The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) may not always be there for producers.

At some point, the CRP program could end, and NDSU’s Hettinger Research Extension Center is looking at alternative land management strategies in case CRP contracts are not renewed.

“CRP has provided fantastic benefits for many species of wildlife, but commitment to the program at the federal level has declined sharply since its heyday a mere 10 years ago,” said Ben Geaumont, HREC wildlife and range scientist.

As CRP contracts have expired in recent years, many producers have converted their CRP acres back to cropland. That removes the grassland cover critically important to many wildlife species, including game birds, grassland birds and pollinators.

“We’re looking at ways to keep our grasslands intact,” Geaumont said. “Patch-burn grazing may be an alternative option for producers that maintains livestock and fosters conservation.”

Patch-burn grazing works to restore the historical disturbance to the landscape that occurred across the Great Plains, where bison followed fire to graze on lush regrowth.

Project parameters 

At HREC’s field days, producers, scientists, graduate students and others caravanned out to one of the grazing pastures in the project.

This is the third year of the four-year patch-burn grazing project, involving six 160-acre pastures.

To start the project, they placed 20-foot firebreaks around the entire pasture and divided that into four patches.

Each summer or fall a prescribed fire is applied to one-quarter (one of the patches) of each pasture.

“We want to do it right. We are cautious with fire and we don’t let it get away from us,” Geaumont said.

Three pastures are stocked with sheep and three pastures stocked with cattle for season-long grazing from around May 15 to September.

While pastures have perimeter fences, livestock are allowed to graze the entire pasture if they want.

Geaumont took the crowd on a partial tour of the pasture, pointing out the lush regrowth of a recently burned area and other areas of the pasture.

“This area was in CRP for 30 years. In all that time, it was never burned,” he said.

NDSU grad students study topics

NDSU graduate students in the natural resource management and range science programs are researching different biological topics as part of the patch-burn grazing project.

Grad students at the field day included: Jonathan Spiess, Jasmine Cutter and Alex Richette.

The students are co-advised by Geaumont and Torre Hovick, a range scientist at NDSU-Fargo. Hovick has a doctorate from Oklahoma State University where he studied patch-burn grazing.

Topics that the grad students are studying include: livestock performance and selection, impacts on forage quality and quantity, soils, and impacts on pollinators and wildlife, such as pheasants and other grassland birds.

Livestock performance in burned areas

“Research has shown that cattle prefer high quality forage that comes up in areas previously burned, and we found that to be true,” Geaumont said.

Spiess, a doctorate student, focused on livestock performance, forage quality and quantity, and changes in the plant community.

Throughout the grazing season, Spiess, along with assistance from the HREC farm crew, placed GPS collars on the cattle and sheep to evaluate what forages they are grazing on.

Livestock spent most of their time in the patch that was most recently burned, though other patches were periodically grazed.

“After burning, there is a lush regrowth of plants and livestock, especially cattle, are targeting these areas,” Spiess said.

Because livestock are mostly attracted to the burned patch, it allowed other patches in the pasture to recover from grazing.

Those other patches not being grazed provided structure for grassland birds that require very dense vegetation patches for nesting.

The recovery also allows forbs to flower, which is key to providing good pollinator habitats.

“It’s too soon to tell, but livestock performance has been good and in terms of cattle, we have seen consistent gains despite the variability in weather we’ve experienced,” Spiess said.

Grazing livestock prefer the burned to the unburned when given the option and “we think that is because of the improved forage quality found in the recently burned patches. Even during the drought, livestock preferred the burned areas to graze in.”

Spiess was worried about animal gains in the 2017 drought, but gains actually improved. Their calf gains were up 0.15 pounds/day during 2017 over 2016, the first year of the study.

Looking at forage quality

When Spiess returns to class in Fargo, he studies the forage quality. He clipped and weighed the forage throughout the summer and will analyze it for protein and fiber quality through the winter.

“Preliminary results are confirming higher quality forage is available in the burned patches compared to those unburned or with greater time since fire,” Spiess said.

For example, in 2016 following prescribed fire, crude protein in the burned patches (18-28 percent) was at least 3 times greater relative to the unburned patches (5-8 percent) in the same pasture.

Plants recover after burning

“An issue with CRP is it lacks diversity, which in return may lower its resiliency and further reduce its utility as grazing lands and cover for wildlife,” Geaumont said.

