The sizzle before the steak

We ride along while a rancher burns his Flint Hills pasture.

The plumes of smoke can be seen from miles away, spiraling toward the sky throughout a 200-mile-long, 90-mile-wide strip of grassland stretching from northern Kansas to Oklahoma. 

These Flint Hills are one of the last largely untouched stretches of natural tallgrass prairie in the world, covering some 10,000 square miles. 

Featuring a rich mix of grass species including big bluestem, switchgrass, and Indian grass, the prairie has hosted grazing animals for centuries. It must have been quite a sight to see bison herds numbering thousands of animals roaming the tallgrass prairie, prior to when European settlers arrived in the mid-1800s. Since then, cattle have replaced bison, and barbed wire fences now prevent cattle from grazing on land owned by others.

Each spring, ranchers from across the nation bring steers and heifers to graze in the Flint Hills. The land is incredibly productive, with yearling cattle gaining between 2 and 3 pounds per day, stocking at a rate of one animal per 4 acres, according to research at Kansas State University. The grazing season ranges from April to September, after which the cattle are typically sent to a feedlot.

Kling Anderson, one of the nation’s first Flint Hills prairie researchers, described the Flint Hills this way in the 1940s: 

“…a hilly region with the cherty, limestone beds strongly dissected by erosion that is still somewhat active in spite of the rather good grass cover. The ridges tend to be narrow and the side slopes steep. The soils are shallow in terms of cultivation but the limestone of the slopes is broken, thus allowing good penetration of moisture and of plant roots. The ridgetops often have shallow soils over dense clay and with less favorable moisture relations. The soils generally are rocky, often with cherty materials at the surface…”

Rancher Tom Moxley summed up at a ranch management meeting a decade ago: “The Flint Hills are an amazing resource.” 

Moxley should know. He is the fourth generation on a ranch near Council Grove, in the heart of the Flint Hills. The Moxley Ranch was established in 1871 and has evolved over the years.

Any resource, however, must be managed. 

And the main tool for managing the Flint Hills is fire. 

An ounce of prevention

Think back to a time when bison roamed the prairie. There was no means of controlling weeds and brush, yet these lands were mostly free of unwanted vegetation. The reason? Fire. 

Lightning would touch the earth during spring thunderstorms, setting off a blaze that raged through these hills, eliminating last year’s growth, plus scrub bushes and trees. While the charred remains appeared desolate and barren, it was temporary. Within a week, tender shoots of new grass emerged, a lush, green carpet covering the hills. 

Each year for the past century, ranchers have set out in March and April to gear up for the annual prescribed burn season. While each year’s burn is different, the premise is the same: safely and efficiently burn off last year’s dead growth. 

I joined Eric Atkinson on April 6 for the annual prescribed burn of his Wabaunsee County, Kansas pasture. Atkinson’s day job is the radio host of KSU’s Extension radio program called “Agriculture Today.”

In the fall, Atkinson mows a wide perimeter known as a firebreak around his 100-acre pasture. The mow strip eliminates dead grass and promotes a strip of fresh green grass in the spring, and also helps reduce the spread of fire outside his pasture. 

Constant communication during a prescribed burn.
During a prescribed burn, constant communication is essential. Here landowner Eric Atkinson (on tractor) visits with Charlie Lee.
Atkinson has assembled a crackerjack crew of experienced hands to help with the 2020 burn. Charlie Lee, KSU’s Extension wildlife specialist, has helped Atkinson for 25 years, and has pasture of his own near Manhattan, Kansas. David Grieger is a beef reproductive specialist at KSU and also owns pasture outside of the university town. The least experienced member of the crew is yours truly, although I’ve helped Atkinson a few times before. 

Prior to the burn, Atkinson gathers his team for instruction, telling them safety is key. “Never,” he cautions, “get in front of a moving fire.” 

  • Lee lights a fireline around the perimeter. With a drip torch filled with flammable liquid, the torch – once lit – drips flames on the tender, dead grass. 
  • Atkinson follows close behind with a tractor and water tank, extinguishing the fireline after it burns a few feet. This fireline is a block, keeping the fire from spreading beyond its intended perimeter.
  • Grieger and I follow with ATVs to put out flames that may escape Atkinson’s efforts.
  • The wind is slightly out of the southeast, Atkinson warns. Be careful to keep the fire from jumping the perimeter, across roads, and into neighboring pastures. Given that his land also has a dwelling and outbuildings, Atkinson prefers wind speeds of between 5 mph and 10 mph. “There are other landowners who have wide open space who can burn in much higher wind speeds,” he says. 

Flames on a Flint Hills prescribed burn
In a prescribed burn, the fireline (foreground) establishes a barrier that keeps the headfire (in the background) from getting out of control.
In an effort to coordinate prescribed burn schedules, Atkinson has chatted with adjoining landowners. The neighbors agree to burn their pasture at the same time. It makes our job easier and reduces the amount of perimeter burn needed, he says. 

Before we begin, Atkinson calls the Wabaunsee County Sheriff’s office to let them know where and when we’re burning. This is a necessary precaution. If the fire gets out of hand, volunteer firefighters must know where to go. And, if concerned passers-by call in the fire, the authorities know that Atkinson – a volunteer firefighter himself – has the situation well in hand. 

Back in black

The perimeter burn begins northwest of the home Atkinson built with his wife, Rhonda, in 1993. Keeping the homestead safe adds a level of complexity to the prescribed burn, and Atkinson says he feels fortunate to have plenty of experienced help.

