ND controlled burns have some producers seeing red
In a drought year, the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) allows for some amounts of emergency haying and grazing. The extreme drought conditions in North Dakota have stirred up some heated fires, literally and figuratively, over both CRP grounds and wildlife habitat refuges in some North Dakota counties.
According to Cory Hart, this year’s struggle is not a new one. His county lost CRP ground to fire mitigation and “brome grass management” four years ago.
Signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1985, CRP is one of the largest private-lands conservation programs in the United States. With voluntary participation by farmers and landowners, CRP credits the program for improved water quality, reduced soil erosion, and increased habitat for endangered and threatened species.
The burn mitigation four years ago was planned to remove brome grass, to improve habitat for waterfowl. But that plan may have backfired.
“The brome is better than ever. They burned birds. And they burned farmland,” Hart said. And the waterfowl and pheasant habitats are just now returning to normal.
According to FSA, in exchange for a yearly rental payment, farmers enrolled in the program agree to remove environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production and plant species that will improve environmental health and quality. Contracts for land enrolled in CRP are 10-15 years in length.
But landowners retain ownership, and according to Hart, U.S. Game and Fish in his area have forgotten who feeds the wildlife that they are trying to protect.
“The deer and waterfowl feed off our fields year-round,” Hart said.
“They have just now finally come back, after burning this off,” Hart said, referring to the pheasants and waterfowl, and CRP ground that was burned.
And history is repeating itself.
Burns in other parts of North Dakota have been done by contract burners, for U.S. Game and Fish. In North Dakota, Game and Fish is not legally allowed to buy CRP ground from private landowners, Hart pointed out, but the agency used a technicality to get around that law. In addition, the contract burners are able to bypass laws.
“They didn’t have to abide by the no fire ban like everyone else,” Hart said.
Hart said the CRP regulations don’t allow for grazing or haying until after August 1, and emergency haying is not allowed under CRP regulations during primary nesting seasons.
“With this year’s drought, there won’t be anything left by the Fourth of July,” Hart said.
In other counties, fire mitigation is also being used by conservations groups, such as Duck Unlimited and the Long Lake National Wildlife Refuge, according to Hart.
David Schultz, a farmer and rancher in Kidder County, North Dakota, said counties in his areas are dealing with similar fire related issues during the extreme drought they are having. While CRP land has become somewhat sparce in North Dakota, conservation refuges are growing, and federal agencies in North Dakota seem to be caught in the middle on the different agendas between environmentalists and ranchers.
They have yet to find common ground on how to manage the public lands, especially during a drought year. Schultz is a County Commissioner, and he shared that the county fought off several controlled burns during the county wide burn ban in Kidder County, but as soon as the burn ban was lifted, the fires were lit.
“As soon as we got the burn ban lifted, they burned it,” Schultz said, referring to lands that could have been put up for cattle hay. “There are guys digging in wheat, planting sorghum, in the hopes of getting some cattle feed,” Schultz added.
The frustration, watching fields that could be harvested for cattle hay go up in smoke, has a simple solution according to both Hart and Schultz. Let someone hay it.
“You can’t go hay until after August 15, but they are lighting up a field and burning baby deer and birds,” he added, during a drought.
While producers watch the hay go up in smoke, some of the CRP landowners may have their hands tied.
According to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) CRP contracts signed since Oct.1, 2000, may require a maintenance burn during the life of the contract, despite drought conditions.
Jennifer Kross, Communications Specialist, with the Great Plains Region of Duck’s Unlimited, told TSLN, that she couldn’t speak to the exact rational of the planned burns, but that fire is a tool used for a number of reasons.
“The ground that they are burning doesn’t have anything to do with Duck’s Unlimited,” Kross said, sharing that any burns they do, are decided on with the landowner and what is best for the property.
Kross did add that in a drought year, the ducks are not as productive, and a controlled burn as a tool may have less impact on birds.
Walt Fick, Kansas State University (K-State) Research and Extension range management specialist offered some key burning points, in a K-State press release.
When burning CRP ground, building good fireguards is essential, he said. Fireguards can either be mowed to a width of 20 to 30 feet (ft.) or disked. If the fireguard is disked, producers may have to go over the area more than once to make sure all the residue is below ground.
The two most common methods of conducting prescribed burns on CRP ground are a ring fire or a flank fire, he added.
“With a ring fire, the entire perimeter of the field, within the fireguard, is lit. Starting on the downwind side, backfires are started,” Fick explained. “The burned area is gradually widened. Eventually, the entire perimeter is lit and the fire then burns in toward the center from all sides. This results in a single large plume of smoke in the middle of the field. The advantages of a ring fire are that it requires less manpower than other methods, and it is quicker. The disadvantage is that it can trap wildlife in the field with no means of escape except flight.”
If producers want to avoid trapping and possibly killing animals in the fire, the flank fire is a good alternative.
“In this method, a series of parallel strips of fire are lit into the wind, creating a slow-moving series of backfires,” the range management specialist said. “Backfires are hotter than headfires at ground level, and provide a more complete burn of mulch. This method also allows plenty of escape routes for any wildlife living in the field.
“The disadvantages of the flank fire method are that it takes longer to complete, and requires more people to conduct and control the burn. Backfires are also generally less effective at controlling woody plants.”
Whatever method is used, one of the most important considerations when conducting a prescribed burn on either CRP or rangeland is to obtain an accurate weather forecast for the proposed day of the burn. The burn should be conducted when conditions for smoke dispersal are optimum, Fick said.
“That means there should be few clouds, with little chance of inversions. Wind conditions should be light and steady (5 to 15 miles per hour), and take the smoke away from highways, airports, or population centers,” he said.
CRP participants should check with their local Farm Service Agency (FSA) office for requirements related to prescribed burning, he added. Also, producers who burn CRP ground should follow the same general safety guidelines and go through the same permit procedures as those who conduct prescribed burns on rangeland.
TSLN contacted offices for FSA, North Dakota Game and Fish, as well as the refuge, but none were willing to comment.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is currently recruiting for more landowners to sign up for CRP. July 23, 2021 is the deadline for agricultural producers and landowners to apply for CRP.
Additionally, USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) will accept applications for CRP Grasslands from July 12 to August 20. This year, USDA updated both signup options to provide greater incentives for producers and increase its conservation benefits, including reducing the impacts of climate change.
“We are excited to roll out our new and improved CRP General and Grasslands signups,” said FSA Administrator Zach Ducheneaux, in a statement. “Bottom line, CRP now makes more financial sense for producers while also providing a bigger return on investment in terms of natural resource benefits. The General and Grasslands signups are part of a broader suite of tools available through CRP to integrate key conservation practices on our nation’s working lands.”
CRP is one of the largest voluntary private-lands conservation programs in the United States. It was originally intended to primarily control soil erosion and potentially stabilize commodity prices by taking marginal lands out of production. The program has evolved over the years, providing many conservation and economic benefits. The program marked its 35-year anniversary this past December.
To enroll in the CRP General signup, producers and landowners should contact their local USDA Service Center by the July 23 deadline. To enroll in the CRP Grasslands signup, they should contact USDA by the August 20 deadline. While USDA offices may have limited visitors because of the pandemic, Service Center staff continue to work with agricultural producers via phone, email, and other digital tools. To work with FSA, producers and landowners should contact their local USDA Service Center. Contact information can be found at farmers.gov/service-locator.
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Sens. Tina Smith, D-Minn., and John Thune, R-S.D., on Wednesday introduced bipartisan legislation to allow future emergency haying on federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) land.