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Grass - Drought and Wildfires

Grass�Drought and Wildfires

By Toni M. Flax, Rangeland Management Specialist
Natural Resources Conservation Service
Hill City, Kansas

One of the inherent issues of drought conditions is that it also increases our chances for wildfires. Whether it is a lighting strike, someone throwing out a cigarette, or driving a vehicle across the dry grass, a person’s worst nightmare can quickly become reality. This leaves them to ask the question, “What now?”

Timing is everything. If the wildfire happens in the late spring, more than likely the grass will suffer few ill effects. The ground will warm up quickly, and the grasses will start growing, covering the ground, and not allowing for long periods of bare soil that will blow. The wildfires during drought that are of the most concern are the ones that happen during the late summer, fall, and winter months. Not only does this allow for the soil to blow, it weakens the plants themselves. By the end of July, 85 percent of the growing season has occurred in the mixed-grass prairie of Kansas. Thus, a fire that happens after the first of August leaves only 15 percent of the growing season for the plant to produce new leaves, go to the reproductive state, build roots, and store reserves for it through the winter so it can start growing next spring. In a drought, those processes are already slowed, and the plant is hurting. A fire will just further weaken the plant, because it will have to go through that whole growing process with little time for it to build up a root reserve. Thus, the plant will be weak in the next spring when it comes out of dormancy.

So the question then becomes, “What do I do next year for grass to graze?” The big concern is that cattle will graze the burned area harder and tend to camp out on those sites following a burn, overgrazing them, and undergraze other parts of the pasture.

To come up with an answer, the producer needs to consider the size of the field and how much was burned and then think about the following options:

Option 1�Fence out the burned area and graze it separately.

Option 2�Burn off the rest of the field with a PRESCRIBED BURN when the conditions are right.

Option 3�Rest the pasture a year, but a producer may still find differences in the forage remaining after a year of rest�differences that grazing livestock could exploit.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that the area has changed and management of that area will have to change as well. There is no cookie-cutter answer because everyone’s place and management are different.

However, if you find yourself in this predicament, and you have questions or would like help formulating a range management plan that will work for your situation, contact your local Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office or conservation district office located at your local county USDA Service Center (listed in the telephone book under United States Government or on the internet at More information is also available on the Kansas Web site at Follow us on Twitter @NRCS_Kansas. USDA is an equal opportunity provider and employer.