Prairie Research Could Help Farming Become More Resilient, Sustainable — Iowa Public Radio

TNC Platte River prescribed burn crew 2012. Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

From Iowa Public Radio (May Mayer):

“Fire is a critical component to the landscape,” says Jesse Nippert, a professor at Kansas State, who is also the lead scientist for the Konza Prairie Long Term Ecological Research project, “because without fire, the grasses lose their dominance. Like, if you stopped burning this, the grasses would start to disappear.” Shrubs and eventually trees would take over.

Fire, climate and grazing are the primary drivers of the prairie ecosystem, Nippert says.

For decades, he and other scientists have probed the prairie, asking about its plants, animals, microbes and soil. What they learn can influence how we grow food and how the region adapts to a changing climate.

Controlling when, and how often, fire comes through certain sections of the prairie allows scientists to explore its impacts and importance. To understand climate, they have to get a bit more creative.

Leaving behind a perfect black polygon of scorched earth when the fire fizzles out, Nippert climbs into a Jeep and bounces up and down rutted gravel roads to a different section of prairie that wasn’t burned on this day.

“One of the climate change predictions for this region really wasn’t a change in total annual amount of precipitation,” Nippert says. “It was this idea that when it rains, it’s gonna be a bigger rain event, and then in between them we’ll remove a lot of those smaller rain events.”

He and his colleagues erect structures with metal tubing and plastic sheets that let them simulate those trends experimentally on certain plots.

“Even though they got the exact same amount of total water, how you package that water and deliver it matters,” Nippert says.

Lessons from the Dust Bowl

That’s something farmers in the Midwest are already experiencing. Heavy spring rains might delay or prevent them from planting their crops. Then it can dry up for weeks until a sudden heavy rain hits the dry soil. (Kansas State has an interactive map showing changes in precipitation by county over time here.)

Nippert’s colleague Melinda Smith, from Colorado State University, conducts prairie ecosystem research in Kansas, New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming. Her work on Konza simulated drought conditions, mimicking the hot, dry years of the 1930s.

“What we were able to do is just pretty much replicate what happened during the Dust Bowl, but do it experimentally,” Smith says. “And we were able to see the same kind of responses.”

Those included the loss of certain plants and increasing amounts of others. Smith points to blue grama grasses, which are normally found at sites farther west than Konza but showed up here after her experiment.

“The only reason they’re in those plots is because we droughted them,” she says. “The fact that we could get even such a small-scale conversion of the [plant] community—it took several years for that to occur, but it did occur within the timeframe of our drought experiment—suggests to me that it could occur at a larger scale. And it was a surprising outcome.”

During the Dust Bowl, precious soil blew away, but the natural ecosystem of native plants recovered within about 20 years.

“The species that live here in the Great Plains, these native species, are tremendously resilient,” Nippert says. The farming practices of the early 20th century, however, were not sustainable.

In 1935, partially in response to the devastation of the Dust Bowl, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Soil Conservation Act, which led to the creation of soil and water conservation districts. Still in action today, these groups promote practices such as reducing tillage, which keeps more soil in place…

Protecting cropland with prairie

“The idea was, can we be really smart about reintegrating Iowa’s native ecosystem to try to achieve our goals, as a state, for clean water and building soils and maintaining our native, wildlife populations in a way that had as little impact on the agricultural portions of the landscape as possible?” says Iowa State’s Lisa Schulte Moore, a member of the team that spent more than a decade developing prairie strips, small patches of native grasses and flowers integrated into farmland. The answer was an unqualified yes.

Schulte Moore says putting 10 percent of a field into prairie strips keeps 95 percent of the soil in place. The strips contain a mix of different native plant species, which are appropriate for the specific location.

“So if you have a cool year, if you have a wet year, if you have a drought year, that diversity conveys resilience,” Schulte Moore says. “You have some of those plants that are going to do well regardless of the kind of weather conditions that Mother Nature is throwing at it.”

Some of the prairie plants have stiff stems, too, which help protect the land when those intense rain events pour down because they slow the movement of the water. The prairie plants also have characteristic deep roots, which continue to grow throughout the year, year after year.

“You have biological function happening all year long that you just don’t in an annual system,” like row crops, Schulte Moore says.

Prairie strips proved so effective that they caught the attention both of farmers eager to try them and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The 2018 farm bill added prairie strips to the Conservation Reserve Program, which is one of the federal government’s biggest efforts to improve the environmental quality of agricultural lands.

Still, farming in the Great Plains remains largely dependent upon annual monocultures: plants grown from seed each year, typically across wide swaths of land that may only rotate between two or possibly three crops.

From The Nature Conservancy (Chris Helzer):

If You Play With Fire…
There’s nothing playful about safe and effective prescribed burning. Too many things can go wrong to take it lightly. Sometimes, I think people see prescribed fire as something that needs to be done to maintain prairies, but they can’t necessarily point to specific objectives for a particular fire. Nor can they describe what kind of burning (season, intensity, size, ignition pattern) is needed to achieve those objectives. Falling into the trap of burning because it seems like the right thing to do leads to two big risks. First, there’s a good chance that the fires will not be conducted in a way (or at the right time of year) that do much good – and could even be counterproductive. Second, because prescribed fire can be a hazardous activity, conducting one without clearly defined reasons means taking big risks for no good reason.

