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Fire & Ice

By Jill J. Dunkel

One family's tale of how Mother Nature's obstacles uncovered new opportunities for their ranch.

Fire and Ice. Two words that are almost polar opposites. Each can have beneficial effects, and yet each can wreak havoc for ranchers. In the last year, I have experienced the good and the bad of both.

If you told me how this story would unfold 22 months ago, I would have had my doubts. The morning of April 10, 2009, I rose with the sun to see a barren land. The old-timers called it a moonscape. The day before, we had experienced a fire for the record books. It left a devastation nary a volunteer fire fighter had ever seen.

Fueled by strong winds and an overabundance of dead, dried forage, the flames licked almost every inch of our land. Sucking out any available moisture as it roared across the ranch, the heat burned every inch of forage above ground, and then burned the dirt, the roots and any seedlings in the topsoil.

The wind following the flames lifted the soot and dirt remaining, taking it on a wild ride to the east. The devastation was dramatic. Not only was everything burned, but the erosion was amazing. Rock formations, hidden by years of thick forage and topsoil now jutted out of the barren land. Two-foot tall drifts of topsoil decorated my yard. The entire landscape was forever changed.

How would anything ever grow again?

The ranch

My husband and I live in Archer County, representing the fifth generation of my family to live and work on this land. We've always operated as a traditional cow-calf business. My late grandfather, Dick Coleman, spent his entire life working to improve the mesquite-dotted landscape, leaving it better than he found it 80-plus years ago.

Through the years, we used advice and programs from the Soil Conservation Service, now the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), on weed and mesquite control, and tank construction.

In 2002, we participated in an Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), clearing thick mesquite from a pasture just west of our house. As part of the program, we planted improved grasses including sideoats grama, WW-B. Dahl bluestem and green sprangletop.

Shortly after planting, perfectly timed spring rains fell and the improved forage began to grow. And grow it did.

As part of the EQIP contract, we deferred grazing the pasture for various lengths of time over several years. The grass in the pasture was plentiful, and it summered our entire cow herd, allowing us to save native pastures for winter grazing.

In just a few years, the grass became so thick and tall that our cows were unable to keep its growth under control, and we performed a controlled burn one spring in an effort to get rid of dead, standing forage.

Fresh, tasty, tender grass grew back in its place, providing excellent forage for our cows once again. We implemented a rotational grazing program for the cows, dividing the pasture into 2 main cells.

However, in 2008 the pasture once again provided stirrup-deep grass. And once again, our cows did their best to use the forage, but its growth outpaced their grazing, leaving a thick, tall canvas to frost and die that winter. Basically, it was kindling.

So on the morning of April 9, when a stray spark carried by 40 mile-per-hour winds from the west and south landed in this pasture, a fire of epic proportions ensued. Twenty-four hours later, 90 percent of our grazing was gone, as well as several thousand acres belonging to others. The fire was eventually snuffed out as it burned into a large lake.

Just days after the devastating fire, clouds gathered and a steady rain soaked into our parched pasture land. Green sprouts quickly followed, peeking out of the blackened ground. The miraculous healing had begun.

The blizzard

In North Texas, hearing the local weatherman forecast a "dusting of snow" just before Christmas is a true treat. Our area usually sees some form of snow each year, but more than an inch is rare. So when a heavy, wet snow began to fall on Christmas Eve morning, the idea of a true white Christmas had all of my family abuzz.

However, the visions of a "dreamy" white Christmas with a few inches of snow soon gave way to reality — a Christmas blizzard, complete with 15 inches of snow and 30-mile-per-hour winds.

Visions of sugarplums and sitting around the fire drinking cider quickly were replaced with the reality of getting hay to our cows.

The pickup, despite being 4-wheel drive, was stuck in the snow on the driveway. So that meant an open top tractor was the vehicle of "choice."

Round bale after round bale, the cows were definitely glad to see us delivering their Christmas meal.

The following day, the sun peeked over the horizon, making the wet snow glisten for our own North Texas winter wonderland. Sunny days that followed slowly transformed the winter white into moisture for the land. Remarkably, it took 3 weeks for the Christmas deluge to melt away completely. And that was 3 weeks of continual moisture soaking into the soil.

The recovery

Shortly after the fire, friend and NRCS Marketing Specialist Dee Ann Littlefield, heard our ranch was burned, and she asked to bring several range specialists to tour our ranch. They wanted to see the effects of the fire and monitor the recovery.

Surprisingly, not that much research exists on how rangeland recovers from such a devastatingly hot fire. Sure, plenty of research has been conducted on how fire is healthy for pasture. But our fire was different, considering the extreme heat and erosion that occurred.

Since the spring of 2009, NRCS Soil Scientist Nathan Haile, NRCS Range Management Specialists Kent Ferguson and Lem Creswell, and others have observed how our land has healed. On a recent visit, Ferguson put it most appropriately. "This place looks amazing." And even we are surprised at the recovery.

"Don't get me wrong," he said. "The fire was awful. But the benefits of the fire have been wonderful."

Acres of standing, dead mesquite trees killed years ago from chemicals that are no longer available have been removed from the landscape. Brush piles of grubbed and root-plowed mesquites are no more. Both have been replaced with rolling plains of grasses.

But it has taken time. Immediately following the fire, we relocated our cow herd so our pasture could rest. The cows were not brought back until the end of the growing season for the improved pasture, and we didn’t turn cows out on the native pastures until the first freeze.

Stocking rates were modest, and when an abundance of weeds appeared to take hold, we aerially sprayed a herbicide.

A recent analysis of the types and weight of forage in the native pastures revealed more than 20 types of forages, with the vast majority of them beneficial plants. Winter grasses, which were slower to develop in the winter immediately following the fire, have this year pushed green sprigs up above the frostbitten summer grass.

The litter on the topsoil — which was completely erased from the fire — is slowly returning, providing fertilizer and protection to the soil beneath. Worms and other organisms have returned to the soil.

According to Ferguson, we had the ideal situation … a fire that cleaned the landscape, and then a wet, slow melting snow that provided plentiful submoisture.

The future

The fire has also developed a new working relationship between my family and NRCS range experts. With their guidance and help, we are developing a new grazing strategy to fully use the abundance of forage produced by the improved grasses.

We are branching out in the livestock business beyond a cow-calf operation and incorporating stocker cattle into the business.

The pasture that we cleared years ago now has a tremendous crop of WW-B. Dahl bluestem. Instead of fighting the forage that our cow herd could not keep up with, we are dividing that pasture into additional rotational grazing cells. Some cells will be reserved to run the cows and calves throughout the summer, while others will graze stocker cattle during the growing season. We still plan to reserve our native pasture to winter the cows and our weaned calves.

Although the fire was devastating, and involved 6 months of recovery efforts to our home and property, the events of 2009 — fire and ice — were a blessing in disguise.

It has led to working relationships with range experts that we would not likely have sought out otherwise. And these relationships have offered additional business opportunities to make our land raise more beef.

In a day where it's difficult to make newly purchased land pay for itself, the idea of new strategies to better utilize the land we already own is likely the perfect situation.

"Fire & Ice" is from the February 2011 issue of The Cattleman magazine.