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Burning boosts grazing output

Agriculture.com Staff Updated: 04/04/2013 @ 8:32am

Although the majority of the grasslands in Kansas are managed for livestock production and have been evenly grazed for generations, new research by Kansas State University may give rise to an alternate land management practice that could provide ecological benefits and lead to additional income sources for ranchers.

Konza Prairie Biological Station, which is jointly owned by K-State and The Nature Conservancy and managed by K-State's Division of Biology, has begun research on the effects of patch burning and cattle grazing on tallgrass prairie ecology in cooperation with K-State's animal sciences and industry department.

"The big looming question is whether altered grazing patterns that increase heterogeneity and enhance wildlife are compatible with animal production goals and profits," said John Briggs, director of Konza Prairie Biological Station.

The idea behind initiating a patch burn project at Konza Prairie has been spearheaded by Anthony Joern, university distinguish professor in herbivore ecology, and Gene Towne, Konza fire chief and bison manager. They decided that land-managers and producers in the Flint Hills would both benefit from a study where cow/calf performance and ecological performance were measured simultaneously. The study is being done in collaboration with the animal sciences and industry department.

"The new patch-burn study is a chance to take the ecological research we do at Konza Prairie and extend it to the greater Flint Hills where they are managing cattle -- not bison," Joern said.

The study is comprised of two units on Konza Prairie that line the west side of Kansas Highway 177. The south unit consists of 452 acres and is stocked with 56 cow calf pairs, with 27 pairs on the smaller adjacent control plot. The replicating north unit, which will be stocked in spring 2011, will have a comparable 100 pairs on 829 acres. It also will have a control plot.

Each unit has been divided into three sections. Cattle will be allowed to roam the entire unit. But only one-third of the unit will be burned each year on a rotating basis, which should naturally persuade cattle to graze most often on the section that has been burned most recently. This should allow the other two sections to diversify, providing ground-cover habitat for upland birds and other wildlife, Towne said.

"The key to successful patch burning and grazing is to allow the unburned areas to recover from the more intensive grazing that is expected in the burned area," Towne said. "It's going to take a couple of burning and grazing cycles to see if rangeland quality is going downhill or whether it's actually maintaining itself."

Since the patch burn project will need at least two or three three-year cycles to accurately assess the long-term effects on both animal and ecological performance, the aesthetic appeal of the prairie in the early years of the study may appear patchy, Towne said. However, the period of rest from grazing that the burning rotation provides will allow the prairie that's not burned in a given year to restore itself, triggering many ecological benefits including critical habitat for wildlife, he said.

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