Burning Up: Controlled Prairie Fires

A couple months ago we conducted a controlled fire at our ranch to prepare for another year of grazing. This is a common practice for ranchers and something that is usually done anywhere from once a year to every couple of years. The main reason we do this is to burn away all the dead growth that the cows will no longer eat or gain nutrition from and make way for some new green! This is something that is crucial in maintaining forests as well and surprisingly plays an important role in preventing forest fires. The idea is basically the same for both ecosystems. By burning away the dead stuff in a controlled environment you take away the fuels that allow for an accidental fire to get wildly out of control. This greatly benefits wildlife in the area as well by stirring up insects and clearing the overgrowth to allow birds and other animals to feed, starting the food chain. Improving all sorts of animal habitats, allowing for new growth, and recycling nutrients back into the soil are all advantages that come from this method. It isn’t pretty at first but doesn’t take long for new life to spring up and really freshen the place up. If you’re interested in reading about this process from someone outside of ranch life, keep on reading! Keeping up with the ranch is definitely hard work and takes a lot of time and effort. I was glad I got to be a part of such an important day.

I rarely get to visit the ranch myself as 99% of my duties are here at the office, but I begged and begged to tag along for burn day. Ok, I didn’t actually have to beg, just remind them several times to not forget about me. Believe it or not, I WANTED to help – manual labor and all. As someone who is relaying this information to the public, I feel it is important to experience first hand what I write about. I also knew this was going to be an exciting and interesting day.

We got started early. The plan was to burn about 1100 of the 1400-ish acres we have. We were on the road at 7:30am and to the ranch by 9:00am. It’s my experience so far that these ranch trips are never just a quick “get the equipment running and go” type things, haha. We got the gators, four-wheelers, trucks, water tanks, lighters, propane tanks, drink coolers, and finally the crew all together. Being probably the most directionally challenged person I know, all that mattered to me was that I stay with a smart person so I didn’t get turned around and stuck in a place I really didn’t want to be.

We all started out together and a couple of the guys got a little fire started….then we stood there and watched. I’ll admit I was a little disappointed and worried that was it, but give it a few minutes and we had all split up with a plan. My buddy Joe (the one that taught me to drive the tractor on Ranch Day last year) and I took off some direction to some field. I honestly assumed I’d be doing a lot of watching and eventually get to try my hand at the propane wand. Nope. I was thrown in immediately and it was a lot of fun. Basically Joe drove down a strip at a constant, slow speed while I hung out the door with the wand, lighting a small fire that quickly rose and grew behind us, spreading with the wind.

Chaotic Joe and Jess Moment #1: I looked like a total city girl (which I’m really not!) and forgot my phone was in my jacket pocket. It fell out, I yelled and started to get out of the gator, but before I could even get past the door my trusty partner was over to my side, grabbed my phone, and was rushing to get back in to drive away from the flames that were quickly gaining on us. Good times…

So this is basically how the day went. I would hang out the door as long as my arm could take it, then we would switch and Joe would drive and light at the same time. After we did the perimeters of the ranch we had to go more inward and light areas to burn again. It was so important to be careful around neighbors’ land. Communication, a leaf blower, and water was key.

Chaotic Joe and Jess Moment #2: Ok, not really chaotic, but comical. At one point Joe had to help with a bigger area and hopped out, leaving me to man the gator thing “in case I had to move it away from the fire.” I didn’t realize “in case” actually meant “when.” Reverse was easy but I probably should’ve figured out how to move forward before I was alone…

This little switch in drivers became a favorite of Joe’s and he quickly became spoiled by having a chauffeur. Needless to say I was in the driver’s seat the rest of the day. My skills were put to the test as I had to burn and drive at the same time occasionally. My buddy is much better at this than me but I did it! The strength it takes to light these fires is weird. It’s not like there’s much moving involved, and while my arm did get tired I felt like I could’ve held it out all day as long as I moved positions and could prop it up against something occasionally. The true test was when Joe handed me a peanut butter cracker and I realized my arm was actually jello. I struggled (and looked incredibly dumb) trying to get the cracker to my mouth. Let me just tell you how sore I was the next day…

Chaotic Joe and Jess Moment #3: At one point I’m driving along and didn’t even realize Joe had hopped out and was walking behind getting a drink out of the cooler. He did this quite often, but at one point he had to help me relight the wand – He had trouble, the flames got closer and closer, I’m yelling for him to get back in. In hindsight, it wasn’t actually that bad. If he really thought he was in danger he could’ve taken some steps over and I could’ve driven a little away. But again, comical as I unnecessarily freaked out. I’m not comfortable with fire. Clearly.