When the vegetation is burned, plants recover over time. Young, nutritious plants come up in burned areas, some of which may not have previously occurred.  

“Fire removes the litter and changes conditions at ground level, which may be beneficial for establishing seedling and improving plant diversity over time. That provides a long-term benefit for livestock and wildlife,” Geaumont said.

CRP problems for pollinators

In unburned areas, biomass can accumulate. That is especially true of areas with Kentucky bluegrass, a tame grass that creates thick mats of litter that is often uninhabitable by other plants due to the thermal conditions and lack of sunlight.

“We have some issues with Kentucky bluegrass in southwestern North Dakota, especially in CRP where grazing and the lack of fire has not helped to combat its spread,” he said.

In addition to the problems created by bluegrass invasion, there are not a lot of forbs in CRP to establish plant diversity.

While sweet clover and alfalfa help pollinators when they flower, the lack of flower diversity has limited the usefulness of CRP as pollinator habitats.

Burning brings more pollinator habitat

“When we burn off Kentucky bluegrass, we get rid of the litter layer, and other grasses and forbs have an opportunity, if present, to establish,” Geaumont said. “We are also trying to speed up the process of improving plant diversity by overseeding additional flowering plants in areas following the burn.”

In three to five years, there should be more eruptions of flowers and other species.

First round of burns

In 2016, Geaumont, range scientists from NDSU and other team members applied the first round of burns to the pastures, and completed the first burns in September.

“We had a drought in 2017 and ran into a burn ban early, and weren’t able to get our burns done until October, but we successfully achieved our burns,” he said.

Geaumont explained they prefer burning in October when conditions allow.

“Our patches are usually the first to green up each spring, so we were able to move our livestock turnout time up from 1 June to 15 May in an effort to capture the nutritious regrowth,” he said.

Bird response to burning

There are three layers to the grassland structure from a bird perspective, an upper, middle and lower area.

“When the patch is burned, the lower area consisting primarily of litter is removed. Patches that have been burned the year before are kind of like a canopy forest without a lower area,” said Alex Richette, a master’s student focused on bird response to patch-burn grazing.

The canopy above can protect birds from aerial predators, but a lack of litter allows young birds to move more efficiently through the grassland cover.

“We have observed some interesting things regarding the bird community and part of it may be because of the reintroduction of fire onto the landscape,” Richette said.

Since the project began, Richette found there was a spike in upland sandpipers, along with species of conservation concern like Baird’s sparrow, and chestnut collared longspur.

“We had never observed those species on our sites prior to 2017, the year after our first fire, but they returned in 2018,” he said.

Richette spends much of his time monitoring nests of game birds to evaluate their response to patch-burn grazing. Pheasant hunting is important in the southwestern area, so more pheasants help the local economy.

Bees and butterfly pollinators

As the field day participants moved over areas that had been burned and now had regrowth, butterflies, including a Monarch, flew out between the grasses.

“All kinds of bees and butterflies need flowers for nectar and bees are important for agriculture,” said Jasmine Cutter, a third-year graduate student at NDSU.

Cutter explained that 75 percent of the species grown for crops need pollinators, so they are “incredibly important for our food security.”

Cutter is monitoring changes in the pollinator community that are occurring in the patch-burn grazing study.

 “The drought in 2017 was particularly hard on pollinators as we found fewer flowing plants and pollinators in our pastures compared with 2018,” she said.

Sheep pastures appear to have fewer flowers and pollinators compared with cattle pastures.

“The reason is sheep prefer flowering plants over grasses,” Cutter said.

There is not much data about native bees in the region, so this study is providing some good baseline data concerning species in the region.

Fire important component of grasslands 

“We really do not know a lot about what, if any, benefits patch-burn grazing can bring to the Northern Great Plains, but if history has told us anything, fire was once an important component to grassland function,” Geaumont said.

Geaumont explained that removing burning from the landscape has “likely come with unintended consequences.”

In addition, the loss of CRP grasslands from the landscape has had consequences for wildlife, but “perhaps an opportunity exists.”

“By reintroducing patch-burn grazing, we may be able to sustain not only our livestock, but our wildlife and pollinators,” he said.

Livestock producers are vital to keeping grasslands on the landscape and CRP grasslands are no exception.

“If we cannot develop ways to make grazing CRP more profitable, the odds of them remaining in grass following contract expiration is low, and if the grass is gone, so is the wildlife,” he added.