Manage Your Fields with Fire
“Fire is a natural process,” John Weir, research associate with the Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management at Oklahoma State University, told Ozarks Farm & Neighbor. “It’s right behind rainfall as being important, because there’s nothing that a landowner can do that will impact the land like fire can. It’s a very important part of that process; it’s important for the native plant communities, and also for the native wildlife.”
Weir is OSU Extension’s prescribed fire expert; he teaches classes in it, has published numerous papers on it, and belongs to professional organizations that promote it. “In some regions of the Ozarks range, it’s common,” he said. “It’s a process that Native Americans used for centuries, and very active throughout the Ozarks and the U.S. as well.”
Prescribed burns serve to prevent woody plant growths from reclaiming open areas, reduce understory in forests, or remove accumulated plant material in pastures, opening the canopy so new seedlings can emerge. Weir said some producers burn some of their grassland areas every year to increase livestock performance, but a burn every three years provides a good benchmark.
Before a burn, he recommended producers draft a fire plan. This includes the goals for the project and the area to be burned and the goals, up to people that just burn every few years. Help in writing a plan can come from USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, county Extension, or state Departments of Forestry, Wildlife and Conservation. OSU also has an Extension fact sheet on fire plans that includes an example of one and a blank one to fill in; it can be found at http://pods.dasnr.okstate.edu/docushare/dsweb/Get/Document-2563/E-927websurvey.pdf.
The next line of business is to determine what your fire breaks will be. They can be natural barriers like roads and creeks, or manmade such as dozed or disked lines. The fire breaks will help delineate your “burn unit,” the area to be burned, and allow people and equipment to get around it, as well as help to contain and control the fire.
Once the planning is complete, watch for favorable weather. Ideal conditions for burning include a moist soil, humidity of 30-60 percent, a temperature between 45-75 degrees and a wind speed of 10-15 miles per hour, according to Valerie Tate, University of Missouri Extension agronomy specialist at Linn County. Tate told OFN, “It’s important to set a backfire so that you have a line to prevent the fire from escaping and you can control it. You set the backfire downwind to keep the fire from moving too rapidly.” To effectively stop the fire at the edge of the field, the fire break and the back fire combined should be 50 feet wide. Smoke from the fire may be a hazard if it is blowing across a road or toward a home; a backpack sprayer or an ATV equipped with a sprayer can be a used to wet areas along the backfire and to extinguish wooden fence posts if they begin to burn.
Most of the time the fire is started with something called a drip torch, an aluminum torch that holds about 1.5 gallons of a petroleum based fuel. Weir said, “It uses gravity; you tilt it down, and it’s got a wick that stays lit.” He encouraged the presence of enough people and equipment to address any problems. The fire burns slowly; wildlife has time to evacuate. The backfire will blacken 50-300 feet; then, he said, “You can ring out the area, and light the rest of it when you’ve got a barrier built up with that burned out area to stop and contain the fire.
Prescribed burning has become more widespread in recent years. It’s more common in the Southern Ozarks than further north; Tate said that’s probably because there are more warm season grasses in the South. But Weir said there’s more interest throughout the area. “I work with Prescribed Burn Associations in the region,” he said. “That’s where we get groups of landowners together to assist each other by sharing labor and equipment to help each other burn. Those are increasing tremendously.”
Ozarks Farm & Neighbor encourages landowners to contact Missouri Department of Conservation or the local NRCS office for assistance with writing a burn plan.