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Prescribed burn saves pastures from red cedar takeover

Woody encroachment of trees can be managed to save cattle stocking rates and water loss.



Rod Voss, NRCS Rangeland Management Specialist in Mitchell, South Dakota, discusses the importance of using prescribed burns to control red cedars in pastures—before they turn valuable grazing land into a forest. Listen to his podcast interview with Robin “Buz” Kloot on Growing Resilience podcasts.

“South Dakota is on the front edge of a slow-moving tree glacier that, left unchecked, can cut pasture stocking rates by 70 percent,” says Rod Voss, NRCS rangeland management specialist from Mitchell, SD.

Eastern red cedar is an invasive juniper species that can change pasture diversity within a ranch generation, especially since fire and buffalo aren’t around to keep it in check. Its encroachment is often overlooked because the pasture takeover starts slow.

From Texas to Nebraska, southern and High Plains states have learned the value of prescribed burning to battle these trees for years. “As I drive the roads along the James and Missouri River valleys in the southern South Dakota counties of Charles Mix and Gregory, you see a significant number of red cedar beginning to overtake pastures,” Voss says. “It’s South Dakota’s turn to make sure we don’t transition from a grassland ecosystem to a forest ecosystem.”

Fire as a managed tool

Within the NRCS, Voss says a newly signed agreement between Nebraska, Oklahoma, Kansas and South Dakota will prioritize this woody encroachment issue. “We need to get landowners involved and help support them as we prove the value of prescribed burn management plans to manage red cedar before it gets out of hand.”

One local effort by landowners helped form the Mid-Missouri River Prescribed Burn Association in Gregory, Charles Mix, Brule and Lyman Counties. “They’re independently working to address the red cedar issue, now getting support from NRCS and SDSU to help develop detailed burn plans and conduct the prescribed burn,” Voss says.

Prescribed burn plan critical

These landowners learned from Nebraska prescribed burn association members regarding organizational structure, planning and conducting safe burns. A prescribed burn plan is critically important because it lays out a strategy to conduct the burn. “The idea behind it is to make you think through how to make a burn go correctly and identify all the potential issues that might not go correctly—so that you have that in your mind before you start the fire,” Voss says.

Safety is your number one concern, as is accomplishing your objective, whether it’s eastern red cedar control or perhaps invasive cool-season species control. “Part of writing the plan is to figure out the burn size and complexity and the number of experienced people you need. There are resources out there. The Mid-Missouri River Prescribed Burn Association can be very helpful,” Voss adds.

Tree size matters

Prescribed burns have proven to be very effective and economical on smaller red cedars. Voss says 90 to 95% of three to four-foot-tall trees will get killed by a prescribed grass burn. “Once they reach six feet tall, a grass fire only kills about 70 to 75% of them. And the big trees, 20-foot or more, won’t be killed without building ladder fuels or stocking piles.”

Red cedar growth accelerates as they get older. For the first three to five years, these trees don't grow very rapidly. But during the fifth to the ninth year, they grow exponentially faster.

“It takes a recognition of the problem and education. If you see a tree in your pasture or grazing land, you don't really consider that a problem,” Voss says. But pretty soon, you see four, then eight, then 16. Before you know it, the first trees are 20 feet tall and producing berries. Over 20 to 30 years, you’ve lost a significant amount of grass production underneath those cedar trees.”

Here’s more of what Voss had to say in this podcast:

“We need more prescribed burn associations in South Dakota. The White River and the Cheyenne River both have a lot of woody encroachment starting to show up, and we need to pay attention at look at dealing with those issues now.”

“The Prescribed Burn Association requires everyone to carry insurance, so check with your insurance agent to make sure that you're covered for a prescribed burn.”

I think our plant communities are reflecting that lack of fire, and as a result, we see an increase in trees as well as an increase in invasive grasses, such as smooth bromegrass and Kentucky bluegrass. If we modify our understanding of the ecosystem to understand that fire is a necessary component on this grassland, then it can actually work for us and restore the diversity that our native grasslands have always had.”