Drought, extreme heat and thousands of dry lightning strikes have made this summer an unusually active fire season. Thousands of acres of rangeland and forest have burned in several locations, including 78 square miles blackened in Keith and McPherson counties in early August and 117 square miles burned in north central Nebraska in late July.
If pastures were only partially burned and some unburned forages remain, University of Nebraska Extension educator, Dennis Bauer, recommends grazing the land in summer and fall where grass is available. "If it rains, however, and things start to green up, we recommend pulling those cattle off immediately, so you don't feed any of the regrowth," Bauer says. "Then next spring, providing we get some moisture, our recommendation is to delay grazing as long as possible on those pastures."
Bauer, who works in Brown, Keya Paha and Rock counties where north central fires scorched thousands of acres of rangeland, says, "We'd definitely like to see some growth on those pastures to try to increase the litter. Most of the litter is gone because it was burned."
That puts pressure on the pastures that were not burned, Bauer says. "We may be feeding hay next year longer than we usually would."
Unless the fire burned so hot that it killed the crowns of those perennial plants, the grass will hopefully come back with moisture. "We still recommend delaying grazing a little more next year," he says.
Using alternative forages and careful grazing management, ranchers can hopefully keep at least part of their cow herds intact through the tragic drought and fires. In the short term, ranchers have been working to find places to go with their herds after the fires. In the long term, Bauer says that some hard decisions are probably on the horizon for some producers.
"In this country, there are a lot of ranchers where cattle are their livelihood. It's really going to be tough on a lot of people if they have to part with some of their cows," Bauer says. "It is a business, but it is still a way of life."
If you'd like to learn more about managing fire-stricken grassland, contact Bauer at 402-387-2213.