Pasture burns a vital ritual for Flint Hills


Every spring, this ritual continues. Viewed by day or night, prairie fires are riveting.

Across the vast, open grasslands we call the Flint Hills, fires can be seen for miles. Flames lick at the blue Kansas sky as the brown, dry grass crinkles, cracks and bursts into orange.

But these fires aren?t a recent phenomena, and they aren?t strictly for the viewing pleasure of those traveling up and down our highways. Long before civilization invaded the prairie, fires were ignited by lightning storms and the prairie was charred to restore the health of the native grasses.

The artificially ignited controlled burning of the tall-grass prairie in east-central Kansas is an annual event designed to mimic nature?s match. It has become a tradition, part of the culture of the communities and the people who inhabit this region of our state.

Fire is an essential element of the ecosystem. Burning these pastures is one of the best management tools for restoring forage health and preventing weedy and woody species in this native prairie.

Burning of these pastures every three or four years for forage health is vital to this state?s beef industry and helps cattle gain weight during the grazing season. It is also essential to the southern and southeastern states that place cattle in the Flint Hills to graze each spring and summer.

This annual pasture burning only occurs for a few days each year. It is not a procedure that is drawn out and lasts for weeks.

Not every cattleman burns his pastures each and every year, as is sometimes portrayed. Instead, individual farmers, ranchers and landowners survey and decide each spring, which pastures will benefit and produce a healthier, lush grass for livestock after burning occurs.

Often neighbors plan and burn together, giving them more hands to ensure a safe, controlled burn.

Kansas has been extremely dry since last fall. Fires have raged across Texas, Oklahoma and some in Kansas during late winter and early spring with the onset of windy weather.

Recent rains and snow have eased drought conditions enough for some burning of native grass range across Kansas. With additional moisture in the near-term forecast, this may lessen the wildfire hazard later in the spring when extremely dry and windy conditions could return.

?It?s important for grassland owners and operators to burn during this open window of opportunity,? said Steve Swaffar, director of Natural Resources for Kansas Farm Bureau.

Producers are also being encouraged to burn breaks around farmsteads, barns and other agriculture buildings to protect those areas in case of wildfires.

Spring burning is also one of the easiest and most effective methods of controlling the eastern red cedar, Swaffar says.

?There?s nothing better for the control and eradication of this extremely invasive tree than to run a fire through the grassland every two or three years,? he said.

Kansas State University experts recommend burning take place when wind speeds are between 5 and 15 miles per hour, relative humidity is from 40 to 70 percent and temperatures fall in the range of 55 to 80 degrees.

Landowners in all counties must have notification requirements to local officials prior to planned, controlled burns. This notification is a key to preventing planned burns turning into accidental wildfires and ensuring burning is allowed under the existing conditions.

The farm and ranch community is tuned into ever-changing weather conditions and will continue to keep its controlled burning of the tall grass prairies confined to a minimum time period. This process is part of the culture of the rural communities that dot the Flint Hills region.

Prairie fires help Mother Nature rejuvenate the grasses that carpet her fertile hills. That means good things for cattlemen, for agriculture, for rural communities and the Kansas economy.


John Schlageck is a leading commentator on agriculture and rural Kansas. Born and raised on a diversified farm in northwestern Kansas, his writing reflects a lifetime of experience, knowledge and passion.

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