Before European settlement of the Great Plains, our mixed-grass prairie ecosystem evolved under influences such as climate, large herds of grazing animals and fire. The source of fire came from lightning strikes in the late spring and summer months or fires deliberately set by Native Americans. Although the burning we do today is prescribed and is a highly structured event, the results are much the same as they were 175 years ago when fire raced across the prairie.
Prescribed fire has many benefits if paired with other management activities such as grazing. However, fire alone is not the silver bullet for grassland management. Here at the Crane Trust, we use a patch-burn graze system similar to what other conservation organizations use in the Big Bend reach of the Platte River in central Nebraska. This type of management system is designed to increase the quality and diversity of the prairie flora. With improved floristic quality comes improved habitat for a greater number and diversity of birds, mammals, and reptiles that call the mixed-grass prairie home.
In a traditional patch-burn grazing system, the model would follow a 3-year rotation of fire within one grazing unit. Cattle (Bos taurus) or bison (Bison bison) will concentrate their grazing on the recently burned “patch” (1/3 of the grazing unit) allowing the other 2/3 of the grazing unit to recover. On Crane Trust property, burning 1/3 of our grazing units is not always an obtainable goal so we must be very strategic with how we use fire on the landscape. Factors that we consider when prioritizing what to burn are where we want cattle or bison to graze, setting back trees that can quickly encroach on prairie grassland and reducing the vigor of invasive cool season grasses. Other factors that we must consider are planned stocking rate, climatic influences, grazing period, and what time of year we want to conduct a burn.
Of course, planning a prescribed fire and implementing that plan are two different things. First of all, it takes a commitment from an organization to have properly trained personnel and sufficient equipment to carry out a prescribed burn. It also takes cooperation from Mother Nature and often times help from other agencies to ensure enough firefighters are on hand to safely conduct a prescribed burn. On every prescribed fire conducted by the Crane Trust, we use two pick-ups with 300-gallon slip-ons, three UTV’s with slip-ons with 50 Gallon water tank and pump, two ATV’s with 20-gallon tanks with a hand sprayer and 8 to 9 firefighters on site.
It can be a balancing act of all these factors for us to consider, but in the end, the results have been beneficial for our grassland ecosystem. With future monitoring of grassland response to our management activities, we will further our knowledge of the effects of fire and be able to use it more effectively.