Blackened ground, dark smoky air and ashes peppered throughout the sky. It sounds like the impact of a tragedy or the dramatic ending to a dark book. However, “burning” is a common act on the Kansas prairie. The question many may ask is, what is the point?
The Konza Prairie is a vast 8,616 acre research area co-owned by K-State and the Nature Conservancy, according to the K-State website. It provides a mecca of research for biology students as it is one of the last remaining tallgrass prairie ecosystems in the world. Its large hills and limestone base make it nearly impossible to cultivate in, therefore the ecosystem has had the opportunity to survive.
However, along the stream beds of the Konza woody vegetation have begun to show some prominence. These trees absorb more nutrients from the soil than do the native grasses, and their shade blocks available sunlight to the native grasses.
“The most common way of controlling the onset of woody vegetation growth is to burn,” Allison Veach, K-State alumna and graduate student in biology, said.
Burning is a common practice on the Kansas prairie for several reasons. According to an article by Dan Charles on the NPR website entitled, “Fire-Setting Ranchers Have Burning Desire To Save Tallgrass Prairie,” one of those reasons is that it prevents tree growth and encourages the growth of fresh grass.
“We burn to decrease our weed population and encourage the native grass growth,” Levi Winkler, K-State alumnus in animal sciences and local farmer, said. “By burning off the unwanted materials, our soil becomes more receptive to moisture absorption, the burning process also creates a cost effective and efficient organic fertilizer.”
Studies on the subject impact the streams of the Konza and the farmers and ranchers of the Flint Hills as well. Cattle ranchers are populous in the Flint Hills and understand the importance of burning to the survival of their animals.
According the NPR article, local beef farmers in the Flint Hills are a large part of today’s meat production because of the rarity of prairie grasslands. Many other prairie areas around the country have been transformed to farm fields that grow crops such as wheat and corn.
Walter Dodds, distinguished professor of biology, and Veach are continuing to research grassland streams and the expansion of nearby woody vegetation. Both have studied years of data on the Konza Prairie Biological Station which records and publishes their findings to the public. The study has taken one-, four- and 20-year burns into consideration and also includes wildfires.
According to Veach, trees are not by any means taking over the Konza Prairie but they are showing more prominence near the streams.
However, there are some advantages to the growth of the trees. One of those advantages, according to Veach, is that the larger root systems from some of the trees create cracks in the soil that allow for a larger rate of water absorption in the ground.
While cattle are the primary livestock raised in the Flint Hills, other species such as sheep and goats actually prefer the woody vegetation, if it comes to that.
“Goats are excellent browsers,” Brian Faris, associate professor of animal sciences and industry, and sheep and meat goat specialist, said. “As that is their preferred forage, they serve as a very good biological control mechanism for woody plant species they do little to disturb riparian areas while helping to control brush. Generally speaking, goats are effective because they can be targeted at certain areas with simple electric netting and solar fence chargers.”
So though seeing clouds of smoke billowing around the farmlands may seem odd, it means that farmers are out there, keeping the Flint Hills as one of the few tallgrass lands in the country.