Prescribed fire is a very valuable practice for Nebraska’s rangelands and prairies.  Farmers in Central Platte NRD are having great success using fire to improve their pastures. It does entail some risk, which is why safety training and proper equipment are necessary.  CPNRD has had an important role in helping departments and landowners obtain safety training.  We have facilitated more than 40 training events, from evening firefighter sessions to NWCG fire training, serving hundreds of local landowners and firefighters.

FIRE AS A MAINTENANCE TOOL

Prescribed fire can be a valuable tool in the maintenance and improvement of native grasslands. Rangeland areas that have not had fire occurrence are often sites of problems involving invasive species.  The invasive species, such as Eastern Red Cedar, can take away natural grassland acres that are necessary for grazing as well as for wildlife.  Rangelands that are always grazed in the fall or winter with no spring treatment may also become areas dominated by native and non-native cool-season grasses and invasive weeds.  These areas offer a reduced food value to livestock and are of reduced value to native wildlife.

When a prescribed fire is used along with appropriate grazing practices, the results are increased economic output and wildlife benefit.  Fields that are moderately grazed and treated with periodic burns are more drought tolerant, more diverse in plant and wildlife species, more productive in late summer, at less risk for devastating summer wildfire, and at less risk for runoff and erosion.

PURPOSE OF PRESCRIBED FIRE  

• control undesirable vegetation
• prepare sites for harvesting, planting or seeding
• control plant disease
• reduce wildfire hazards
• improve wildlife habitat
• improve plant production quantity and/or plant quality
• remove slash and debris
• enhance seed and seedling production
• facilitate distribution of grazing and browsing animals
• restore and maintain ecological sites

GRASSLAND CONSERVATION PROGRAM

For questions or more information, contact David Carr at (308) 385-6282 or email carr@cpnrd.org.

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BROCHURES

Burn Unit Design Specifications  |  CPNRD Prescribed Fire Program  |   Grassland Conservation Program

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COST

The cost of a prescribed burn by the CPNRD fire crew is $10 per acre for the first 40 acres and $5/acre over 40 acres. Minimum charge is $300 per burn.

COST SHARE

The CPNRD cost-share program helps landowners treat their rangelands with the implementation of burns. The crew conducts and assists landowners and other agencies with prescribed burns.  Since the inception of the program, the NRD fire crew has conducted over 200 burns and over 18,000 acres.    Cost Share Application

REQUIREMENTS OF BURN 

• Must be planned by a person(s) qualified to carry out such work.
• Must be reviewed and approved by CPNRD’s Burn Coordinator before the prescribed burn can be accomplished.
• Landowner(s) required to obtain a valid open burning permit as per Nebraska Statute 81-520.01.
• Must be carried out by a qualified team or private company approved by the NRD Burn Coordinator.
• Proof of adequate insurance & landowner liability agreement will be required before any action may be conducted under this program.
• CPNRD accepts no liability for any prescribed burn activity associated with the application, application approval, prescribed burn approval, or the prescribed burn itself.

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PROCESS 

There are three steps involved in the successful use of prescribed fire:

Planning  An open burning permit and prescribed fire plan must be completed prior to each burn as mandated by state law.  The NRD fire coordinator will be available to assure the fire plan meets all state law requirements.

Preparation  Burn unit boundaries and internal features need to be prepared prior to the burn to help ensure safety. The NRD prescribed fire coordinator will assist in making recommendations for this type of preparation. Preparation can include mowing or disking the lines or anchor points, and brush or tree removal/piling.  Reduced and deferred grazing may be necessary to produce best burning conditions.

Implementation  The burn must be implemented by the NRD crew or a qualified and insured prescribed fire contractor.

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RESOURCES

*Setting Up Prescribed Burn Associations  Video

*Cut & Stuff Practices for Enhanced Cedar Control  Fact Sheet
Jointly produced by Texas A&M AgriLife Extension, Kansas State University Research and Extension, University of Nebraska and Oklahoma State University.

*Blog from Fire Crew Member

* Rekindling the Fire by Martha Mintz  |  The Furrow, A John Deere Publication

*Learn How to Burn Safely  UNL has the following resources that can be ordered directly from Mike Riese: riese@unl.edu

  1. 200- Conducting a Prescribed Burn and Burning Checklist     EC-121  $134.00
  2. 110- Grassland Mgt. with Prescribed Fire     EC 148   $110.00
  3. 200- Act Now or Pay Later     EC-1784  $462.00
  4. 200- Integrated Mgt. of Eastern Red Cedar      EC-186   about $400

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ReevesCPNRD’s 1st PRESCRIBED BURN

In 2005, the NRD conducted its first prescribed burn near Chapman on land owned by Don and Barbara Reeves. The burn was conducted on five acres of land just across the road from their home. The Reeves’ goals to kill weed seeds and rejuvenate the natural grasses that had been planted were reached. These included: buffalograss, big bluestem, side-oats gramma, switchgrass, little bluestem and blue gramma. Don grew grasses in his greenhouse that he transplanted later that spring. Prior to the burn, the acreage had been used for grazing by his neighbor’s cattle. The burn helped rejuvenate wildflowers that he’d planted such as coneflowers, Mexican redhat, blanketflowers, blue easters, purple prairie clover, Illinois bungleflower, and partridge pea.

