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Published on: Jul. 21, 2010

livestock in native grasses

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Controlled Burns

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prairie chickens and other ground-nesting birds need to survive.

The “old-fashioned” patch-burn grazing regime works for modern-day ranchers, too. It lets them manage grazing land with fire instead of fences. In the spring, they burn one-third of a large pasture, stimulating a burst of new growth. Cattle let onto this pasture graze the new growth heavily in the most recently burned patch. Unburned portions receive much less grazing pressure. Managers then remove the cattle after approximately 120 days, allowing the burned, grazed patch to rest and recover.

Over succeeding years, managers repeat the cycle, burning and grazing a new third of the pasture every year, while the animals’ natural grazing preferences allow the remaining two thirds to recover.

Patch-burn grazing research results are impressive from both ecological and economic points of view. A recent Department study, funded by the Natural Resources Conservation Service and conducted with the help of private stockgrowers on five public prairies, showed an increase in the number of native plant and animal species—including prairie-chickens—following the patch-burn grazing regime.

Stocker calves in the study also gained an average of 1.6 pounds per day through the summer months—a rate better by more than half a pound than the 0.97 pounds per day that stockers typically gain grazing fescue in summer. These results suggest that cattlemen can use patch-burn grazing to maximize gains during Missouri’s hot summer months, as well as restore grassland habitat on their land.

An Offer He Couldn't Refuse

Stony Point’s manager, Kyle Hedges, arrived in 2003. A couple of years earlier, the Missouri Prairie Foundation had added 320 acres of adjoining prairie to Stony Point, bringing the area to 960 acres. Kyle got to work implementing the Department’s area management plan, which features woody species control and patch-burn grazing to improve the native prairie.

When Kyle began clearing trees and burning grass on the Foundation’s added half-section, he noticed that the neighbor’s cows would reach through the fence to nip the overly abundant grass on the Stony Point side. The neighbor was John Kremp, who, as is customary on most Missouri cow-calf operations, kept cattle on his pasture year-round.

As the seasons passed, it became obvious to Kyle that the amount of grass left standing on both sides of the fence needed better balance to benefit the birds. Kyle says, “John had cows, and it looked like he could use some more grass. We had

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