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What things do I need to consider after a fire?

Contributed by Randy Saner and Chuck Burr Published on 06 May 2022

With the recent fires, farmers and ranchers may have questions about what to do with their land and pasture. Here are some questions and answers to consider.

What should I do with pastures?

For all perennial cool- and warm-season grasses, they should come back just fine with adequate moisture.

  • Cool-season grasses had started some growth (green up) at the time of the fire. They will be set back a little but will recover.
  • We have sometimes seen death or partial death of some little bluestem bunches if the fire got really hot within the bunch/crown of the plant. Fires usually move through quickly though.
  • On pasture, an important point is loss of litter and residue, which can increase loss of soil moisture, just like in crop ground.
  • Grazing turnout should be delayed up to one month. This is both for fire recovery and drought potential. This will allow the grass to maximize growth given the current soil moisture conditions and result in greater season-long production. Rotational grazing should be used to give pastures some time for regrowth and recovery, if possible. If cattle are left to graze continuously after fire, plants could be further weakened resulting in reduced stands.
  • Stocking rates should be reduced with the objective of leaving adequate residue (which will become litter on the ground). This is to replace what was lost in the fire.
  • Rainfall in May and June will be most critical and should be the guiding factor affecting any of the above management decisions.

For the good stand of warm-season grass that was disked up as a fire break: It is likely that a good portion of the grasses were killed/damaged by the disking. So, one option could be to reseed with the same warm-season mix that was there. This should be done ASAP. The second option could be just to wait and see how much of the disked-up grasses do come back. In both cases though, rainfall, of course, will be important. Option three could be to wait a few weeks and see if anything comes back. If not, one could plant a summer annual forage for some hay and cover. The grass replant could be done next spring. If the area is rough from disking, trying to smooth and firm it up might be a good idea. These areas should be fenced off to allow establishment or recovery from the disking operation as cattle will graze the new growth, which would be detrimental to plant health.

Questions may arise about the strength and durability of barbed wire fencing. A study in Oklahoma has shown no impact on electric fence posts or barbed wire due to routine prescribed burning or wildfire. Wooden fence posts should be checked individually to be sure they do not break as a result of being partially burned. If new posts are needed, wooden fence posts are preferred, but steel T posts may be used in the short term.

What should I do about crops?

Flood irrigating would get some of the alfalfa to grow, but it may be a poor stand. Fields with marginal stands could be interseeded with a forage such as millet to increase forage production without terminating the alfalfa, which could open the field up to wind erosion. Plus, one would have to deal with winter annual weeds, and it is a little late for that. Because alfalfa is a longer-term investment (eight to 10 years), it is usually better to take the loss up front. So, one option could be to kill the weeds and in a couple of weeks plant a summer annual forage (sudangrass, pearl millet, or sorghum-sudan hybrid). Another option is to plant foxtail millet (a one-cut hay crop). In both cases, the alfalfa could be replanted in August. There will likely be some alfalfa that still does come up, but that should preclude reseeding in August. Producers should pre-irrigate before planting.

Crop fields impacted by wildfire would benefit the most from rainfall. A living mulch such as oats, rye, winter wheat or a cover crop mix could be planted as soon as possible after the fire to protect the soil surface. The cover crop could be terminated after several weeks of growth to provide protective vegetation for newly planted field crops. Seeding cover crops in narrowly spaced rows (7.5 inches) would provide more protection than field crops planted in wider-spaced rows such as 30 inches. If planting field crops is delayed, short-season-maturity corn or grain sorghum can be planted in late May/early June and still provide considerable grain production, provided adequate rainfall is received during the growing season. Forage sorghum or sudangrass could also be seeded in crop fields in later May/early June to provide protection and hay for a livestock operation. If rainfall is not received, then emergency tillage may be required to limit the negative impacts of wind erosion. Tillage such as a deep ripper or chisel plow can be used to roughen the soil surface, which will reduce wind erosion. Emergency tillage is usually considered a last resort. If adequate forage is available and rainfall does not occur, livestock can be fed hay on crop fields and could also be used to reduce the impact of wind erosion.

Livestock Indemnity Program

If you lose cattle and want to take advantage of this progam, remember you must properly document losses. Take pictures of animals lost, if possible. If pictures are not available, then owners must record all pertinent information (including the number and kind) of all livestock impacted resulting in either death losses or injury and sales of injured livestock at reduced price. Owners who sold injured livestock for a reduced price because the livestock were injured due to an eligible adverse weather event or eligible attack, must provide verifiable evidence of the reduced sale of the livestock. The injured livestock must be sold to an independent third party (such as sale barn, slaughter facility or rendering facility). Documents that may provide verifiable evidence of livestock sold at a reduced price include but are not limited to:

  • Sales receipts from a livestock auction, sale barn or similar livestock facilities
  • Processing plant receipts
  • Rendering facility receipts
  • Veterinarian records/calving records

The documentation for injured livestock sales must have the price for which the animal was sold and a description.  end mark

Randy Saner is a livestock extension educator with the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. Email Randy Saner. Chuck Burr is a crops extension educator with the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. Email Chuck Burr.

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