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Prescribed Burning - What Is the Cost?

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We have had several Ag News and Views articles in the past addressing various aspects of using prescribed fire as a land management tool. We often recommend prescribed burning as a method to manage native rangeland and wildlife habitat - and, indeed, many of us believe that fire should be considered an integral component to most rangeland management systems. With all of the touted benefits of prescribed burning, however, we often do not associate costs with the use of fire. In the mid-90s, Russell Stevens and others wrote a Noble Research Institute fact sheet addressing the costs associated with prescribed burning, but, as several years have passed, we thought it would be interesting to take another look and compare current costs of three actual burns that we implemented on Noble Research Institute properties in 2007.

For purposes of this report, estimates of equipment and machinery costs were calculated assuming the capital items were owned by the landowner and depreciated over a 10-year period. However, we note here that, if the equipment was rented, the costs would probably be somewhat higher. Conversely, if the equipment was previously owned or borrowed, costs could be substantially lower.

If loss of grazing is not an issue, as might be the case with land managed primarily for recreational purposes, then deferment cost might not be included in the cost of the burn. This would significantly reduce the cost of burning. We chose to include deferment costs based on land lease values only. We did not consider costs associated with potential loss of livestock production and income during deferment. On the other side of the ledger sheet, we did not account for the value of the expected benefits associated with land improvement resulting from the prescribed fire or the costs associated with not burning. These figures could vary substantially and alter the cost of the burn.

In general, the cost of burning is dependent on many factors such as landowner goals, land use, grazing system, weather, topography, etc. As a result, to determine the cost of a prescribed fire, one should evaluate each burn individually. For the three burns referenced in this report, the per-acre cost was highly variable. However, when measured in terms of linear feet of fireguard managed, the cost of burning was much less variable between sites. This indicates that the shape of the burn site and the amount of fireguard that must be managed during the burn are primary factors in determining cost. Keep this in mind when planning a burn.