We continued going inward. Joe got to experience my true lack of direction as we drove around a whole line of trees and he tried to tell me to drive back to where we came from. I’m not sure he understood fully that I had no clue where I was. This was probably the most fun part of the day. We lit and these fires got huge and moved quickly but they were gone faster than they appeared. We would go down one line, turn around, and were driving on what we had just burned to do another line. As entertaining as it was to watch, it also makes you realize how seriously this dead growth could cause many problems if not maintained in a controlled environment like this.

Chaotic Joe and Jess Moment #4: Have you picked up on how overly dramatic these “chaotic” moments are yet? At one point we were starting to go towards a hill to continue lighting fires, but instead a fire started racing towards us over that hill. Clearly, someone had beaten us to lighting that strip. No, we weren’t actually even remotely in danger, but as we turned around to go back the other way I really thought about how terrifying it would be to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Fire’s no joke.

These types of comments are what get me called a dork all the time, but at some points I almost felt like a storm chaser…with fire. As relaxed and laid back as we were most of the day, safety really was a priority. Again, I say communication is key. At one point we while standing around chatting, all of a sudden someone comes on over the walkie-talkie and one of the guys mid sentence takes off running while yelling, “we’ve gotta go!” We all take off to where the rest of the gang was to help contain a fire that we were close to losing control of. This stuff happens. I felt like I was in one of my favorite movies, Twister. 

We did this all day until about 6:00pm when us Tulsans headed back to the ranch house to pack up and go home. We are fortunate to have ranch hands that live nearby to help keep an eye on things. Tired and exhausted, we finally took off at around 7:30, but (priorities first) we had to stop by Buck’s BBQ on the way home. I don’t know if it was the lack of food all day mixed with an excess of energy drinks, the fact that it was a long day of physical work, or that the food really was that good (it is), but that night I ate the most amazing steak I’ve ever had. With sides of onion rings and a baked potato, followed by a delicious slice of coconut cream pie, I went home full, happy, and sleepy. Everyone needs to make a trip up to Sedan to eat at Buck’s.

I was home by 10:30, asleep by 11:00, and back to the office by 8:30 the next morning. It was fun being greeted by my equally tired and sore coworkers, and hearing that the rest of the guys were moving a little more slowly that morning as well. I felt like I kept up well and am part of the ranch group now.

It was so fun to get out of my normal element and spend time with coworkers outside of the office. You learn a lot (such as Brian’s hatred of cedars and obsession with burning them down) and it’s great getting to share these experiences with anyone interested.

I really got to witness the hard work and long hours that are put in to maintaining a ranch and admire the teamwork and careful communication required to make safety a priority all while doing our part to preserve the prairies and take care of our cows!

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Fire!: The Benefits of Controlled Burning

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There is a surprising enemy of the native grass pastures and that is: Trees! More specifically the Red Cedar, Osage Orange (Hedge Apple), and Locust trees.  Among these, others are lurking such as weeds and parasites. The Tall Grass Prairie is one of the most endangered ecosystems and the only way to keep this ecosystem healthy is by using prescribed burns.

At Grant Creek Ranch our goal is to preserve, restore, and enhance this important ecosystem found at our farm. A prescribed burn will kill any new seedlings that try to come up which will aid in keeping the pasture tree-free for the following year. It reduces the need to spray for weeds and may reduce internal parasites which live in the pastures over the winter. Finally, it will enhance grazing by the cattle which we know contributes to all that delicious grass-fed goodness.

So how does it work? Areas that burn the best contain the most grass fuel. These just happen to be the least grazed areas from the past grazing year.  Vice versa, areas that will burn the least are the heavily grazed areas from the past grazing year since there is not as much grass fuel.  After a burn, new grass will quickly grow and the cattle will want to eat the new grass over having to pick through last year’s dead grass to get to the new growth. So the areas that burn the best, the under grazed areas from the year before, will be grazed during the new grazing year while the overgrazed area from the year before will not burn as well and the cattle will not graze this area as heavily because there is not as much new grass.  This effectively rotates the cattle to new areas of the pasture and forces them to graze more efficiently.

Read more about the benefits of burning!