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Sunday, April 11, 2010

Tailgate Lectures: Call the Fire Chief - Better Safe than Sorry

I can remember sitting on the back of a tailgate with my Grandpa after feeding the cows. Looking out over the sandy hills of our pasture, through the dust haze settled over a feedlot and right along the horizon seeing a flicker of orange blaze. He told me to grab the bag phone (yes we had those sweet bag phones) and dial the fire department. He rattled off the intersection of old county roads committed to memory and told me to relay the information to the fire chief, Sonny. Always be safe, he said, it's far better than sorry...

Now, I still get that urge to call in a field fire if I happen to stumble upon one driving around the Manhattan area. If you are from the Flint Hills of Kansas you would probably laugh at that urge. If you aren’t, then let this post help you out. It’s pasture burning season in the Flint Hills and if every country kid from Western Kansas called in a pasture fire, I have a feeling the Fire Department would laugh into the receiver. Here’s the low down on why farmers and ranchers must burn off the grasses in the Flint Hills every year about this time.

  •  Cedar trees and scrub brush are considered noxious weeds to pasture managers. They must be eliminated so that they don’t choke out the nutrients that grass needs to grow. Burning is both an economical and environmentally friendly way of eliminating such growth.
  • The dead grass needs to be removed to promote the new fresh growth of nutrient dense grass. Burning is the only way to accomplish this, unless you could invent a mower that could bag thousands of acres and remove the blades of old grass. That’s a big Grasshopper!!!
  • Sometimes cattle are picky and favor one side of a pasture. The grass then grows unevenly and is less desired. Good pasture management and prescribed burning can take care of this problem too. 

Farmers and ranchers have an important environmental impact in the Flint Hills.  They have the ability to harvest thousands of acres of natural grasslands that would otherwise go unused because of the inability to farm the rocky soils. By harvesting the Flint Hills, utilizing cattle as natural lawn mowers, they can produce a nutrient dense food product for consumers around the world.

I’m from the very southwest part of Kansas. That’s past Salina, and Great Bend and even Dodge City, for some people who have trouble with Kansas geography. So I was in some of your shoes when I first moved to Manhattan and experienced the burning of the Flint Hills. For a while I just thought everyone in the neighborhood was grilling out. That’s a lot of hot dogs!

Talk to a stranger about why pastures are being burnt off. I often hear people complaining about smoke in the air this time of year. Maybe if they understood the importance, the smoke doesn't seem so bad. A little understanding can go a long way!

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