Ranchers Rediscover Burning


Biologist Peter Berthelson of Pheasants Forever took action to educate land managers in Nebraska how to burn and created burn trailers stocked with all the hardware required to safely conduct prescribed burns. Rancher Tom Hartman talks about using fire to control an Eastern Red Cedar invasion in this episode.

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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.

Ranchers and ag producers are rediscovering fire to improve forage grasses and control invasive plants. Tom Hartman of Grand Island manages his family’s ranch at Scotia, Nebraska, where in recent decades the Eastern Red Cedar has invaded the lush grazing land.

“We’ve been burning for quite a while, probably 10 years. The problem was all our neighbors got scared before, but now they’re all coming around and seeing the progress on ours, I think, and liking what they’re seeing and knowing if you do it properly it is a relatively safe method of taking care of your cedar tree problem.”

Hartman and his neighbors help each other when it’s time to burn. As is happening in other places, they’ve started a burn association.

“We just kind of help each other out on fires. You have to go through a school and learn all the ins and outs of starting it and controlling it.”

Pete Berthelson of Elba, Nebraska, knows about that. He’s been with Pheasants Forever more than 21 years as a wildlife biologist, and Berthelson has a pretty good idea why ranchers and landowners didn’t burn.

“The reason very little prescribed burning happened always came down to three limitations: I don’t know how to burn; I don’t have the equipment to burn; or I don’t have enough people to burn.”

So in 2008, Pheasants Forever in Nebraska drew up an action plan to get more landowners doing prescribed burns.

“One is every year with a number of partners we hold prescribed burn workshops across the state, and we usually hold about 15 a year. It’s a one-day setting. Landowners come in. They learn the basics of how to do a burn, why you need a burn plan, how to get a burn permit, how to conduct a burn, that sort of thing. Number two is in 2008 we started building these mobile prescribed burn units. A mobile prescribed burn unit is a self-enclosed trailer that contains all of the equipment necessary to run a grassland prescribed burn. And the third thing is that Pheasants Forever has gone out and we have helped form and nurture local prescribed burn associations. The best way I can describe a burn association to you is it is neighbors helping neighbors.”

John Weir is a research associate in the Natural Resources Ecology and Management department at Oklahoma State University. John goes out and works with local burn associations. He talks about this term “prescribed burn,” and says it really is like a prescription. It’s a fire that’s set to meet a specific management goal and objective.

“So, again, if you have an area that has Eastern Red Cedar encroaching on it, you’re going to have a set of prescriptions you’re going to need on fuel load, weather conditions, also possibly the number of personnel that you may need there to conduct the burn, the amount of equipment that you need there. That prescription entails a whole lot of things.”

Weir says fire is the most economical way to manage rangeland.

“They’ve tried herbicides. They’ve tried mechanical. They’ve tried prescribed grazing, and things like that, and nothing mimics what fire does. Fire really and truly is just as important rainfall and the soils that are there on the ground. A lot of people are realizing that. In the last couple of decades, we have definitely seen a greater increase in the use of prescribed fire throughout most of the Great Plains.”

Range and forage researchers report that recently-burned grass comes back with substantially higher protein herbivores can use — and that’s grass that’s burned in unorthodox times — like late-summer.

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: August 2012

Posted: August 9, 2015
Topics: Landowner Stories, Prescribed Fire