So your ranch burned. Now what?
Posted on: Sep 26, 2012
This summer's fire season has already been brutal, and it's still early. Our hearts go out to so many clients and friends who have literally watched their livelihoods burn before their eyes. Some have been scrambling to get cattle off the mountain ahead of the flames, while others have been fighting fires themselves. It's been a tough year so far, and the rains don't appear to be headed our way any time soon.
On a positive note, several ranchers have called with thoughts regarding future grazing management. We will address some of their concerns and ideas here.
Will the federal agencies really require a 2-year rest period on my burned allotment?
They likely will. The thinking behind the 2-year rest period is that it allows burned plants an opportunity to rejuvenate while not being grazed (excluding wildlife). Plants have the opportunity to reach tall stature, produce seed, and fall to the ground as litter that will cover the newly exposed soil and prevent erosion. Favoring the growth of perennial grasses may also help prevent the spread of noxious weeds. Many agencies will likely pursue that 2-year rest period following a fire.
This, however, does not mean that you cannot graze your allotment. Work with your agency representative to determine how you may graze the unburned portion of an allotment. Can you use temporary fencing to exclude the burned area, while grazing the unburned ground (your stocking rate will need to be adjusted if they allow this)? Can you use the allotment for a shortenened time period? Can you use hoof action of your livestock to help incorporate ash into the soil surface and speed the recovery? Your agency representative will likely be open to this kind of thinking. Work together to determine how you may best graze your affected allotment in a way that benefits you and the resource.
Should I implement a 2-year rest period on my private rangeland that burned?
It depends on the situation. If your private rangeland experienced a hot fire that greatly exposed the soil surface where erosion may occur and noxious weeds may spread, then you may consider some extended rest time. But you may also alter the variables of grazing to benefit the land: prevent early-growing season grazing to allow plants an opportunity to recover from the fire. Then, you may graze lightly in the late growing season. Keep grazing durations fairly short in the active growing season so that plants are not exposed to repeated herbivory without having opportunity to recover.
Will I gain new grazing land because the fire consumed so many timbered areas?
Often times, yes. If the fire on your ranch burned much old, standing timber, then the number of grazeable acres may climb in the future. This could affect the overall stocking rate in a positive way. We have seen areas where fires have removed timber, and grasses and aspen trees (in the Rocky Mountain states) were thriving, providing ample new foraging opportunities for livestock and wildlife. As the successional process begins, watch for desired grasses and forbs to move into burned areas and graze them appropriately. Avoid lengthy grazing durations and ensure that recovery time between grazings is adequate to allow desired plants opportunity to thrive.
How does big game recover from a large fire?
You need to think about wildlife in your grazing planning to ensure their needs are met, along with the needs of your own livestock. Fires fundamentally alter the ratio of cover to forage for wildlife. Where wildlife may have enjoyed ample cover in aged trees, the fires removed that protection, exposing big game animals to predators. Ranchers may offer little to wildlife in terms of providing new cover (short of planting trees), but ranchers may manage for foraging opportunities. As was stated above, avoid heavy utilization rates and leave some forage for wildlife, keep grazing durations short, and ensure that recovery times between grazings allow for adequate regrowth. This will provide food for both livestock and wildlife. In time, some of that badly needed wildlife cover will return, but for now, focus on providing ample forage for big game animals as part of your regular grazing plan.