Give it a rest! “The first year after a wildfire will be the most critical in allowing rangeland to recover,” says Clint Rollins, range management specialist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Amarillo, Texas.
Rollins says in the first days following the mid-March wildfires that burned up to 1 million acres of rangeland in the Texas Panhandle, ranchers concentrated on tending to injured animals, finding feed or a market for survivors and posing of carcasses.
“But ranching is a long-term enterprise,” he says, and the next order of business is to look to the future.
“The first priority for restoring rangeland is moisture,” he says. The area got a start on that the weekend of March 18-19. “From three-fourths to one-and-one-half inch of rain fell over the weekend,” Rollins says. “And it was the slow, soaking rain we needed. And we may get snow, which would be a big help.”
After moisture, the next step is to allow the land to rest, he says. “The first year is the most critical in rangeland recovery. We have a variety of soil types in this area, from blow sand to heavy clay, but, regardless of soil type, the key that first year is total deferment. It's critical to stay off the land. Rest helps recovery.”
Rollins says the latest fire was not the first time wildfires have swept across the Texas High Plains. “It will recover,” he says.
Reseeding burned rangeland “is not an option and will be a waste of money. Let Mother Nature take her course and just keep cattle off the range.”
He says if moisture is adequate and if ranchers allow the land to rest through the summer, they may be able to do “limited stocking by first frost.”
He says the wildfire, despite the toll it has taken, comes with some silver linings. “We'll see a reduced number of cactus and woody plants following this fire,” he says. “Ranchers will get a five or more year period of grace (without the undesirable vegetation) and will have better grazing than before the fire — if they let it rest. But they have to keep cattle off this first year.”
Rollins says he understands the temptation. “This is their livelihood and some may want to plant some grazing or get cattle back on as soon as moisture and warmer weather brings grass back, but it's a mistake.”
He says the more fragile soils will be particularly vulnerable to grazing before full recovery. “Soils that are mostly sand and prone to blowing don't need hoof traffic. We get a lot of wind in the High Plains and the combination of wind and sand sandblast young vegetation.”
Rollins says a factor working in favor of leaving the land idle for months will be the need to replace hundreds of miles of fencing. “We have a limited number of fence contractors who can do the job so it's going to take some time,” he says. “But some ranchers are already planning on putting up perimeter fences and I hope they don't restock too soon. That will be a mistake.”
Rollins has seen rangeland recover from wildfire before. “I was in Abilene in 1988 (when wildfire took out a lot of acres),” he says. “Afterward, grazing was greatly improved.”
And it's not just elimination the undesirable vegetation for a few years that will help.
“A lot of this land had growth of little blue stem so rank that cattle wouldn't eat it. Now, it will have an opportunity to put back tender growth. Ranchers will have better forage.”
He says several programs will be available to help ranchers recover. “They can use EQIP a year from now to put in cross fencing, windmills and water troughs. A government emergency program also may be available to help rebuild fences.”
He hopes an emergency watershed bill that offers ranchers some income per acre to leave the land idle for the next year goes through Congress and that ranchers take advantage of it. “That will be money well spent,” he says. “This first year is the key to sustainability.”
He says wildlife will benefit from the burn as well. “We will begin seeing a flush of wildlife in two to three years.
“But the most important management practice for recovery is complete deferral this first year.”