Prairies are one of nature’s greatest resources for graziers, and one of the most delicate ecosystems to effectively maintain. With drought threatening most of the middle U.S. and cattle costs on the rise, producers are searching for better management methods to help incur lasting changes on native grasslands.

“All of the inputs for cattle grazing have continued to increase with supplement costs, diesel and just about everything going up,” said Oklahoma State University rangeland ecologist Laura Goodman. “But, what we’re actually making off those animals is not increasing at the same rate. At some point, we have to get creative about how we are managing pastures to make them profitable.”

Availability of forage can be a crippling problem for livestock producers, especially in extreme weather conditions, something Goodman is researching solutions to overcome.

“Two things that I see as the most limiting on our native pastures are trees or woody species, and then also preparing for drought,” Goodman said. “Drought has huge long term economic impacts, especially for cow-calf operations.”

Drought recovery can last as long as seven to 10 years for cow-calf operations having to de- and restock pastures plagued by drought. Species diversity and careful range management can help producers in the plains prepare.

Plan for Patch Burning and Grazing

Fire is a known natural tool for prairie management. It brings bunches of cattle to locales like the Flint Hills every year, and has the potential to profit for cattle buyers, growers and landowners.

Fire is a tool, one that can be used with finesse to battle an encroaching enemy , like tree-cover.

“We know that prescribed fire is really inexpensive,” Goodman said. “The biggest issue is how to fit in grazing management, because you have to have adequate fuel loads to actually kill trees.”

For Eastern Red Cedar, an especially invasive species in Oklahoma, Goodman said a one to five feet tall tree requires a fuel load of 4,000 pounds of available fuel for 100% kill. At 2,000 pounds of fuel, about average for a grazed pasture, trees only experience about a 60% kill rate.

Normal conditions for a burn include being above freezing and lower than 95 degrees, a relative humidity of 30% to 50% and windspeeds from 5 to 10 miles per hour. Without adequate fuel loads, getting a good kill rate on troublesome trees can cause landowners to push past these norms or find alternative methods to accumulate fuel.

Goodman said there are three options for burning cedars at a lower than average fuel load, including burning with higher windspeeds or lower relative humidity, deferring grazing to increase fuel loads, or patch burning.

At its simplest patch burning is “changing the animal distribution to accumulate fuel,” Goodman said.

“With patch burning, we burn a portion of the pasture while animals still have access to the whole pasture,” Goodman said. “Because of the regrowth that happens after a fire, animals are attracted to that forage and embrace it selectively over the other areas and then we are capable of accumulating fuel.”

The Prairie Project, a collaboration between research, teaching, and extension faculty from Texas A&M, Oklahoma State University, and University of Nebraska, has nearly 10 years of GPS data showing cattle selectively grazing burned regions and leaving behind the other areas of the pasture without cross fences.

Goodman, a researcher on the project, said the animals give about a 70% preference to areas of the ground that have been most recently burned.

Researchers in patch burning don’t restrict the cattle from recently burned areas for any length of time following the burn, letting them immediately return to the burned area.

“You don’t want the grass to get ahead of the cattle, you want them to be in there immediately when the quality of that forage spikes as it regrows and so if you wait, if you waited a month to 150 days, you would have completely missed it, the quality of that vegetation is no different from an unburned pasture,” Goodman said. “The goal is, is to use that quality to draw them away. And so we’re basically rotating cattle around without using any fence to do it.”

Goodman said research shows no negative associations for grass grazed immediately following a burn.

In fact, many of the ranches participating in the study have little to no cross fencing, choosing instead to move livestock with their preferences for new growth alone, stockpiling forage for higher fuel loads or drought insurance on other areas of the pasture.

“What’s been consistently found is that it can increase forage productivity, just due to the fire,” Goodman said. “[Fire] also increases forage quality and weight gains. Another thing that we’ve found is that it reduces the need for supplementation. We’ve done this with cow calf, in addition to stockers, and our cows that are grazing on patch-burned pastures used to be supplemented for five months during the winter and we reduced that supplement down to three months with no reduction in calf weaning weights, body condition scores of the cows, or conception rates.”

As well as forage and feeding benefits, Goodman said fire also has a profound impact on insect loads.

“Fire decreases horn flies and tick loads,” Goodman said. “The ticks, what’s happening is that those cows are staying on a burned patch where the vegetation is short for a lot more of the year. And they’re just not getting nearly the number of ticks on them as they do when they’re grazing tall grass.

Horn flies, we’re not exactly sure. Although these pastures have almost nowhere for those horn flies to thermoregulate. Horn flies will go different places to try to get cool and one of their favorite places is the cedar tree.”

Partners in Pastures

In addition to fire, researchers with The Prairie Project also found benefits for prairies using multi-species grazing, a practice that mimics the historic natural management of prairies by native grazers like elk and bison.

“Cows have that broad nose, big tongue, and they sweep that tongue to graze. They are volume maximizers, right?” Goodman said. “And they have a huge rumen in relation to their body. Same thing with hair sheep, which have a fairly large rumen in relation to their bodies. A goat has a small rumen and has to select very specific plant parts and have the mouth to do it. But they also have differences in their liver and kidneys, which allows them to eat plants that have chemicals in them the cows can’t process like tannins.”

Tannins are a common problem for animals attempting to graze sericea lespedeza. Reesearchers have found goats target sericea, in addition to other undesirable pasture plants like sumac and blackberries, especially after fire.

In Goodman’s own research project grazing breeding does alongside cattle in a patch buring scenario, the team recouped 89% of their initial investment in the first year.

The team is continuing to study the viability of goats as an option.

For more information on The Prairie Project, visit https://www.theprairieproject.org/.

Grazing goats

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