Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Prescribed burning


The other day we did a controlled burn on one of our grass fields. Why burn? Fire is a natural part of the ecosystem out here and a quick burn kills off weeds and pests without the use of pesticides and reinvigorates the grass to come back bigger and stronger next year.


The grass field consists of an established stand of native Great Basin wild rye (Leymus cinerues) that was hand collected from wild plants on the ranch and replanted in a solid stand to grow for native seed which is used in restoration projects throughout the west. The grass gets rather tall, up to five feet high, but the seed stalks had already been harvested and the stubble height was about 18-24". Leaving that much debris in the field year after year creates a haven for pests and bugs that winter over in the crop and come out swinging the next season hence the management plan calls for a controlled burn.

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"Controlled burn" is obviously the key phrase here. With little rain and plenty of dry tinder material in all directions, we were still in the peak of fire season so extreme caution and planning is required before starting fires of any sort. First you need good weather - warm and dry with little or no wind. Then of course you have to call the neighbors in advance to let them know you are planning a burn - this gives them a heads up if they see a bit of smoke and a chance to get their fire supplies at the ready in case something goes awry.

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Next we do a bit of a back burn along the perimeter of the field. To the east of the grass patch is a green alfalfa field - too much moisture to sustain a burn and to the west is a summer fallow field with no fuels at all. However, the north and south ends of the field touch grassy range land areas and we certainly don't want the fire getting loose out there, hence the back burn. A fire will not burn though an area that has already burned, there is simply not enough fuel, so this back burned area acts as a good fire break to keep the fire from jumping the line. Nathan and Lloyd sprayed the ground along the pipe with water and burned in about 20 feet or so on the north end of the field. Once the fire had burned away from the established fire line, we moved to the south end of the field and started a burn on that end. The two fires will burn towards each other and meet in the middle with little chance or opportunity to burn anything else.


With help from very cooperative winds, the plan went just as intended and we got a pretty complete burn on the field. There were some patches where the grass and some weeds were a little green, but overall, it was a perfect controlled burn.

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Of course in any traumatic event to the ecosystem there will be some casualties and I did find a burned up snake, a praying mantis and many pocket gophers and field mice. But if we take a step back and look at the benefit the burn will have on the entire ecosystem, future generations will benefit from a more diverse habitat due to the burn - from the smallest mice, snakes and praying mantis to the larger deer, elk, raptors and game birds. The grass will benefit from reduced predation by bugs and pests resulting in bigger, more healthy plants and clear ground, free of weed seed will enable new rye plants to establish without competition. And finally, we will benefit by having a healthier crop that sets more seed to sell without having to expose ourselves or the environment to harsh chemicals and pesticides.

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1 comment:

Jarm said...

That snake looks like it may or may not still be alive in the picture. If not, then it's pre-cooked!

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