One of the many things that I have learned since arriving at the Noble Research Institute is that prescribed burns are a big thing out here. In Kentucky, I had only ever seen some of the national forests burned on occasion to reduce the chance of a wildfire. I understood the concept of burning but had never really had the opportunity to see how it worked.
After receiving education on how to conduct a prescribed burn, I had the chance to participate in one. Upon arriving to the field, I glanced around, saw how green the field was and made the comment, "Oh, well this will take around four to five hours to burn. There is no way this will all burn any faster."
I was given a drip torch and started walking along a predetermined path to help start the fire. Walking along with a drip torch, you don't feel as if you are accomplishing much. You look down and only see a little stream of fire coming behind your drip torch. However, when you look farther back, you can see everything burning, just as planned. What little segment of the field that I thought would take an hour to burn had disintegrated in a matter of minutes. The small path that I had walked was now up in smoke, and I moved fast to finish my strip.
After helping to start the blaze, I was put on water truck duty. My job was to ride along on the water truck and put out any flame that began to cross the firebreak. An hour-and-a-half later, the field that was once luscious green and full of cedars was now black and covered in ash.
After a week, we returned to the plot to see if the burn had been a success. Black still covered the ground, but there were green sprouts coming up. The once green and thriving invasive cedars had now turned brown, whether they had caught fire or not.
As the scholars walked around the field, Bradley Peterson, a range intern, explained how burning was so beneficial. The burn allowed the seed bank to become exposed to sunlight, benefiting species of annual grasses and forbs (as an agronomy student from the land of row crops, forbs were weeds to me, but I was quickly corrected: "weeds" are not out of place in range). A yearly or regular burn will increase heterogeneity by creating a mosaic on the landscape creating habitat for many species of wildlife, which in turn increases biodiversity. The increase of biodiversity is necessary for healthy rangeland.
Next spring, that small plot will be greener and thicker than it ever was. And then, the burn crew will be back out there, doing their part to help promote a healthy rangeland. I just hope they will call me up for the next one. It's healthy, beneficial, and let me tell you, it is fun.
Vaughn Reed is a 2015 Lloyd Noble Scholar in Agriculture from Greenville, Kentucky, where his family runs a diverse farming operation including beef cattle, show goats, forage and garden production. He is a senior at Murray State University in Murray, Kentucky, majoring in agronomy and minoring in chemistry.