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Burn pasture in the fall?
Dr. Victor Martin

As of Sept. 14 the areas of abnormally dry and moderate drought are were still just outside of our area with the exception of northwest Pawnee, extreme northeast Barton and Rice Counties, which have abnormally dry conditions. Also most of Rice County is listed as abnormally dry. This doesn’t include any rainfall from Tuesday night or later. Summer row crops are rapidly maturing, even irrigated soybeans. The six to ten-day outlook (Sept. 22 to 26) indicates above normal temperatures and below normal precipitation. The eight to 14-day outlook (Sept. 24 to 30) indicates more of the same with an intensification of below normal precipitation and that isn’t a great deal to begin with. A hot topic for pasture management coming out of K-State this summer has been their work on late summer/early fall prescribed burns on native pasture. Is or isn’t this a good idea in our area?

First, what are the benefits of prescribed burning of pastures?

• Burning help control invasive and less desirable grass species. Especially annual weeds. It is especially beneficial in keeping invasive tree species such as Eastern Red Cedar under control. 

• Removing last year’s dead plant material helps stimulate growth and releases nutrients. If too much plant residue accumulates, it can retard new growth of perennial grasses and eventually decreases plant populations.

• These benefits accrue even on CRP ground. An added benefit is keeping the fuel load under control which helps with wildfire control. Typically, these burns are conducted in early spring. Research by K-State has demonstrated potential advantages in burning late summer/early fall. Before considering this in our area, let’s examine the drawbacks for burning now here.

• First, this research as most conducted at K-State focuses on the Flint Hills of Eastern Kansas, tall grass prairie. We are mixed grass prairie, the transition zone from tall to short grass prairie. And there are other differences.

• As you move from the Flint Hills to here, rainfall decreases and temperatures increase. Humidity tends to be lower on average also.

• We are dealing with different soils in our area. South of the river, the land is predominantly sandy, ranging from sandy loams to sand and relative low in organic matter. Soils north of the river include some sands but are predominantly silt loam soils and on average higher in organic matter. Sandy soils hold less water and ground cover heading into fall and winter is critical to preventing wind erosion. So if you burn and conditions don’t allow for regrowth (grass type or precipitation), you run the risk of wind erosion.  

There are other differences but to keep this brief, a late summer/early fall may work here. However, the risks here are greater than in the Flint Hills due to soil type, climate, and prairie type. It may work or it may not work. It is much safer to continue to early spring burn as cool season grasses are breaking dormancy every two or three years. Typically, burning every year simply isn’t necessary.

Dr. Victor L. Martin is the agriculture instructor/coordinator for Barton Community College. He can be reached at 620-792-9207, ext. 207,