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Proper Stocking Rates Make Growing-Season Burns Possible

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While the traditional burning season for the Southern Great Plains goes from December to April, more and more land managers are conducting prescribed burns during the growing season in order to achieve their pasture management and forage goals. Regardless of the burn season, a major goal of prescribed burning is to control brush, improve wildlife habitat and improve forage quality for livestock.

A crucial factor for the success of growing-season burns is the stocking rate of livestock grazing the land, because of its effect on the fine fuel available. Proper livestock stocking rate is the most important management decision a manager can make. It impacts not only livestock production, operation economics and wildlife habitat, but also a land manager’s ability to use the important ecological process of prescribed burning.

exampleLush forage growing on Sept. 13, 2018, in Cooke County, Texas, after a growing-season burn on July 5.

Avoid Overstocking, Overgrazing

Overstocked pastures lead to overgrazing, which is consistently the No. 1 problem we see in many operations. Overgrazing is a significant cause of poor forage and livestock production, wildlife habitat loss, soil erosion, weed problems, and lower profitability on millions of acres across the country. A correctly stocked property is important for operational profitability and can provide flexibility in operational management in order to:

  • Provide or improve wildlife habitat.
  • Implement prescribed burning.
  • Adapt to drought or other adverse weather conditions.
  • Temporarily increase livestock numbers in years with better-than-average growing conditions.

Growing-Season Burns Need Adequate Fuel

If a land manager is interested in conducting growing-season burns, the area to be burned usually needs adequate fine fuel comprised of last year’s growth. As mentioned above, when land managers limit their burn season to the five months from December to April, they often find it difficult to implement the number of burns needed to achieve their goals of brush control, forage improvement and optimum wildlife habitat.

Typically, weather during the traditional burn months is somewhat turbulent, because fronts move through an area. These fronts cause wind to frequently change direction, leaving small windows for burning. This is one reason why more and more land managers are conducting growing-season burns, during late spring through early fall months, to meet some of their prescribed burning goals. Weather during the summer months typically has higher humidity and more-consistent wind patterns. Regardless of the burn season, a major goal of prescribed burning is to control brush, improve wildlife habitat and forage quality for livestock.

Land manager conducting a prescribed burn

Study Shows Value of Growing-Season Burns

During the summer of 2018, a producer in Cooke County, Texas, conducted several growing-season burns on native rangeland pastures on June 23 and July 5. The producer collected and analyzed forage samples on Sept. 17, 2018, and again on Nov. 13, 2018, to track the forage quality of the areas. The producer also collected samples from an ungrazed, unburned area (same site) to serve as a comparison to the burned areas. The burned and unburned areas were divided by a ranch road.

As you can see in the results table, the burned areas provided higher-quality forage — higher crude protein and total digestible nutrients (TDN) and lower levels of less-desirable fiber — going into the winter months than did the ungrazed, unburned area.

Forage samples collected from burned and unburned areas in Cooke County, Texas, in 2018


These burns were possible only because the producer had a livestock stocking rate that allowed him the flexibility to accumulate a fine fuel load from the previous growing season in the pastures he wanted to burn. Because of the successful growing-season burns, this producer was able to wait until December before he started feeding supplemental protein. His stocking rate also permitted him to maintain enough standing forage for his herd, allowing him the ability to wait until February to feed the first bale of hay of the year.

Stock Right for Optimum Forage

So you can see another major reason that stocking rates are the most important decision a livestock producer can make. If a producer would like to implement growing-season burns, these areas should not be grazed or lightly grazed during the year prior to the burn. In many operations, the current stocking rates may need to be adjusted for them to be able to implement growing-season burns.

Steven Smith serves as a wildlife and fisheries consultant at Noble Research Institute, where he has worked since 2006. He received a bachelor’s degree in wildlife and fisheries ecology and a master’s degree in rangeland management and ecology from Oklahoma State University. He grew up on small family cow/calf operation in central Oklahoma. His areas of interest are prescribed fire, especially growing season fires, and managing plant communities for livestock forage and wildlife habitat.