead plant material from the year(s) before, which will release the nutrients back into the soil helping that summers plants flourish. In late summer and early fall, fires appear to have no impact on the plant species composition. There may be a decrease of forage production the following spring from a fall fire, but the grasslands should recover production values within 12-24 months, of course depending on moisture levels. Fire can be used to manipulate grazing patterns for livestock, but more importantly it will help remove old plant matter and invasive grasses. Having a controlled burn is a safe way to remove old plant matter instead of a lightning strike or an ATV spark. When planning a prescribed burn or even a camp fire make sure to check out http://www.nd.gov/des/planning/fire-danger-awareness/ for the most up to date information on local burn bans.

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