MANHATTAN, Kansas (AP) — Kansas ranchers who for decades have sworn that their massive grassland burns in the Flint Hills had to happen during a short period of time in the spring were misinformed, two Kansas State University researchers have concluded.
In a typical year, ranchers burn thousands of acres of grassland to reduce undesirable trees and shrubs and enrich the grass for that summer’s cattle grazing. Based on research from more than 40 years ago, it was thought that the grass had to be burned in late spring — usually in late April — the Lawrence Journal-World reported.
But a study by E. Gene Towne and Joseph Crain determined that burning during other times, including fall, winter or spring, not only has no negative effects for the prairie, but may even have some benefits.
“It’s going to cause a lot of jaw-dropping because it goes against what is thought to be gospel truth,” said Towne, the fire chief at Konza Prairie Biological Station.
Their new study is based on data collected from 20 years of burning at the biological station south of Manhattan. It found that when the prairie is burned in the fall or winter, grass composition and production were not negatively affected compared with burning in the spring.
Also, grasses burned in the winter or fall had more time to respond to precipitation, the researchers found, and that schedule also resulted in more grass diversity, which is good for cattle.
Burning in late spring is bad for snakes, turtles, prairie chicken and other nesting birds, they said, and causes problems with smoke drifting into populated areas because of the widespread fires.
By burning fields during a broader time frame, ranchers can reduce the intensity of the smoke making its way into places like Wichita and Kansas City where air pollution limits have been exceeded because of the spring burns.
Craine said the research provides “wins” for everyone.
“Our ranchers win. Our prairies win. And our neighbors downwind of the Flint Hills also win,” he said.