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Prescribed burns reconsidered

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

                  Prescribed burns have been around since the beginning of European settlement. This range management tool helps keep many prairie ecosystems thriving. 

                  A University of Nebraska-Lincoln BeefWatch podcast dated May 12 focused on how prescribed burns are being studied and implemented to be successful.

Change of plans

According to Kansas State University Range Beef Cattle Specialist K.C. Olson, “There are some invasive plants, and very damaging invasive plants, that don’t respond to the traditional regime. We had to switch things up and rethink our approach to prescribed fire.” 

Sericea lespedeza and old-world blue stem species pose a challenge on the traditional prescribed burn. It is hard for cattle to digest these plants, so producers want to remove them from their pastures. Unfortunately, traditional spring burns did not impact these plants.

                  In previous studies, Olson tried various practices to continue to raise cattle on these undesirable plants, however nothing worked. This encouraged Olson to take another look at prescribe burns. 

                  “We partnered with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation,” says Olson. “We embarked on a four-year study to look at the effects of different fire seasons on sericea lespedeza.” 

Study results

                  The study compares the April burn season to August and September burn seasons. The four-year study mainly focused on prescribed burns to eliminate sericea lespedeza, but took into account other plants in the area. 

“We were concerned about unintended consequences of non-targeted plants,” he explains. “So, in the initial four-year study, we were very conscience to do a very comprehensive analysis of the plant community.” 

                  The study showed the plant community was positively impacted by the August and September burn seasons. In addition, the research team did not find any negative consequences from the alternative fire season.

Olson says, “Research found sericea lespedeza, less bald swine wild weed and less ragweed – which we didn’t shed a whole lot of tears over.”

Reflecting on the study, Olson shares, “What we did not anticipate, and what was wonderful to see, was there was a collection of between eight and 12 native legumes and native nectar-bearing plants that proliferated under those alternative fire regimes.”

                  The four-year study greatly decreased sericea lespedeza and showed other benefits to the land.

Effects on cattle

                  While Olson’s goal was to improve the land, the driving factor behind the study was to benefit cattle production. 

                  Within the study, Olson found growth and performance of yearling cattle was not affected by certain timing of prescribed burns.

He shares, “We did not change growth performance if we burned in April or August. But, we did pull down performance a little bit with that true fall treatment”

                  While this is a concern for many producers, Olson plans on addressing this issue in the future. The team has extended their study for another four years to take a closer look at the long term affects of prescribed burning. 

Savannah Peterson is an intern for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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