Lee and Atkinson gradually move east, lighting the perimeter of the L-shape pasture. Burning grass around the Atkinsons’ home and outbuildings requires a deft touch, but the two experienced burners execute this portion of the plan to perfection, working their way east to the main pasture.

While Lee and Atkinson proceed, Grieger and I watch for flare-ups that may occur on previously burned areas. Grieger is on the north side of the property, which is bordered by a county rock road. There is always the chance of a spark jumping across the road, and our presence provides Atkinson peace of mind. Meanwhile, the fire burns to the south, quickly erasing last year’s dead plant matter, leaving black soot in the fire’s wake.

Burning pasture next to I-70
Adding a level of difficulty to this Flint Hills pasture burn is the pasture's proximity adjacent to Interstate 70.
As we move south toward U.S. Interstate 70 (on which nearly 20,000 vehicles pass each day, according to the Kansas Department of Transportation) – care is taken to keep the highway clear of smoke. Atkinson’s pasture is on the north side of the freeway, so a south breeze wafts smoke away from motorists. He makes sure to stop the fire well north of the highway, but some ranchers let the fire go clear to the roadside. That helps clean up old plants and removes a surprisingly large and diverse collection of roadside litter, but for Atkinson, such action adds more risk.

Patiently, they repeat the process of setting perimeter fire, letting it burn for a few feet, and extinguishing the flames on the outside edge of the pasture. They let the fire blaze to the north, and eventually, the new connects to the backfire and the project is complete. 

The entire prescribed burn took four hours to complete, although some of that time was taken up by preparation, filling water tanks, a snack break, and conversation. 

Conducting a prescribed burn is a lot like painting your living room. Most of the time is taken by prep work: sanding, taping off trim, cutting in the corners. The actual painting is the easiest part of the project. 

Still, sometimes even the best-made plans go awry. In two of the 35 years or so Atkinson has burned his land, he’s had to call the volunteer fire department. 

“One of my first times burning, I didn’t have the appropriate equipment,” he recalls. “I attempted to keep the fire off the neighbor’s pasture and it got away, and burned a couple of acres.” Another time, the wind changed midburn and began blowing smoke over I-70. “The sheriff had to park on the highway and slow people down,” he says. “Nothing came out of that; it happens. But you don’t want it to happen.” 

Smoky Hills

Atkinson’s land is about 20 miles outside my hometown of Manhattan, Kansas. On the drive home, I notice the sky is hazy with Flint Hills smoke. 

Setting fire during a prescribed burn.
While Charlie Lee uses a drip torch (right) David Grieger is set to extinguish flames with an ATV sprayer wand.
This year, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment and Kansas Department of Agriculture pleaded with ranchers to reduce the number of acres they burn. Smoke from the annual event is hell for those with compromised respiratory systems. Folks with asthma or other lung problems are especially impacted. 

The state’s request weighed heavily on Atkinson’s mind. 

“My wife has asthma, so I’m not insensitive to it,” he says. In the end, concern for his home and property weighed out. In 2019, he was unable to burn a small section of his pasture. That – coupled with unusual summer rains that promoted season-long grass growth – led to a particularly large load of combustible material. One spark from a passing vehicle (or cigarette tossed out of a car) could set off a fire that quickly consumes Atkinson’s home and outbuildings. 

“My property is right in the crosshairs of a wildfire. If you get a 30 mph wind, a wildfire is literally at my doorstep very quickly,” he says. “I’ll sleep better at night knowing we were able to burn this year.” 

Essential activity

The Flint Hills burn season has far-reaching effects. Smoke from the fires typically tends to move north, affecting air quality in cities like Omaha and Lincoln, Nebraska. In 2017, the Lincoln mayor filed a complaint with the KDHE on grounds that the Flint Hills pasture burning impacted air quality in that city so much that school children weren’t allowed to go to recess outside. 

To that end, a coalition from the Kansas Department of Agriculture, KSU, Kansas Livestock Association, and other groups formed the Kansas Flint Hills Smoke Management group, which monitors air quality and models the impact of smoke on air quality. The group has helped ranchers spread out the burning season to lessen the impact of poor air quality. 

Atkinson says the season used to be concentrated in a two- to three-week period each spring; now folks burn from mid-March to the end of April. Air quality is monitored in several sites throughout the Flint Hills and so far in 2020, the system seems to be working, as there have been few reports of air quality exceeding the National Ambient Air Quality Standards established in 2015. 

Is a few days of compromised air quality worth the benefits of burning to the ecosystem?

Clenton Owensby, range scientist at KSU, believes so. 

“The whole point of it is that without fire in this system, it will eventually revert to a forest type,” Owensby said in an early-2000s interview – coincidentally, with Atkinson as the host on KSU’s “Agricutlure Today” radio program. “It turns out that fairly frequent fire is necessary to maintain a quality tallgrass prairie in the Flint Hills,” Owensby said. 

After a Flint Hills burn
When a Flint Hills prescribed burn is complete, the blackened remains of last year's grass is all that's left.
It’s better to have many controlled burns by Flint Hills landowners, rather than one that has not been planned and is capable of wreaking mass havoc.

For Atkinson’s part, it’s a relief when the job is complete. Long after Grieger and I left, he and Lee checked the pasture for flare-ups. There were a few areas that needed to be extinguished, but the 2020 burn is in the books without incident. 

“Cooperation with neighbors to burn simultaneously helps,” Atkinson reports. “It’s good to have it contained and it went well, without incident.” 

Within days, green grass will emerge from the charred remains of last year’s pasture. In a few weeks, a rancher will turn 15 head of heifers and a bull out on Atkinson’s pasture.

And the cycle begins again. 

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