Recovering from wildfire relies on many of the same resource management principles and strategies applicable to any producer forced to contend with fragile, depleted or drought-damaged soils.

Recovering from wildfire relies on many of the same resource management principles and strategies applicable to any producer forced to contend with fragile, depleted or drought-damaged soils.

Resource management experts recently traveled to the fire-damaged area in Northeastern Colorado to help producers evaluate the possibilities and consider new approaches.

“We’re just trying to give them all the options we can,” said Keith Berns, who, along with his brother Brian, owns Green Cover Seed, at Bladen, Nebraska.

His company participated in a recent fire recovery meeting held in Haxtun, Colorado, and organized by the Colorado Conservation Tillage Association. Green Cover Seed has also provided triticale seed at cost in areas ravaged by spring wildfires.

Maintaining ground cover, a constant challenge on the High Plains in the best of circumstances, became even more imperative after the fires.

“Time is of the essence,” said Michael Thompson, a farmer from Almena, Kansas, and current CCTA president. “Farmers have to get out there and get something planted and in the ground while they have moisture. On the sandier soils especially, they need to get something established to keep the soil from blowing.”

Widespread beneficial rains are already aiding in that process, with native grasses showing their resilience as they shoot up through the ashes.

Dale Strickler, an agronomist with Green Cover Seed traveled to Haxtun from his own farm near Courtland, Kansas, to talk about various cover crop mixes, fencing products and management scenarios.

“Fires have been used as a rangeland improvement tool for centuries,” he said. “So history would indicate the grass will come back fine as long as we don’t do anything to really mess it up. What was different about some of these recent fires was the intensity. They burned hotter than the typical range fire, and it’s possible there may be some damage that’s harder to recover from.”

He described the fires as being “blow torch intensity” due to 60 mph winds that fanned the flames.

As Thompson pointed out, fire does help remove undesirable plants such as yucca or sage.

“You can get rid of some of the invasives this way and end up with better, cleaner rangeland,” he said.

After undesirable plants have been removed is a good time to consider introducing plant species you want more of, Strickler added.

Pasture cropping is a new trend in no-till circles that refers to inter-seeding cover crops into permanent pasture.

“It’s actually been done in the Southern U.S. with Bermuda grass for decades,” Strickler said. “In Australia they are taking cereal grains and going to a grain crop with them rather than pasturing it off.”

Inter-seeding native pastures with annuals is something worth considering across Eastern Colorado, in Southwest Kansas and in the panhandle region, he said.

“The bigger the seed the deeper you need to get it in the ground, so that may be a limitation in some cases, but things like brown mid-rib grazing corn, which is an open-pollinated forage corn, or forage soybeans, cowpeas, oats or spring peas — all of those things can establish vegetative cover quickly, and they are all good grazing. Plus, there’s no real danger of them becoming a long-term weed, which is something we want to avoid,” he said.

Brown mid-rib corn, which was first released in the 1920s, was rediscovered for its forage potential over the last 20 years. “Cattle absolutely love it. It’s extremely palatable,” Strickler said. “Bt corn (which contains a protein designed to ward off the corn borer) has higher amounts of lignan, but this corn has a natural mutation that makes it low in lignan. And it’s much cheaper to plant than hybrid corn.”

“There are things you can broadcast as well,” he continued. “Teff grass is a summer annual that grows very well from a broadcast seeding, and it’s fairly inexpensive. We have a ‘blue light special’ on teff grass right now that we can provide to people for seeding into pastures.”

Another option for broadcast seeding into rangeland is sweet clover.

“The only problem is it grows maybe too well, and you have to carefully manage it with grazing to keep it eaten down,” Strickler said. “But it provides a lot of nitrogen and protein to the eco-system.”

Even the char left behind by a fire can be beneficial. Bio-char soil amendments are increasingly popular as a natural soil enhancer.

“The bio-char we work with is made from wood products, but bio-char can be made from grass as well. Chemically the two are pretty similar,” Strickler said.

Thanks to beneficial rainfall, many fire-damaged areas are greening up again. But ranchers will need to use judicious grazing practices in the months and years to come.

One tool Thompson recommended was something he called “flash grazing.” “It’s not high density or mob grazing, but it’s just getting the cattle out there and quickly moving them across the area,” he explained. “Basically it’s about grazing it just enough to stimulate the plant but not harm it.”

“Grazing can be beneficial, but it can be destructive too,” he added. “You have to work with what Mother Nature gives you.”

As the popularity of integrating cattle with cropping systems continues to grow, many farmers are looking at planting some of their cropland to forage crops, whether they’ve suffered from fire damage or not. By planting forages on cropland, producers can rotate their herds off of native pastures and give those pastures more time for rest and recovery.

“On some of that cropland, where row crops aren’t looking so rosy in terms of profit potential, maybe take it and put it into a forage crop,” Thompson said. “We’re seeing a lot of people with rangeland giving it a period of recovery in August when it gets hot and dry, and we can’t get much regrowth on it anyway. If we incorporate warm season forages on cropland, we can extend our grazing a little longer in the season.”

Options for late summer grazing include sorghum Sudan grass, millets and, for legumes, soybeans, sun hemp or cowpeas. Early spring grazing options include rye and triticale.

Strickler said for people who have been thinking about trying a rotational grazing program, after a fire might be the ideal time to experiment with it.

“Walk before you run, but there’s a lot of things I didn’t think would work that turned out to be resounding successes, including things I used to laugh at,” he said. “No-till and cover crops were ideas I thought would never work in the real world, but I was proven wrong pretty quickly.”