Reeves Burn Results

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RED CEDAR ENCROACHMENT

Article: 

Trees that suck up sunlight and groundwater at the expense of other prairie plants are creating new headaches throughout the Plains, including Nebraska.

The eastern red cedar tree spreads so quickly that it catches many landowners off-guard, consuming huge areas of productive ranchland and threatening many of the area’s original prairies. At one point in Nebraska, the trees expanded at a pace of nearly 40,000 acres a year — an area roughly half the size of Omaha — until conservationists joined forces with local ranchers to conduct more brush-clearing burns.

Conservationists call it a “green glacier” that started in Texas and Oklahoma and swept north across the Plains into Kansas, Nebraska, western Iowa and the Dakotas.

“It gets worse every day,” said John Ortmann, a rangeland ecologist in Ord who has worked with conservation groups to thin the eastern red cedar population. “Some people say, ‘Wait until it’s a problem.’ That’s like saying, ‘I’m not going to change my oil until the engine blows up.'”

The trees traditionally survived on steep, north-facing slopes in canyons where prairie fires couldn’t reach. But then settlers started using them as windbreaks, and birds further spread the trees by eating seeds, then excreting them while perched atop power lines.

The trees are native to the Plains but they can grow so thick that many animals can’t use them for shelter. They tower over smaller native plants and grasses, sucking up all sunlight and groundwater and turning prairie grass into barren patches of dirt. Without native grasses, water runoff increases and erodes the soil.

“The land becomes absolutely worthless,” Ortmann said. “Once they’ve grown up, they take everything on the prairie. You can have hundreds of different kinds of plants, or you can have cedar trees. You can’t have both.”

In western Iowa, conservationists worry about the tree encroaching on the Loess Hills, an ecosystem with some of the state’s few remaining prairies.

“It’s a constant management issue,” said Lindsey Barney, an Oakland-based district forester for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. “I’d say we’re all concerned about it in western Iowa. These prairie remnants (in the Loess Hills) aren’t the last ones in the state, but they’re of a very high quality.”

Barney said she considers the tree valuable in forested areas and as a natural windbreak. But in prairies, she said the tree can quickly dominate the landscape.

In Nebraska, the trees have been spreading quickly and reducing the number to pre-2000 levels would cost an estimated $100 million, said Adam Smith of the Nebraska Forest Service.

Removing the trees can cost as much as $2,000 an acre in states such as Oklahoma and Texas, where they’ve spread out of control. Clearing them in Nebraska can reach up to $200 an acre, conservationists said, but the cost is likely to rise as they proliferate.

The trees also produce highly flammable needles and resin, and were partly to blame for massive wildfires that burned city-sized swaths of land in Nebraska in 2012.

“It’s such a slow, benign progression, until one day you wake up and half your ranch is gone,” said Pete Bauman, a range field specialist at South Dakota State University. “It’s a huge problem for ranchland. Once the trees get to a point where you start to recognize they’re a problem, they’re much more difficult to control.”

Bauman said landowners don’t always realize they have a problem and fail to act before the trees are large and much harder to remove. Ranchers are most reluctant in parts of the Dakotas, which haven’t yet seen a full outbreak.

Ranchland dominated by the trees typically loses about 75 percent of its profitability, said Dirac Twidwell, a rangeland and fire ecologist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

The trees muscle out forage and grasses on which cattle graze. Reducing the number of grasslands could also cut into K-12 public school state aid, which comes in part from leases on state-owned grasslands, Twidwell said.

“Because we’re a grassland state, the consequences of the cedars are profound,” he said.

Landowners in the Plains have formed landowner “burn cooperatives” to clear the trees before they spread out of control.

“It’s definitely a problem,” said Ed Hubbs, a volunteer with the Tri-County Prescribed Burn Association, which works mostly in Lancaster, Seward, and Saline counties. The trees “certainly take up resources and physical space as well, not just water and nutrients.”

Hubbs, of Lincoln, said the trees become much more difficult to burn the larger they become, forcing crews to use chainsaws or burn larger fires.

The prescribed burns are intended to prevent the trees from becoming as widespread as they are in Oklahoma and Kansas, said John Erixson, deputy director of the Nebraska Forest Service. Erixson said the trees are most prevalent in the eastern two-thirds of Nebraska, but they’re now encroaching on the state’s Sandhills, an ecologically fragile area of grass-covered sand dunes.

The eastern red cedar tree created major headaches for Robert Dutcher, who spent about three years removing hundreds of trees that spread over his family’s property near Greeley. Some trees were 12 feet tall with 14-inch-thick trunks by the time he removed them.

“It just turns into a forest if you don’t take care of them,” Dutcher said. “It happens quicker than you think.”