By Janan Lenzy, NFU Intern

Fire is often thought of as a destructive and uncontrollable natural disturbance, causing catastrophic damage to agricultural operations of all types. But did you know that fire can actually be used as a tool to protect and increase productivity on your land? Prescribed burning is an advanced land management technique that, when executed correctly, can mitigate many hazards producers face as the climate changes, including wildfire events, the proliferation of invasive species, and dwindling biodiversity on pasture and rangeland.

Sustained drought creates conditions conducive to wildfires, which can be ignited when dry matter, or fuel, comes into contact with a heat source, such as solar heat or lightning, and enough oxygen to sustain combustion. The quantity of dry matter or plant litter plays a key role in determining a fire’s lifespan and intensity. Administering controlled burns can scale down the volume of accumulated fuel to prevent or slow the spread of wildfires.

As a driver of ecological succession, fires can influence the presence of plant species within an ecosystem. Farmers and ranchers can capitalize on this by applying fire treatments in pasture lands to limit the expansion of invasive species and woody encroachment. This eliminates competition for desired vegetation, such as tall grass prairie, that is used as forage for livestock.

Fire treatments can also contribute to the regeneration of native species that have been dormant and stored in seedbanks located beneath the surface of soil. In fact, many of these species are fire-tolerant or fire-dependent, such as native grassland species, and rely on the heat or smoke produced by fire to germinate. Following burns, a variety of species are awakened, thus directly resulting in an increase in biodiversity on lands. New vegetation, in turn, translates to the presence of new animals attracted to the habitats and food sources now provided on post-burned land. Depending on the region, such animals could include birds, deer, snakes, or even tortoises.

Although there are many benefits to prescribed burns, the phrase “don’t play with fire” is still very valid. It is crucial to follow the necessary procedures to avoid physical and legal harm. Certain permits, trainings, and burn plans are required, depending on the area of the prospective burn site. Contact your local Forest Service or Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office to discuss details on the process specific to your area.

Wind speed, atmospheric moisture levels, and fuel or vegetation being burned all influence the behavior of fire, so it is important to thoroughly understand these factors prior to prescribing the burn. Knowing the current climatic conditions will allow for a more controlled and predictable burn. Visit the National Weather Service to track this information and plan accordingly. To prevent the fire from spreading into unplanned areas, a perimeter of the anticipated fire needs to be identified and isolated. In addition to properly preparing for the burn, it is imperative to have appropriate equipment to maintain a safe fire. This equipment includes drip torches, water pumps, axes, and suitable clothing and gear to protect yourself and others during the burn.

Subsequent to a successfully executed burn, it is recommended to periodically reapply burn treatments to continue the productivity and inhibit the return of invasive species on your land. With regards to the plot size and desired outcome, burns can be administered monthly or yearly.

For more information and guidance on conducting a prescribed burn, review the NRCS Conservation Practice Standard for Prescribed Burning (Code 338).

Have you employed prescribed burning as a management tool on your land? How was your experience and did your land benefit from it? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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