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Try targeted grazing to establish firebreaks

Gilda V. Bryant for Progressive Cattle Published on 24 March 2020
Moving cattle

The arid Western states are prone to seasonal wildfires, especially during drought conditions. Targeted grazing can provide forage for cattle and create firebreaks to slow a wildfire’s momentum.

Ranchers may grumble about spending time and money on electric fences, but resulting firebreaks can save thousands of acres.

Scott Cotton, a University of Wyoming extension agriculture educator and rangeland manager, says ranchers should recognize which plants are present on the landscape. Annual grasses include native and invasive species such as downy brome grass, also known as cheatgrass.

Ranchers who practice targeted grazing should determine their major wildfire vulnerability since most grass fires occur on the dominant upwind side. For example, prevailing southwesterly winds are common in central Wyoming during fire season.

“In other parts of the country, wind could come from a different direction,” Cotton reports. “It could be seasonal, so you might have wind from a certain direction during one season and a different direction in another. Identify the time of year you usually have wildfires. Variations during drought force wildfire seasons to start early and end late.”

Next, producers should determine a locale that would benefit from a firebreak, such as a river, county road or site that runs parallel to the dominant risk area. In many U.S. locations, roads follow section lines; in some regions where soil has never been cultivated for crops, roads follow watersheds.

A 30- to 60-foot-wide county road can slow wildfires and serve as a firebreak along a property line. Widening this area with a tractor pulling a mower or shredder attachment is one option, especially on level ground. However, encouraging cattle to graze green cheatgrass before seedheads form allows ranchers to capture use of the forage, reducing plant populations, while enlarging the firebreak. Producers may also allow cattle to graze along a river to widen firebreaks.

Ranchers can fence areas with hard or electric fences, although low-moisture protein tubs encourage cattle to stay in an area without fencing. Studies show cattle travel over 1.5 miles from water and remain a half-mile from protein tubs. In central Wyoming, cattle typically graze cheatgrass from three to six weeks. Monitor livestock to ensure they graze grass low enough. Manage grazing before moving to the next strip.

Moving cattle“Overgrazing cheatgrass may allow weeds to come in,” Cotton warns. “You may have to control them. It also provides an opportunity for reseeding that area with more desirable grasses. Consider low-growing blue grama and buffalograss, both drought-tolerant, which also help control fires.”

Cotton, a longtime firefighter, stresses that fires travel through flash fuel, such as annual grasses. A 15- to 30-mph wind generates flames ranging from 6 to 30 feet high. Fighting fires successfully in windy conditions is difficult, dangerous work. However, if the fire reaches a road, river or grazed area, flames might drop to 8 inches high. A local brush truck loaded with 550 gallons of water can douse a half-mile (880 yards) of fire compared to extinguishing 100 yards of 30-foot-high wall flames.

During fire containment procedures, firefighters check maps to find roads, rivers or grazed firebreaks. They have improved chances to successfully fight fires at wider, longer firebreaks. Cotton urges producers to notify local fire departments of firebreak locations enlarged by grazing or other means.

“This technique varies every year with changes in precipitation,” Cotton advises. “It differs how it works from site to site, too. Learn about wildfire behavior, and figure that into your firebreak design. Plan ahead. The barrier has to be wide enough to compensate for the wildfire types in your area. For example, if you have tumbleweeds, the firebreak must be wider.”

Derek W. Bailey, a professor in the animal and range sciences department at New Mexico State University, has conducted targeted grazing research. He says any class of cattle can graze cheatgrass in targeted grazing; however, many producers in the Great Basin use mature cows.

“Stick the right animal on the right vegetation,” Bailey shares. “Entrepreneurs rent goats [and sheep] to control noxious weeds and shrubs. Electric fences work well with cattle; electrified net works best with sheep and goats.”

Protein enables animals to digest low-quality fall forages. “You can use pressed blocks, low-moisture, cooked protein tubs or liquid supplements with intake limited by a lick wheel,” Bailey reveals. “Be sure they eat supplements at or near recommended levels, or it will not be effective. Livestock often hang around supplements, concentrating in the area chosen for grazing.”

Bailey says his research shows it was harder to control fuel loads on rough topography by grazing because it was not feasible to fence the area, and the lack of water was an issue. His team could not haul water because there were no roads. They packed in protein supplements by horse and herded cattle, using low-stress gathering techniques, to the target area every other day.

“Consider where you want to make a firebreak,” Bailey concludes. “Is it grazed enough in normal conditions to slow down and stop fire? Remember, there are fires you’ll be able to control with small firebreaks. During extreme weather conditions, you may not be able to stop it. Controlling fuel amounts can change a fire’s behavior. The goal is to knock [flash fuels] flat, not overgraze or impact cattle performance.”

The USDA and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) are researching how targeted grazing can reduce the severity of fires and damage they cause. Using livestock to graze on cheatgrass in rough country without fences is one approach.

Jim Wilson, owner of the V Ranch outside of Thermopolis, Wyoming, says grass is critical to his family operation. His Salers-Angus cattle run on grass all year in elevations ranging from 4,000 to 8,000 feet. Most of his cows run on federal land during winter and deeded land in the spring and summer. Enthusiastic about the Salers-Angus composite, Wilson feels the Salers genetics give cattle more vigor. They travel better, calve easier and are good mothers with high-quality milk. The Angus genetics result in all black animals and provide more marbling for prime carcass traits.

Wilson has conducted controlled burns on deeded land to control excessive sagebrush. Lightning strikes at lower elevations start most of the wildfires in his region. Utilizing proper grazing practices, which includes rotating animals often to prevent overgrazing and grazing pastures at different times of year, Wilson’s animals stimulate the increased growth and thickness of grass. Working closely with the BLM, the V Ranch herd grazes cheatgrass approximately three weeks.

“Cheatgrass is beneficial when it first comes up because it’s so high in protein,” Wilson explains. “We ought to graze it to stunt it back [to help control grass fires] but then leave BLM land when the perennial grasses appear. We stunted the cheatgrass, which is a benefit. It can be expensive if you have to hot wire.”

There are several strategies when grazing cheatgrass. Producers may use electric fences to contain animals, or protein tubs to focus animals to create firebreaks, or simply graze large areas, all of which help reduce the risk and severity of wildfires.  end mark

PHOTOS: Riders for Redd Ranches move cattle for targeted grazing in the La Sal Mountains on the Utah-Colorado border. Photos by Mike Dixon.

Gilda V. Bryant is a freelancer based in Amarillo, Texas.