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Controlled Burn on Pasture Grass Jump-starts Grazing for Cow Herds

April 1, 2014
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By: Duane Dailey, Senior Writer, University of Missouri

A blackened pasture warms faster on a cold spring day. That starts early grass growth.

"Fire is the most underused grass management tool we have," says Rob Kallenbach, University of Missouri Extension forage specialist.

With the long, cold winter followed by a delayed spring, fire may offer a chance to jump-start grass growth by warming the soil.

"We know the value of controlled burns on native warm-season grasses. But we don't realize the value of fire on cool-season grass."

"We are talking wise use of fire," Kallenbach says. "It's called a controlled burn for a reason. It takes preparation, a crew, tools, water tank and a tractor with a tillage tool on standby at the burn site."

Burning a pasture isn't a light-it-and-leave-it method. "Fire must be watched and controlled. It's not something you do when winds are 30 miles per hour."

Burning cool-season grass pastures comes earlier in the year than burning a native-prairie pasture. But benefits are similar.

The fire removes thatch that shades new growth. And minerals in the dead weeds and grass are returned to the soil, ready to be used by new growth.

A big benefit of an early burn on cool-season grass is the warming impact on the soil. The sun's energy is absorbed and passed to the soil. It's not reflected into the atmosphere.

An underappreciated benefit: Fire helps establish clover or other legumes into grass pastures. Fire removes competition for legume seedlings. The new legume receives sunlight and moisture needed to grow.

"Fire is the gold standard for overseeding clover," Kallenbach says. "It may not be foolproof, but I'll just say I've never had a failure." The state forage specialist recommends a 30 percent stand of clover in cool-season pastures.

The clover adds nutrients and protein to the grazing diet for livestock.

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