Grazing Rotation and Patch Burning


Oklahoma State University’s Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management has researched effects of limited prescribed burning or “patch burning” to create a mosaic of patches across the landscape. Research findings indicate better forage grasses and increased biodiversity.

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This is Playa Country — a weekly look at the wildlife, wetlands and prairies of the western Great Plains, and the people who manage them — brought to you by Playa Lakes Joint Venture, an organization dedicated to conserving birds and bird habitat.

Recent years have seen a renewed interest in, and resurgence of, burning as a tool for grassland management. We think about these prescribed burns, as blackening entire pastures, whole sections perhaps,  but at Oklahoma State University’s Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management, they’re testing other notions about burning. They’re burning small patches of grassland. And, they’re burning throughout the year. Doing this patch burning, Professor Sam Fuhlendorf observes that cattle are strongly attracted to graze areas just burned:

“If you look at how cattle graze in a pasture, they tend to focus on areas near water, flat areas. Well, if you throw a patch fire in the mix, the patch that’s burned becomes the attractant and they’re focused less on the water. They don’t spend near as much time camped out near the water.”

The burned ground almost immediately produces a flush of high quality grass.

“They quality of the forage that grows immediately after the fire is, I’d say, about three to four times higher in terms of crude protein than unburned grass. So you get this spike in forage quality.”

Fuhlendorf says they call rangeland that’s a collection of small burned patches a “shifting mosaic” across the landscape.

“Areas that get burned have a high probability of getting grazed; that means they don’t graze in areas that are unburned as much. And those areas become more likely to burn which then draws them away from the areas they were grazing before. So, you can sorta see, if you have a large landscape, animals and fire sorta moving around together.”

Fuhlendorf says a landscape — composed of burned and unburned grassland, the burned patches burned at different times of year — are producing enhanced biodiversity as grazers, small mammals, birds, reptiles and insects prefer different patch types.

They’re doing some patch burning in southwest Kansas on the 43,000-acre Z Bar Ranch near Medicine Lodge, where Keith Yearout is ranch manager. I talked to Keith’s wife Eva about this working bison ranch. She says they’re using rotational grazing and patch burning in 15 different pastures.

“They range in size from 5,000 acres down to the area that’s fenced off along the river. So we rotate the animals through the different pastures, but we also try to burn, depending on the year, a portion of those pastures each year. It’s kind of a different, double rotational system where you actually rotate them through at different times of the year. But we can also use fire as a means of getting them to intensively graze one area of that pasture more substantially than they do the rest of the pastures.”

Yearout says the plan works well — at least in years of normal precipitation.

“Last year was extremely dry, so it didn’t work as well, but that’s the plan for the ranch. And that’s what we’re working toward.”

The 2011 season was awfully dry. So dry, Yearout says, they destocked their 3,000-head herd 50 percent. Patch burning, like they’re doing on Z Bar Ranch in southwest Kansas — at least in years of normal rainfall — offers the landscape better biodiversity, and that helps the wildlife and game birds. Meanwhile research and observation of patch burning continue at Oklahoma State.

You’ve been listening to Playa Country, a weekly show about the wildlife, people and landscapes of the western Great Plains. This program is made possible by the Playa Lakes and Rainwater Basin Joint Ventures.

Original broadcast: July 2012

Posted: August 23, 2015
Topics: Grazing Management, Prescribed Fire