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Kansas Rancher’s Patch Burn Grazing Restores Prairie Grasslands

Posted by Sandra Murphy, Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative on June 28, 2016 at 10:11 AM
Ed Koger (standing) and researcher Jonathan Lautenbach prepare to radio-collar a heifer as part of a study of how cattle and prairie chickens use recently burned grasslands.

Ed Koger (standing) and researcher Jonathan Lautenbach prepare to radio-collar a heifer as part of a study of how cattle and prairie chickens use recently burned grasslands.

This story is cross-posted from the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative (LPCI), a partnership led by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to help ranchers conserve lesser prairie-chicken habitat on working lands.

Under Ed Koger’s care, the Hashknife Ranch is home to a thriving population of lesser prairie-chickens and a robust cattle operation. Koger’s conservation ethic is rooted deep in the Kansas prairie. A fifth-generation Kansan, Koger recalls his maternal grandmother’s words when he was a boy growing up in the Flint Hills. “She’d say, ‘we don’t own the land—it belongs to our Maker, and we need to take care of it and leave it better than we found it.’”

For more than 40 years, that principle has guided Koger’s management of the Hashknife Ranch in the Red Hills of southwest Kansas. When Ed assumed operation of the Hashknife in 1974, he brought the Flint Hills fire culture with him. Knowing firsthand how fire improves grassland health and productivity, Ed pioneered prescribed burning in the Red Hills, where it was seldom if ever used for habitat management. Despite plenty of local skepticism, he began burning his pastures in 1977.

In the early 2000s, Koger shifted from burning whole pastures to burning only a portion of each pasture each year. This practice, known as “patch burn grazing,” mimics historic dynamics in which the interaction of fire and grazing by large mammals — mainly bison — shaped prairie habitat.

Koger attributes the health and resilience of the grasslands, wildlife, and cattle on his ranch to his burning practices. His overall management, which includes prescribed burning, improves soil health and nutrient cycling, increases native plant and wildlife diversity, reduces the risk of catastrophic wildfire, and increases drought resilience and carbon sequestration. These ecological benefits, in turn, yield higher quality forage and increased livestock utilization, which benefits Koger’s ranching operation.

“As long as I incorporate fire in my management of the prairie on this ranch,” he says, “I’m going to have more wildlife, and I’m going to produce more pounds of beef.”

For as long as he’s managed the Hashknife, Ed has managed for the wildlife species needing the most attention. As he puts it, “If I take care of that species, everything else will fall into place and take care of itself.” On the Hashknife, the lesser prairie-chicken is that species.

“Back in the 70s, I had a few prairie-chickens—20 to 30 birds, maybe. When I started cutting the cedars aggressively and started burning, the numbers started going up. The more I cut and burned, the more chickens there were, along with quail, and grasshopper sparrows, and everything else.”

Researchers from Kansas State University (KSU) study the Hashknife’s thriving lesser prairie-chicken population, helping build scientific understanding of this umbrella species. This knowledge directly informs the management strategies of the LPCI partnership, which works to restore lesser prairie-chicken populations.

Looking out across the ranch’s rolling grasslands, Koger says, “I feel like the luckiest guy in the world that I get to take care of all this while I’m here.” Lucky, too, for the rest of us, who benefit in so many ways from his remarkable stewardship.


Tags: Kansas, lesser prairie chicken

categories Landscape Initiatives , Environment, Farmer & Rancher Stories

4 response(s) to "Kansas Rancher’s Patch Burn Grazing Restores Prairie Grasslands"

Joanne Johnson says:

I am curious about which areas he decides to burn, and clearing cedar is mentioned. Is this from encroachment on the field or clearing new fields? Also, is this wood and brush also burned?

NRCS says:

Historically, redcedars were very uncommon on the open prairie of the Great Plains, confined instead to steep draws where they might escape periodic wildfire. Because of fire suppression, redcedars have encroached on a large amount of open praire. NRCS works with ranchers to clear encroaching redcedars through mechanical removal and prescribed burning in an effort to restore grassland ecosystems. After mechanical removal, the trees are either mulched or burned.

john says:

nice history and wonderful article ..

jenny says:

nice article

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