Thursday, 09 November 2017 06:38

Long recovery time for rangelands from fires

Written by  Jamie Rieger
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The recovery of rangeland and rebuilding of cattle herds, following a volatile grassfire season in southern Alberta, will take years and producers are only starting to begin what will be a lengthy road back to having  productive operations.

Long before any cattle can be grazed again on these rangelands, nature must be able to do its work in recovering the grass and rangeland agrologists from Public Lands have been working on assessing the fire damaged grasslands
Terry Hood, rangeland agrologist for the Public Lands division of Alberta Environment and Parks said they want to get out and have a look at the damage as soon as possible when a grassfire happens on public land.
“We often work with the disposition holders on how to management the rangeland and recovery from fire is part of that,” said Hood. “On Public Lands, we want to look at it as soon as possible.”
Depending on how much damage was done to the grass, the recovery can take a few years before cattle are allowed back for grazing.
“With native grassland, it is a minimum of one solid year of rest, then it gets re-evaluated to see if they can recover the grass. If not, then it rests for another year,” said Hood. “Everything depends on Mother Nature. That’s what it’s all about.”
Hood added that some grassfires are so intense they burn down to the mineral soil and the recovery time can be a lot longer. The amount of ‘litter’ can also have an impact on the length of recovery time.
“Some can bounce back, depending on the litter, which is one, two, or three year-old growth. The value of the litter is important because it protects for moisture and the nutrient cycle. In this corner of the province, we put a very high value on litter,” said Hood, noting that proper rangeland management during good years is also important. “Take half and leave half. Then you graze to encourage growth for the next year. Litter is so important and not something you want to ignore. A lot of ranchers in this area have good preparations in place,”
Jim Hern, who ranches in the Bindloss area, didn’t lose any cattle in the wildfires that missed his land by 3/4 of a mile said the fields that had the hay already cut is already seeing some regrowth.
“Where the hayland was cut, the burn was quick and it’s already starting to come back green,” said Hern. “Where there was heavy foliage, the fire went right down to the nutrients and it is burned black,” said Hern, adding that the soil in some places has been getting blown away.
“Then, there is the drifting. There have been terrible winds, so the soil is drifting,” he said.
While stockpiling hay for winter feeding is normal, many producers have also lost that source.
“Stock-piling hay in the winter is fairly normal, but if you’re a winter grazer and not stock-piling and they have to rent someplace else. In the case of drought, they can be shipped as far away as Manitoba,” said Hood. “Sometimes, lessees are undergrazing so they have a little room there.”
In the areas hardest hit by the Oct. 17 wildfires, the rangeland for grazing is still a long way down the road for ranchers who are having to look at options for not only rebuilding their herds, but also putting up fences, buildings, and having the finances to do it.
“It is really traumatic for people, some are still in shock,” said Hern. “They have to have insurance money coming in. They have to have money to build the fences and for feed before they can put cattle back out there.”
Hern added that crop insurance may pay for two years, so grass insurance is also needed if the rangeland can not be accessed for grazing for three.
“Get your finances ahead, so you can start going to the auction mart,” said Hern. “The cattle will be more expensive. Prices are high right now, but the main thing is having finances. Talk to your bank manager and have insurance. Get financing for building fences.”
Amanda Miller, rangeland specialist whose role is to support the agrologists in determining the health of the rangeland and how long it would take before cattle would be allowed back.
“When a fire happens, the timing, severity, and growing season all play into it. Sometimes, 25-50 percent may be allowed back the following year. Other times it could take a lot longer than that,” said Miller. “We want our disposition holders to be viable, but we need our rangelands healthy.”

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