A prescribed fire we conducted last week. This one went off without a hitch. Most of them do.. Nelson Winkel spraying backing fire. TNC Platte River prescribed burn crew 2012. Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

We’ve completed two prescribed fires so far this spring. As always, we spend way more time planning our fires than implementing them. That planning starts with setting clear ecological objectives (defining why we’re burning in the first place) which dictate the location, size, season, and even the tactics used during the fire. Once we know what we’re aiming for, we write a burn plan that can help us achieve that in the safest way possible. Our plans detail the kinds of weather conditions and tactics needed to be successful, but also spend a lot of time on contingencies. What will we do if the fire gets away? What does the surrounding landscape offer in terms of safe areas and threats in the case of an escaped fire. How will we respond if someone gets hurt? For me, writing a good burn plan means thinking through all the worst case scenarios. There’s nothing fun about it.

Unfortunately, even after all that planning, things still go wrong. Last spring, I wrote about a burn we did in which we ran into repeated equipment issues, and had to shut down for a while until we could get re-equipped and complete the burn. In another fire last year, I overestimated the strength of our blackline containing the fire, and the wind-driven head fire jumped it in one place, forcing us to quickly chase it down. This spring, our first prescribed burn started out well, but the wind came up sooner than had been forecast, and we shut the fire down because a Red Flag Warning was issued. In all of those cases, there were no serious repercussions, and our training and planning helped us deal effectively with unexpected circumstances. Because we’d planned for each contingency, everyone knew how to react when the time came. No property was damaged and no one got hurt.

The threat of injury is what makes prescribed fire especially stressful for me. Between potential equipment mishaps and quickly-changing weather and fire conditions, there are numerous opportunities for someone to get hurt. So far, I’ve never had anyone get injured on a fire I’ve been a part of, but that fortunate record certainly isn’t making me complacent. As if I needed a reminder of the danger, one of our crew was helping a partner organization with a fire last week and suffered some slight burns on his neck and face while trying to extinguish a drip torch. After trying and failing to smother the flame at the tip of the torch with a gloved hand (per protocol) the crew member then tried to blow the flame out, and some of the burning torch fuel splattered onto the cotton bandana around his neck. Before he could get the bandana off of his head, he suffered small burns in several places. After a quick trip to a nearby medical clinic, he was fine – though he had to shave off the remainder of his singed beard.

It appears there were several things that contributed to the torch incident, possibly including some issues with the torch itself that caused excessive fuel to build up in the torch’s tip, making it particularly difficult to extinguish. After the fire was wrapped up there was considerable discussion about what happened, and hopefully we all learned some things that will make us all safer in the future. Regardless of the cause, however, the aspect of the event that struck me the most was that our crew member was injured doing something he had done hundreds of times before. It’s sobering to know that something as mundane as extinguishing a torch led to injury, and that it could have been much worse than it was.

Lighting the head fire of our prescribed burn last week. This was the easy part. The planning, training, weather monitoring, equipment preparation, and black-lining were all done. (Not pictured – the knot in my stomach). TNC Platte River prescribed burn crew 2012. Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

I am a strong and vocal advocate for the use of prescribed fire to manage both private and public lands. On the other hand, prescribed burning is not a sport, it’s a tool, and it’s a tool that we should employ strategically – not for fun, or without specific objectives in mind. If someone can’t clearly explain what they’re trying to achieve by conducting a particular burn, I don’t know how they can justify taking the risk of dropping a match. In addition, if some doesn’t have a clear and detailed plan for how to ignite and contain a fire, and how to respond when things go wrong, I don’t think they have any business lighting that fire in the first place.

I know people that really enjoy conducting prescribed fires. Frankly, those people make me nervous, especially if they’re in charge. I don’t dislike prescribed burning, and I get a feeling of satisfaction whenever we wrap one up successfully – especially because I can appreciate the ecological benefits of doing so. But while there is active fire on the ground, there’s a knot in my stomach, and that knot subsides slowly, even after the last of the smoke has faded into the sky.

It’s fantastic that the use of prescribed fire is growing among prairie landowners and land managers. More importantly, the greatly increased availability of training and equipment means that we’re not only burning more acres, but we’re also more sophisticated – and hopefully safer – as we do so. However, things will still go wrong. Property will be damaged and people will get hurt. It can happen during even the simplest fires. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t burn. It does, however, mean that we should burn only when it can be done safely and only when we can burn in ways that achieve important objectives. Otherwise, the risk can quickly outweigh the rewards.

Be safe out there…

You may be interested to read these previous posts about prescribed fire:

The importance of equipment redundancy in prescribed fire.

Why prescribed fire doesn’t contribute to global warming.

Leave a Reply