Livestock grazing can be fire mitigation tool during the season
In high risk years, a heavy growth of grass occurs in late fall or early spring followed by a hot, early summer leaving massive amounts of flash fuel just awaiting a lightning strike, a pitched cigarette or the Fourth of July.
Historically, many small towns have shared grazing spaces in the center of or surrounding towns referred to as the “commons.” This practice provided not only nutrition for horses and milk cows when we used them, but also reduced fire risk to adjacent areas.
Livestock grazing management can establish a natural fire break around areas needing protection by shortening vegetation height and removing flash fuels like dry grasses and ladder fuels such as small brush.
The side benefit is when a wildfire reaches the area of low vegetation, the flame height, heat and intensity drop, allowing responders to have the upper hand.
Livestock can help with this targeted grazing in different ways, including removing grass, shrubs, slash and timber risks. Cattle and horses usually consume grass; sheep and goats usually remove some grass but also forbs and small shrubs. If left for extended periods, goats, alpacas and llamas will thin brush.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Sustainable Agriculture Research Education and Colorado State University research trials used goats to thin and remove mountain mahogany to reduce fire risk near Beulah, Colo., from 2003-2005.
Targeted grazing trials by Texas A&M and Utah State University reduced grass and brush, including mesquite, to create fire breaks in the late 1990s. Research on using livestock to control fire risks have been underway since 1927 at land-grant universities. Zimmerman and Neuenschwander wrote one of the most significant papers on the subject in 1984, which was published in the Journal of Range Management. Landowners with significant fire risk, including infestation by pesky cheatgrass (downey brome), can still use livestock to reduce risks.
Establish a safety border by using electric fence to develop a 30- to 40-foot corridor around the inside perimeter of your property and then graze it with the appropriate livestock.
It does not have to be your livestock. If you have no livestock, possibly a neighbor will graze it for you and compensate for the pasture. In comparison to using a mower, which you have to fuel and then take the chance of shedding a spark when it hits a rock, livestock is a better option.
We call it targeted grazing since it is grazing to reach an objective and should include specific animal management. Some of our youngsters with animals possibly could start a “Fire Break Grazing” service.
Using livestock as a fire control tool is not a new concept. Part of Red Cloud’s “Winter Count” elk hide on display at Agate Fossil Beds notates setting fires to draw herds of buffalo to certain areas and grazing bands of horses to keep lodges safe from fire. If you have livestock, or access to them – consider using them to enhance your wildfire safety. ❖
Scott Cotton is a University of Wyoming Extension educator serving Converse, Natrona, and Niobrara counties. He can be reached at (307) 235-9400 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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