Burning can help thwart tree takeover

Cedar trees like these are taking over pastures across Marion County. Burning may be the most effective way to combat them.

Conservationists will take another step in trying to halt the epidemic invasion of cedar trees into native grasslands with a prescribed burning workshop from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m next Wednesday, Jan. 23, in the 4-H Building on the Marion County Fairgrounds in Hillsboro.

The event has farm advisors hoping more farm and ranch producers will adopt many of the practices recommended.

Topics will include why and when to burn, nature and behavior of fire, weather and fire, safety, regulations, equipment, firebreaks, ignition techniques and planning a burn.

The material covered by a $10 registration fee will be presented by Walter H. Fick, a range and pasture management specialist from Kansas State University.

Participants can register in advance by Friday, Jan. 18, by calling the county extension office at 620-382-2325 or e-mailing rroberts@ksu.edu.

Doug Spencer, rangeland management specialist for several counties headquartered at the Natural Resources Conservation Service office in Marion, said he hopes to give burning the status it deserves with farmers as the cheapest, possibly most effective way to control invasive trees, brush and weeds in prairie pastures.

He said he has an easier time with people adopting burning as a technique in more eastern Flint Hills counties of his territory such as Chase and Greenwood, where there ?is a real fire culture.?

The people there have long used fire as a brush-control technique, he said, while agricultural producers farther to the west and north in Marion County tend to use it less.

?As a matter of fact,? he said, ?in much of that area you?ll see more wheat stubble burned off than native grass.?

As long as burning for tree control is done correctly, he said, it gets the job done at a lower cost than using high-priced fuels for other controls, such as mowing or herbicides.

The problem of invasive trees also includes species such as Osage orange (hedge), locusts, elms and other trees that want to grow out of place.

Spencer said in some cases this can include trees that don?t get out of hand as badly, but interfere in fencing maintenance, such as mulberries and hackberries.

Gary Schuler, NCRS conservationist, said the situation brings to mind the adage that a weed is only a plant out of place. Although research shows grass roots in pastures and most settings holds soil together better to slow erosion, Schuler said even the problem trees have places they should be on the farms.

Properly placed trees reduce soil erosion and water pollution, he said. They recharge groundwater, and sustain stream flows while reducing water temperatures by shade to improve fisheries habitat.

Schuler said shade trees can reduce air-conditioning bills by 15 to 20 percent, and tree windbreaks can reduce home heating bills by 30 percent. Properly placed trees shelter livestock to reduce weight loss.

In an age of global warming, Schuler said trees remove 1.5 tons of carbon dioxide from the air, and give back 1.1 tons of oxygen for each ton of new wood grown.

Environmentally, trees can also be used to screen unsightly items or enhance landscapes besides providing firewood, fruits, nuts and other products.

Schuler said farmers may want to log large cedars from pastures for lumber use. He has a long list of what can be produced from cedar, from animal bedding to caskets.

Spencer suggested some trees can be left in pastures to help even out grazing. Since cattle tend to graze the south end of a pasture, he said a few trees could be left in the north end so cattle will travel there for shade.

He said trees should not be left near watering areas because that will encourage cattle to congregate there creating more ?stomped out? erodible ground.

Spencer said male trees can be selected to leave in species such as hedge to cut down on seed production.

When trees are left, Spencer said, use branches broken from them to cover ground under the shade area, so that grass growing back in is protected from livestock.

Schuler said trees can increase some species of wildlife, but discourage others because wide expanses of open grassland are necessary for some native prairie species, for instance prairie chickens and meadow larks.

Spencer said using a bulldozer for tree clearing should only be used as a last resort for brush management. Large sheering and cutting equipment should be used when the ground is dry to minimize resulting erosion, he said.

The two men cited both Kansas and Texas research projects that show cedars can take too much water from pastures. A cedar canopy can stop 65 percent of rainfall from reaching the top soil and Texas trees consumed as much as 35 gallons of water daily.

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