Pastures: To burn (a patch) or not to burn (the whole thing)?

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Prescribed burning has been a pasture management practice in the Great Plains to help regenerate pastures in which an entire pasture is burned on a three-year rotation. But are there other practices that could have similar results and save cattle producers money?

Ongoing Oklahoma State University research shows that patch burning has the potential to save cattle producers $20 per cow per year in supplemental feed costs.

“With patch burning, you’re breaking that pasture up into different sections, and burning a certain section each year in a three-year rotation,” said Hannah Baker, an Oklahoma State graduate student in agricultural economics.

Research on patch burning began more than 50 years ago and continues with The Prairie Project, a collaborative effort between research and Extension faculty at Oklahoma State, the University of Nebraska, Texas A&M University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service.

“Faculty work together to look at controlling woody plant encroachment through fire, specifically patch burning, and they have found it does help with woody plant encroachment, such as red cedar invasion,” Baker said.

Research through the multidisciplinary project found other benefits, such as higher quality forages in recently burned areas and mitigations for drought because of the stockpiled forages in unburned and ungrazed areas, she added.

“This particular research has required a lot of interdisciplinary work and collaboration between departments, researchers and projects with different objectives,” said professor of agricultural economics Hannah Shear, who is supervising Baker on the project.

Baker said despite the benefits of patch burning, few producers are adopting it because there is very little economic and cost research available.

“That’s where my research project comes in — to evaluate the initial cost of the implementation of patch burning and the cost of continuing it,” she said. “My current research is taking those qualitative results — the benefits of patch burning — and making them quantitative by putting some monetary value behind it.”

In the department’s initial research on patch burning, researchers saw crude protein levels as high as 11% with patch burning compared to 4% with prescribed burning and 55% total digestible nutrient levels compared to 50% with prescribed burning.

“Forage is at its highest quality in the new growth stage (typically 150 days after a burn), and that forage quality provides the nutrients cattle need rather than producers having to supply a supplemental feed to make up for nutrient deficiencies,” Baker said.

A four-year study conducted by the department looked at cow-calf pairs on both patch-burned pastures and traditionally burned pastures, Oklahoma State said. The results showed that the body condition scores of the cows and the weaning weights of calves did not differ between the two burning styles, but there was a 40% reduction in supplemental feed requirements for cows on patch-burned pastures.

“The research showed cattle were able to maintain their body condition score on less feed, so ultimately, that means less money spent by the producer,” Baker said. “What I am specifically looking at in my research right now is how patch burning can help reduce supplemental feed costs.”

Baker said with the drought, it may not be feasible for cattle producers to start patch burning now, but she and other researchers want producers to consider the benefits of implementing it in future.

Tim’s Take

Fire — used properly in the right circumstances and with care — can be an important land management tool to regenerate grazing lands and reduce the encroachment of woody and/or undesirable plants. Good pasture management practices can provide ranchers with economic advantages, but often these practices don’t have the support of deep economic analyses on which ranchers can compare and assess which protocols may work best for them. Research such as this helps to fill that gap.