There is a saying that goes something like this, “Spray early, and mow late.” It refers to a central theme used for pasture management by many of today’s ranchers. Fortunately, in the Flint Hills we are blessed with such a natural abundance of tall-grass prairie we can (although it is more difficult) modify this saying to “Burn early, mow late.
However, even in the Flint Hills, many of the more modern techniques used to improve pasture land and provide the largest gains in livestock now involve the overuse of potentially harmful chemicals. Recent technology has many producers around the country focused on improving the quality of grassland by using chemical based herbicides to help control unwanted weeds and woody stem plants.
The quick and easy way to rid a pasture of these undesirables is to spray these chemicals over large areas. This is done using a variety of vehicles, such as a helicopter for aerial spraying or a large tractor rig that uses a powerful hose to project these chemicals far and wide. Some ranchers have even gone so far as to mix more chemically potent sprays on their own to kill locust and cedar trees on contact. The consequence of this action being polluted soils and watershed that eventually find their way into the diet of the cattle they raise and we consume.
Prior to the availability of these chemicals, ranchers had to find innovative ways to control unwanted plants in the pasture and to keep their pastures healthy and alive with an abundance of natural tall-grass species. Of course most of these options involved long hours and hard work.
Fortunately the early ranchers in the Flint Hills had traditions learned from the American Indian to help renew pastureland after a healthy growing season and a long winter. The phrase burn early, mow late refers to the traditions of burning pasture in the spring as weeds begin to grow but before they develop seedlings. Later in the season, prior to pastures going dormant, early ranchers would mow in order to weaken the root systems in weeds and encourage the further spread of healthy prairie grass. On our ranch we have proven this method still works today.
Like the difference between responsible use of antibiotics to care for sick animals and the proactive use of antibiotics seen in many of today’s feedlots, a similar distinction is seen between chemically treating a tree stump and the practice of mass overuse of chemicals in the field.
The hard works comes as we continually hand cut unwanted saplings and collect them in ravines in order to safely burn them when the time is right. Common sense and a look to the past are our best guides to creating healthy pastureland and producing quality food products for all consumers.