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Prescribed Burn for Better Grazing

The morning sun peers over wind-swept bluffs on a bend in the Missouri River, rim-lighting a herd of Black Angus cows and calves as they graze. Blooming plum thickets, their flowery petals loaded with pollen, spice the air with fragrance. This is hilly, rough country. Welcome to the Grim Ranch.   

Hands on hips, Sara Grim surveys it all and smiles. “This country is made for cows,” she says. “You couldn’t do anything else down in here. These cows are our way of life. Cattle were made to graze here.”

Grazing had been getting more difficult the past few years. Now fire is changing that. Through a patchwork of burned stumps and blackened skeletal remains of brush, new life is taking root. Dormant grasses that hadn’t seen sun in years are pushing up sprouts from beneath the charred landscape, bright, green, and vibrant.

It was no accident

Photo Credit: Mitch Kezar

The Grims of Bonesteel, South Dakota, needed to get rid of cedar trees. “A few years ago, we could run 10 cows in an area where recently we could only run three,” says Rich. “That’s how much grazing land we lost in the last few years.”  

That 70% reduction in forageable land was the direct result of an encroachment of cedar trees on the river bottomland. They had taken over the place. The Grims are taking that grazing land back with fire.

In 2012, 30% of Gregory County was covered in cedar trees. With forward-thinking leadership from the Grims and good advice from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), grasslands are making a comeback.

The Grims were instrumental in starting the Mid-Missouri Burn Association, the first burn association in South Dakota.

“The key is to be safe and follow the prescription,” says Rich. “You don’t just light a fire; there’s a lot of planning that goes along with it.”

Photo Credit: Mich Kezar
Sara agrees. “We started a tree-shearing operation with NRCS to cut and stuff the dead trees down in the canyons to make the fire burn hotter to better control the bigger trees, thereby reclaiming grazing lands.”

The Grims contacted neighbors and fire departments. On the day of the burn, they had 25 people on the ranch with rigs, UTVs, ATVs, and drip torches. 

Rich cautions, “You’ve got to train them and watch them as you go. We follow strictly the required burn plan.”

Dave Steffen of the Mid-Missouri Burn Association says that a typical prescription burn plan would include written goals and objectives illustrating what a landowner might expect to accomplish with the burn.

According to Rod Voss, a rangeland management specialist with the NRCS, grasses come back quickly when cedar growth is not dense. “It fills in with all kinds of grass quite rapidly,” he says. That includes sideoats grama, big bluestem, little bluestem, and western wheatgrass, as well as smooth bromegrass and Kentucky bluegrass, which are not native or desirable.

“We don’t care to see those nonnatives as much,” says Voss, “but when managing for a diversity of grazing, the fire will control not only the cedar encroachment but also the invasive grasses.”

Historically, the prairies would burn every spring, says Voss. Journals kept by early European settlers noted, “The prairies are all alight with fire again today.”

“When we took fire out of the equation, the fast-growing cedars became almost unmanageable,” Voss says. “Cedars are a lot easier to manage when they’re less than 3 feet tall. They’re very hard to manage when they’re 10 feet tall.”

Where the canopy of trees is thickest, bringing grass back will be a slower process, explains Voss. 

Photo Credit: Mitch Kezar

“Annual weeds will be the first to show up, then transitioning to perennial plants, either from an existing seed bank, dormant buds, or from adjoining grasslands,” Voss says.

Once parent plants are established, rhizomes will spread, establishing daughter plants, he explains. 

“It takes a while. I’m eager to watch it myself, to learn how long it is going to take after these fires on big cedar stands. In three to five years, we should see a huge improvement of grazing lands from under the thickest canopies. In some places, the whole hillsides were covered, so it might take a while. Birds and animals can carry seeds. Hopefully, it will transition from annual weeds to perennial grasses over time,” Voss says.

Ranchers will have to monitor weeds such as Canada thistle, he says. Chemical treatment of the affected area is an option. In three to five years, it might be time to do another fire.

The Grims are up to the task. “We need to increase our stocking rate and take care of our land a little better,” says Rich. “I think we’re doing our job.”

Sara, gazing over the river and hills, which now look more like the land from a time buffalo roamed free, adds, “It’s expensive to do what we are doing, but we hope in the future that it will pay back.”

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