Management of Spring Burned Pastures in the Nebraska Sandhills

Management of Spring Burned Pastures in the Nebraska Sandhills

April 2016

photo of fire in Nebraska Sandhills pastureDry, windy weather in the early spring, along with large amounts of residual biomass from the previous year's growing season, creates ideal conditions for wildfires in the Nebraska Sandhills. These are the conditions that likely influenced a recent fire that burned 8,000 acres in Grant and Arthur counties.

Fire, along with climate and grazing of large herbivores, is an important factor in the creation and maintenance of grasslands in the Great Plains (Grassland Management with Prescribed Fire, EC 148, PDF 799KB). Estimated historic fire return intervals in the Sandhills area were every 4 to 6 years, but active fire suppression efforts since the early 20th century have dramatically lengthened these fire return intervals.

Fire occurring early in the spring before plants have begun much of their growth likely has less impact on rangelands than later occurring fires. However, grazing management of rangelands following spring fire is an important consideration to ensure continued rangeland health.

Deferment of pastures that were burned in the early spring until the later part of the growing season (late-July or August) provides an opportunity for rangeland vegetation to recover before grazing is initiated. Deferring grazing until adequate growth on vegetation is available will help grass species maintain vigor and production. Additionally, because fire removes all or most of the litter cover, deferring grazing allows more plant material to develop for ground cover. Choppy sands range sites are especially vulnerable to the combination of fire and early season grazing. Failure to provide grazing deferment on these sites can cause increased erosion and blowout formation.

If available un-burned pasture is limited, confinement cattle feeding or finding un-burned pasture may be the best options early in the growing season to allow for complete deferment from grazing on burned pastures until later in the growing season. Light grazing utilization during the early growing season may be another option on some burned pastures, but delayed turn-out and reduced stocking rates will likely be necessary to avoid over use.

A study using fire and bison grazing on sands range sites in the northern Sandhills found that grazing during the growing season following an early-May fire will reduce grass standing crop more on burned than non-burned areas in the first year following the fire. However, limited differences were observed on vegetation production between burned and non-burned areas from the fire-grazing combination in the second year following fire. Other research has also generally found that properly managed rangelands can typically recover to pre-fire levels within a few years following fire.

Close monitoring of spring precipitation and amount of available forage before turn out in the growing season following fire will help in making sure stocking rates are set appropriately and grazing utilization is light early in the growing season (i.e., 25 to 35% percent total utilization).

If only a portion of the pasture has been burned, livestock will typically graze burned areas with newer forage and limited standing dead plant material more than unburned areas in the pasture. Cattle distribution management practices (Proper Livestock Grazing Distribution on Rangeland, G80-504-A, PDF 100KB) using electric fencing, water availability, or herding may help in reducing overgrazing on these burned areas. Monitoring utilization levels on burned areas and moving cattle to another pasture when light utilization levels have been reached will help in ensuring the burned areas are not overgrazed.

Mitch Stephenson
Assistant Professor
Panhandle Research & Extension Center
University of Nebraska–Lincoln