Skip to Content

The Weekly News Source for Wyoming's Ranchers, Farmers and AgriBusiness Community

Rangeland specialist discusses impacts of fire on great plains 

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

In a University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) BeefWatch podcast, dated Sept. 8, Extension Rangeland Specialist Dr. Mitch Stephenson discusses the impact of unprescribed fires or wildfires on rangeland and pasture in the Great Plains, as well as tips for how to manage land post fire.  

With increased fire presence, it is important for producers to be prepared to adapt their management practices to ensure forage resources are available and manage land for healthy production following a fire.  

Adaptable rangelands  

Stephenson explains, historically rangelands have been well adapted to burn frequently. 

“Every five to 15 years, there would be a wildfire that would go through some of these areas and the plants are very well adapted to wildfire,” he says, noting several challenges associated with this historic cycle. “From a production standpoint, if grass was being saved for fall or winter pasture and wildfire came through in August and took out grass producers were going to rely on, that can be a challenge.” 

Wildfires can leave ranchers scrambling for resources and pasture land.  

In addition, Stephenson notes, “Our plant communities and grasslands are often well adapted to fire and typically the response is positive. Within the next year, grass often comes back without too many issues and it can typically be grazed.” 

Another factor for producers to consider is range health.  

Stevenson shares, “If range is in poor health before a fire with hard ground or other issues, there may be some things to look at before turing cattle out the following year.”  

A lack of ground litter during winter months is also a concern. If possible, Stephenson recommends producers defer grazing into at least the middle of the growing season in order to gain plant cover and litter before turning cattle out to graze.  

Invasive plants  

Stephenson shares, “Research out of northeast Wyoming suggests fire has a little bit different role with annual invasive plants in the Great Plains than it does in northern Nevada and Idaho.” 

 In these areas, it is not uncommon for cheatgrass to take over, according to Stephenson.   

He shares research suggests perennial rangeland grasses in the Nebraska Panhandle and eastern Wyoming are more adapted to fire than annual invasive grass species and may compete with cheatgrass.  

 A fall fire may play a factor in management of cheatgrass, says Stephenson. Fires at this time have the ability to remove seeds on the ground and a portion of litter. According to Stephenson, this removes the microsite where cheatgrass thrives.  

“There may be a reduction in cheatgrass, but it will still be part of that plant community,” he adds.  

 When looking at Panhandle grasses, Stephenson suggests, based on recent research, fire is not going to cause a huge shift in the ability of monachal and perennial grasses to compete.   

Stocking rates 

“Typically, grasses are resilient to being burned and then grazed the following year,” says Stephenson, though he would err on the side of caution during a dry year. 

 In addition, he notes fire and grazing are very different mechanisms which accomplish similar goals.   

“If grass is grazed clear to the ground like a fire, this would be a fairly stressful event for the grass,” Stephenson says.  

Stephenson suggests producers reduce the stocking rate or defer grazing on burned pasture to provide more time to recover. Leaving plant material or residual stubble is another practice Stephenson recommends.   

 “Fire is a natural occurrence and our plant communities in this area have developed with fire,” Stephenson says.  “The plant communities are fairly resilient and if we can monitor, watch closely, err on the side of caution and consider grazing opportunities, pastures can be used and still respond positively.” 

Brittany Gunn is the editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to    

Back to top