Eastern red cedar control critical to rangeland health, grass production
for The Fence Post
“We never really noticed the eastern red cedar problem until it was way past time,” said southwest Nebraska rancher Scott Stout. He credited his neighbors with helping each other to dramatically control the overwhelming cedar, which in turn, has improved access to pasture, grazing for livestock and increased rural support for businesses.
Eastern red cedar is now reported to be a national concern, with overgrowth reported through the Great Plains from Oklahoma to Kansas, Nebraska and South Dakota. Stout said his 7,000-acre property in Curtis, Neb., had a 60 percent canopy overgrowth of eastern red eedar in 2002 when a group of landowners in the Loess Canyon area formed the Loess Canyon Rangeland Alliance (LCRA).
“We’re landowners who help each other with applying prescribed fires to our land. Since the group formed, we’ve burned a total of 80,000 acres of the cedar,” said Stout, who is now a technical service provider with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and an accomplished “burn boss.”
“We couldn’t figure out how to maintain the cedar, so in 2008 we used prescribed fire. We have a long way to go, but have made a little bit of difference,” added Stout who now writes burn plans for the NRCS, and owns 500 head of Angus and Simmental Angus commercial cross cow/calf pairs. The LCRA consists of several canyons in southwest Nebraska, with the Continental Divide carved through its 300,000 acres from the Platte River Valley south to Highway 23, and west to east from highway 83 to Gothenburg, Neb.
Fire has become a management practice for their operation. Stout said, when he first came to southwest Nebraska with his father-in-law in 1998, they were able to drive a pick-up truck through most areas.
“By 2008, most areas were covered with cedars, and not accessible for us or cattle, and we realized in a hurry we needed to get something done.”
Several in their group belong to the volunteer fire department and use the skills they learned from doing prescribed burns, to teach others.
A highly respected veterinarian in the Plains said control of eastern red cedar especially through prescribed burns, has returned cedar tree forests back to important land for cattle to graze.
“What red cedar control is accomplishing, is providing increased carrying/grazing capacity of pastures, increased access to land for management, maintenance and improvements; produced better rotational grazing management and other strategies. It has also increased income from the enterprise, helped the sustainability of family ranches (cattle and grass production) and provided support for rural town businesses and infrastructure,” said Dale Grotelueschen, DVM, Professor Emeritus (retired) past University of Nebraska Lincoln director of the Great Plains Veterinary Educational Center.
With the Eastern Red Cedar species invading multiple states, research is showing that once someone has this cedar problem and it is reaching higher densities, it quickly re-invades more than it did previously.
“There are a lot of areas in Kansas, Oklahoma and Nebraska that are really behind the eight-ball and there’s work ahead of us to keep our remaining grasslands intact,” said Dirac Twidwell, associate professor and rangeland ecologist for the Large-Scale Rangeland Conservation Lab at UNL, whose research is focused on eastern red cedar control. “Don’t wait until you have to clear it,” he said.
Specialists are examining how this cedar invades new areas and how to prevent it. Twidwell said they’re seeing federal changes that will align with producers programs to have more success in the future.
“We’re seeing this increased sense of urgency from landowners, and the science that shows the consequence of rangeland values, but also agencies are discussing this as a national issue. More and more, there is recognition that we need to manage cedar differently, if we’re going to get ahead of this problem,” added Twidwell, who serves as science adviser for the USDA NRCS on the topic of eastern red cedar management.
PREVENTION IS PARAMOUNT
“Any way we can stop that seed dispersal from happening makes it easier to manage cedar on your property, and also if your neighbor is helping and not ‘throwing’ seed from natural seed sources on their property onto yours,” Twidwell said.
They now have the ability to track woody plant invasions and they can see where encroachment is through information from satellites and data that are used to create a map showing where cedars and other woody plants are located.
“So, what we want people to look for is the source of the problem from mature trees that have seeds. The spread is coming from those seed bearing trees,” Twidwell said.
Kansas, Nebraska and surrounding states are all starting to look at eastern red cedar, and officials are examining national programs for landowners to get ahead of the problem.
The more that people can prevent the problem, the more grassland there will be. Waiting to respond until a problem already exists has not worked long-term. “We know prevention is more beneficial to grassland wildlife species,” Twidwell said. “You’re also reducing a volatile fuel, and you’re reducing wildfire danger. That enables firemen to put out fires easier due to the reduction in wildfire danger. This can be avoided by using prescribed fire, hand cuttings, and other practices to stop seedlings and prevent seed-bearing trees.”
Twidwell said even if you had a cedar problem in the past, don’t wait ‘til you have a problem again.
“Treat grassland like it’s in rehab, and prevent it from coming back. Do anything to stop the seed bank. Some use the big ‘Tonka Toys,’ (skidsteers, others) to restore grassland lost to cedar, but that’s one step in the process. If you’re just doing that, you still have seeds in there from the parent plant, or from neighboring properties. So that’s why we keep chasing this problem and it’s spreading so much,” Twidwell said.
Action is recommended: the earlier/the better. Prevention accomplishes the most.
“Think of it like corn or soybeans, and how much effort goes into preventing decreases in yield or damages to crops. Instead of waiting until forage production and rangeland is affected by cedar trees… let’s prevent damage to the rangeland crop. This means recognizing that the seed source is the problem.”
Ever since the Loess Canyon landowners began their community project, Loess Canyon landowners don’t need to handle cedar as often with mechanical implements. “We’ll shear trees with a skidsteer but only now to prep the burn unit, to help make a safe burn unit, and reduce the trees,” Stout said.
The Loess Canyon program has been successful and they now have 2,900 pounds per acre more forage where they’ve been managing their land with cedar control, because nothing grows under it.
As Twidwell concluded, “You don’t have to wait to act. Recognize that seed dispersal happens close to the seed source, and if you clear mature seed sources with skidsteers, you’ll still have seed leftover that causes the problem to come back. We know that building core areas that are cedar seed-free and pushing out from those areas into the boundary areas where cedars occur, will do a better job of preventing growth. In the past few years, we’ve learned this working alongside landowners… like those in the Loess Canyon,” Twidwell said adding, “Let’s get after it early to conserve more rangeland.”
— Hadachek is a freelance writer who lives on a farm with her husband in north central Kansas and is also a meteorologist and storm chaser. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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