MANHATTAN, Kan. - It can be a scary sight -- topping a hill and coming across a line of fire as far as the eye can see.
But, planned burning of the prairie can help reduce brush and invasive plant species, improve grass production, and even reduce the risk of wildfires, Kansas State University range and weather experts said.
Planned or prescribed burning also reduces litter and helps maintain productive grasslands, said Walt Fick, rangeland management specialist with K-State Research and Extension. It can increase wildlife populations, improve grazing distribution and ultimately increase livestock weight gain.
Open burning is prohibited in Kansas except in certain situations, including agricultural purposes, he said.
How often to burn depends on rancher goals or whatever a rancher is trying to accomplish, Fick said. Maintaining tallgrass prairie requires a burn every two to four years, but a less frequent use of fire is necessary on grasslands receiving less precipitation.
"K-State has been studying burning and its effects on the prairie in one way or another since 1918," Fick said. "Burning at different times of the year produces different results."
Kansans who have acreage enrolled in the USDA's Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) must burn during the Feb. 1-April 15 period.
If a landowner's main purpose for burning is to help create better wildlife habitat, he or she should burn earlier, rather than later in the spring -- generally in the February through March time period, Fick said. Burning earlier does less damage to broadleaf plant species.
To control eastern red cedar -- which has proven a particularly invasive plant species on the Kansas prairie -- the burning time is not so critical, he said. For other brush control, however, a later-season burn once the woody plants have leafed out is better. That's more in the mid-April to early May time frame.
If burning during the spring to enhance forage for beef stocker gains, a late spring burn (mid- to late April) works best. The burn should take place just after the warm-season grasses have started growth and are 1 to 1.5 inches tall, Fick said. Timing is not as critical for cow-calf operations.
No matter the primary reason for burning, however, property owners must be mindful of the weather forecast and the need to protect people and property, he said.
"Anyone planning a prescribed burn on their property has a number of free resources available to help make the burn safe and effective," said state of Kansas climatologist Mary Knapp, who is in charge of the Weather Data Library, based at Kansas State University. "The National Weather Service has introduced a new Fire Weather Forecast product to help property owners in Kansas plan the appropriate timing of burns."
The Kansas WDL's fire information page is www.oznet.ksu.edu/WDL/fire_weather_links.htm. Other links: National Weather Service Fire weather page and northeast Kansas NWS product.
K-State Research and Extension has several publications on burning available at its county and district Extension offices. The publications are also available for downloading at Extensions Web site www.oznet.ksu.edu/library. Fill in the name and publication number in the Search function.
The publications delve into smoke management and fire techniques, such as the ring fire and back fire methods. They include detailed safety information.
Tips on making safety the priority
When it's burning time on the Kansas prairie, the order of importance should be safety first and effectiveness second, Fick said.
He provided these tips for landowners to keep in mind when planning a prescribed burn:
More information on how to conduct safe and effective planned burns is available at K-State Research and Extension county and district offices and on the Web. (Type "burning" into the search function.)
The National Weather Service Web sites: www.crh.noaa.gov/top?n=fire and fire.boi.noaa.gov also have information landowners can use prior to conducting a burn.
SOURCE: K-State Research and Extension news release.