How to Implement Patch Burning
Selecting the proper stocking rate on the unit is the most important step when planning a patch burn program. Most land managers believe that “more is better”, but research demonstrates that maximum net return/acre occurs at a moderate stocking rate (Figure 17). For the benefit of livestock, plant community, and wildlife, proper stocking rate is crucial. Stocking rate is also important in patch burning because once patch burning is implemented, grazing is not deferred either before or after burning, and the livestock are left on the pasture the entire time (even while burning). Therefore, the proper stocking rate will provide two contrasting patch types: 1) a grazing lawn in the most recently burned patch, and 2) ungrazed grasses in the patch with the greatest time since the last burn (least recently burned patch). If stocking rate is too light, a grazing lawn will not occur in the most recently burned patch (i.e., the grass will be too tall to qualify as a “lawn”). If stocking rate is too heavy, grazing will occur in the least recently burned patch, and in the extreme, this patch will not carry a fire.
The next decision is to determine the fire return interval. In areas of higher rainfall (30+ inches per year), a fire return interval of three years has been used effectively. While in drier regions, a four year fire return interval might provide better results.
Once the fire return interval has been determined the land manager may want to consider burning in different seasons of the year. Growing season burns can be very beneficial for wildlife and livestock. For example, we found that a cow-calf enterprise can benefit with burning in both the dormant and growing season because the contrasting burn seasons provides patches with higher quality forage during these different times of the year.
After deciding on fire return interval and burning season, simply divide the pasture into the appropriate number of burn units. For example (Figure 18), for a three year fire return interval and burning in the both the dormant and growing season, divide the pasture into six patches. The patches do not have to be the exact same size, and patch boundaries can utilize existing county or pasture roads, creeks, or other natural barriers to reduce fire break construction and to facilitate safer and easier burning.
Figure 17. Selecting a proper stocking rate is the most important decision when implementing patch burning. Most land managers believe that “more is better”, but research demonstrates that maximum net return per acre occurs at a moderate stocking rate.
Figure 18. An example of patch burning designed for a three-year fire frequency and two burning seasons. This design uses existing pasture roads, creeks, and some establishment of permanent lines for fire breaks.