When making decisions about how to best manage their properties, landowners may feel they have to choose between maximizing livestock production or maximizing their wildlife recreational opportunities. But management practices like patch-burn grazing are beneficial for cattlemen and wildlife managers alike, increasing both the profitability of the livestock operation while also increasing the recreational value of the property.
Patch-burn grazing is a management strategy that attempts to replicate the historic cycle of occasional fires set by either lightning or Native Americans, followed by the grazing of vast herds of bison which, like cattle, prefer freshly burned areas. In practice, pastures are divided into separate units or “patches” with no fences separating the patches. Each patch is then scheduled for a prescribed burn in a rotational fashion. The cattle are allowed to choose where they graze, often choosing the pasture’s most recently burned patch as it will have the preferred young, tender, high-protein grasses and forbs. Patches burned the previous year will likely be dominated by seed-producing food plants for wildlife while the older patches will transition to more grass-dominated plant communities.
In a patch-burn grazing system, patches are rotationally burned across years and across seasons. This system can be applied to 50-acre properties, or those thousands of acres in size.
Is Patch-Burn Grazing Rotational Grazing?
At first glance, patch-burn grazing may resemble another grazing strategy, rotational grazing. But in patch-burn grazing, there are zero fences or gates separating the individual patches, and cattle don’t have to be trailered to another property or rounded up and driven to a new pasture. Instead, the cattle voluntarily move themselves once a new area is burned. This means the manager no longer cuts their property into multiple pastures and they have less fence to maintain.
While rotational grazing can work for both livestock and wildlife with careful monitoring, it can also lead to decreased diversity in the plant and animal communities found on the property. Rotational grazing can cause a shift to a grass-dominated habitat type, resulting in fewer available food plants for species like white-tailed deer and northern bobwhite. And if fire isn’t part of the rotational grazing plan, eastern redcedars and other woody plants can slowly invade.
A Case Study: Patch-Burn Grazing and Northern Bobwhite
Quail are often thought of as a grassland species, and while they do require bunchgrasses to build their nests, they also require a plethora of insects and forb and legume seeds for food, bare ground to maneuver and forage, and plum thickets or sumac mottes for predator and thermal cover. A grass-dominated property may provide good habitat for quail during the nesting season, but without the right mix of native grasses, forbs, bare ground, and shrubs it may not be able to sustain birds throughout the year.
Patch-burn grazing can encourage each of the habitat components quail require by rotating the prescribed burning and grazing schedule across years and across seasons. This rotation creates a blend of foraging areas in more recently burned patches and nesting and predator cover in older patches.
Patch-Burn Grazing Considerations
While patch-burn grazing does require managers to determine how to best divide their pastures into individual patches and how often to burn those patches and in what season, those decisions can be tailored to align with the overall goals for the property.
Patch Size: The size of individual patches can be customized for landowners regardless of their focal species – quail to cattle – and the amount of time and energy they can devote to the strategy. If northern bobwhite is a target species on a working cattle operation, the manager could opt to create 20-acre patches for the ideal mix of nesting and foraging habitat. But that could mean dividing a 640-acre pasture into 32 individual burn patches. Unless multiple scattered 20-acre patches can be burned at the same time, it may be difficult to justify the smaller patch sizes. But if cattle are the target species, five to eight large patches, burned one at a time with a new patch burned every six months, could yield the desired results. In this strategy, a patch would be burned two-and-a-half to four years after it was first burned.
Stocking Rates: “If a little is good, more must be better” may not be the best stocking strategy regardless of your target species. From a land manager and business view, cattle operations usually see the highest net profit from moderate stocking rates. This rate would be set for the entire pasture, even though the cattle will likely spend a majority of their time in the most recently burned patch.
Safety Nets and Supplemental Feeding: Patch-burn grazing can allow land managers to “store” standing forage in the unburned patches, which can provide a safety net, especially in drought years. This stored forage may be lower in protein than new growth, but it compares to grass found in most traditionally grazed pastures. If drought conditions linger, managers implementing a patch-burn grazing strategy may have more time to decide whether to sell off part of their herd or begin supplemental feeding.
Studies by Oklahoma State University showed that growing season fires conducted the previous July or August can result in a later start to supplemental feeding spring-calving cows because of the amount of high-quality forage available after the burn. In this case, supplemental feeding can be postponed from November until January, which can help the landowner’s bottom dollar.
Fuel Load: In some traditionally grazed pastures on a prescribed burn rotation, grazing must be deferred for an entire year to make sure there is enough fuel to carry the fire across the burn unit. With a patch-burn grazing strategy, you are only burning a portion of the pasture during each burn, which means the herd can remain in the pasture during the burn and immediately after for increased production.
There are some scenarios in which rotational grazing can outperform patch-burn grazing, but when wildlife management is also a goal, patch-burn grazing is hard to beat. With patch-burn grazing, landowners can enjoy perks like less supplemental feeding in the winter, having a safety net of standing forage, not having to check as much fence or moving cattle, or the reduced effort it takes to check cattle since they concentrate in the most recently burned areas. Enhanced wildlife habitat through increased diversity is another valued benefit.