NDSU researchers have found that patch-burning may help ranchers’ production during times of drought. The work is attracting international attention.
The research, “Patch-Burning Buffers Forage Resources and Livestock Performance to Mitigate Drought in the Northern Great Plains,” was published in Rangeland Ecology and Management.
NDSU doctoral student Jonathan Spiess was the lead author of the paper.
“The northern Great Plains region is expected to have increased variability in annual precipitation and increased frequency of summer growing season droughts. Conventional grazing strategies, like continuous or rotational grazing, in this region are reliant on late-spring and early-summer precipitation to provide enough quality forage for livestock throughout the grazing season,” Spiess said. “When a drought occurs, managers using conventional grazing strategies are left with few options other than destocking or purchasing additional hay or feed. We are interested in researching patch-burn grazing because it potentially offers managers a way to maintain livestock production through increasingly variable precipitation without many additional management inputs during droughts.”
According to Spiess’ academic adviser Devan McGranahan, associate professor of range science, the research was conducted in conjunction with two NDSU Research Extension Centers. Rangeland at the centers experienced drought in 2017, relative to the 25-year average.
At the Central Grasslands REC near Streeter, North Dakota, cows on patch-burned pastures performed better than cows on continuously-grazed, unburned pastures in the same year under drought conditions. Meanwhile, in Hettinger, North Dakota, sheep and cattle on patch-burned pastures during the drought year performed as well as, or better, than livestock on the same pastures in the previous year, without fire, and with normal rainfall.
The study concluded that, despite drought, burned patches allowed livestock to graze high-quality forage throughout the season. Such good animal performance contrasts with the typically tight relationship between animal performance and precipitation. The study indicated that “prescribed patch-burning might mitigate drought by buffering forage resources (crude protein content and availability) and maintaining animal performance (average daily gains).”
McGranahan said collecting data at two Research Extension Centers makes the study unlike any in rangeland management science in the world.
“Prescribed fire is useful for conservation, but up to this point, most of the research shows the benefits to wildlife do not come at a cost to livestock production,” McGranahan said. “This is some of the first research to specifically ask how prescribed fire might make net positive contributions to managing a livestock operation, in addition to ecosystem benefits.
“To a producer, the ecological concept of ‘stability’ means that one can plan to graze a certain number of animals at the beginning of the season and worry less about having to buy expensive hay if the rain is uncooperative later in the summer,” McGranahan said.
McGranahan recently shared the results of the study during an online, international conference hosted by the Grassland Society of Southern Africa.
In addition to Spiess and McGranahan, other authors listed on the paper include Benjamin Geaumont, Hettinger Research and Extension Center; Kevin Sedivec, interim director of the Central Grasslands Research Extension Center; Marisol Berti, professor of plant sciences; Torre Hovick, assistant professor in the School of Natural Resource Sciences; Ryan Limb, associate professor in the School of Natural Resource Sciences; and Micayla Lakey, an NDSU range science graduate student.
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