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To Burn, Or Not To Burn?

By Dusty Tacha, NRCS Rangeland Management Specialist
Natural Resources Conservation Service
South Hutchinson, Kansas

With the recent drought still weighing on the minds and bank accounts of many, there are vital management decisions to be made moving forward. Many producers had prescribed burns planned during the past few years for grasslands, and did not conduct those burns because of the extreme dry conditions. Now sits the question for the upcoming spring: to burn, or not to burn?

The answer to this question hinges on several factors. First and foremost, is the drought really over? Although many areas received what was really an unseasonable amount of precipitation this fall, only time will tell if the drought has truly broken. The critical point in this factor with regard to burning will be what our spring 2014 precipitation looks like. The second factor is what the objectives of the burn are? How critical is it the burn is done immediately? A third and final important factor is how the grass was managed during drought.

If spring 2014 moisture is favorable (within 75% of normal for February—April), then burning in most cases will be acceptable. This is the time frame when our most critical precipitation occurs regarding grass growth towards health and vigor of the stand. If precipitation is weak during this time period, and one can afford to once again postpone the burn, then it would be wise to do so.

There are a wide array of burn objectives, and some of them are more time critical than others. The most critical of situations is a pasture with numerous cedars and hedge trees that are approaching the borderline size (>5 feet) of fire being an effective tool to control such a woody invasion. If you have this kind of situation, then you might find it best to accept the risks of a burn and proceed—unless of course we find ourselves far short on spring precipitation. If conditions seem risky and the objectives of your burn do not have the above urgency (thatch reduction, etc.), then postponing the burn until a climate pattern stabilizes is certainly an option.

How grass was managed during the drought plays a role in the spring 2014 burn decision from several angles. First, overgrazing creates weakened root systems, regardless of lacking precipitation. Drought conditions amplify this situation, weakening roots to a level of very poor plant vigor. If this was your situation during the drought and a burn can be postponed, then it would be a wise choice to do so, regardless of spring precipitation. Easing up on grazing pressure, giving plants a chance to rebuild roots prior to the next burn can pay off in dividends. Second, this past year’s grazing, especially in the latter half of the season, dictates whether or not there’s even enough fuel to carry an effective fire. We received some rain late in the season last year. Current fuel loads can be deceiving, as many pastures appear to have plenty of grass remaining; however, much of this remaining material is seed stalk, not leafy matter that makes good fuel.

The decision of burning in 2014 weighs on all three factors, and no two situations will likely be the same. This decision will be clear-cut and easy for some, but will take more weighing of risks and become very difficult for others. Prescribed burning is an extreme necessity to the preservation of our grassland for its value as a grazing resource and wildlife habitat. Without this valuable tool, we will continue to see loss of grassland to woody plant invasion; however, burning must be done with prudence in planning.

If you have questions concerning the decision to burn, or develop a burn plan, please contact your local NRCS office or conservation district office located at your local county U.S. Department of Agriculture (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.