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Farney: Alternative burning strategies benefit pasture quality

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

“Patch burning is only burning a patch or small area of a pasture,” shares Kansas State University (KSU) Beef Systems Extension Specialist Jaymelynn Farney during a K-State Agriculture Today podcast on March 24, hosted by Eric Atkinson. “Patch burning can replace burning whole pastures.” 

Patch burning science 

“It is recommended to split pastures into thirds, burning one-third of the pasture each year,” Farney explains. “Essentially, it would take three years to completely burn the pasture. Then, it’s time to start all over again in the fourth year, burning the first third again.” 

This schedule allows a freshly burned area to regrow whilst maintaining older grasses throughout a pasture.  

“One of the first benefits recognized from patch burning is the diversity it allowed throughout rangelands,” says Farney. “Different kinds of grazable species will develop over time.”  

She explains strategically burning pastures allows producers additional control over invasive species.  

“However, when burning the same area year after year, producers may lose some of the desirable plants,” she continues. “When pastures are allowed rest periods, the more sensitive plants have the ability to come back after the stress from a fire and reproduce.”  

Research study 

By nature, cattle will graze the freshest grass available. Following a burn, this forage would be found in the patch burned area. But, if the whole pasture was burned during a drought, cattle wouldn’t have feed and would require supplementation.  

Patch burning encourages biodiversity within plant communitites and removes leftover forage or residue from previous years in some areas of the pasture, leaving the cattle with options of fresh feed or older feed. 

“During a seven-year study at the Yate Center in Kansas, we used a three-year burning schedule and did a 90-day double stock on the pasture,” shares Farney. “We discovered there was a shift in biodiversity.” 

Farney explains throughout the study, little bluestem and Indian grass had decreased presence following burns and sericea decreased the year of the burn, and then returned to pre-burn levels after. 

Cattle performance 

Skepticism with burning pieces of a pasture may raise concerns for some producers. However, there have been many research studies done to learn how patch burning can be beneficial.  

Farney continues, “From a cattle gain perspective, the cattle performance was unchanged, unlike studies that burned whole pastures every year.” 

“During the study, researchers encountered two years of drought and noticed the cattle on patch burned pasture gained more weight than cattle on the continuously burned pasture,” Farney states. 

“Patch burning could be a successful drought tool, as burning results in better cattle gain,” she says. “Through several other studies, it was also discovered cattle grazed on patch burned pastures performed better than cattle grazing unburned pastures.” 

Researchers theorize patch burning mimics historical patterns of burning and grazing. Patch burning can be compared to when fires were ignited by lightning, which bison and other wildlife would graze. 

Farney shares a study in Tennessee found higher gains for cattle grazed on patch burned pastures, compared to cattle grazed on continuously burned pastures during a dry summer. This study showed forage regrowth from burned patches of pasture were higher in protein and energy value than areas not influenced by fire.  

Even though the nutritional value of a pasture burned in its entirety was of higher quality than the patch burned pasture, in years when weather was less than desirable, the patch burned pasture provided more forage for cattle than the pasture burned completely. 

Madi Slaymaker is the editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to 

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