Lingering drought and spring fire use

Farm Forum

Here at the Watertown Regional Extension Center, we field specialists that work in agriculture rotate our article assignments. Since I’m the new guy, I usually get the assignments that require writing articles during holidays or snowstorms. I understand how the holiday schedule works, but the timing of the snowstorms is pretty crafty work by my colleagues. So for the third time this spring I’m writing after moving snow. I’m not complaining, we need the moisture.

With our recent deluge of snow (and whatever the rest of the moisture is categorized as), the drought appears to be losing its grip a bit in our region. Good news for sure, but remember it will take above-average precipitation to replenish our soil moisture profile, so more is obviously better. In the meantime, the lessons learned from drought should not be shelved. Those lessons can be integrated into your base farm or ranch planning, allowing you the freedom and flexibility of a working plan in place for drought or other events that can negatively impact your operation.

We held our 4th session of our Drought Risk on the Ranch webinar series April 24th. This session featured two NRCS State Range Specialists, Stan Boltz (S.D.) and Jeff Printz (N.D.). Boltz and Printz discussed the use of NRCS’s Drought Calculator for assessing stocking rate decisions. The last session in this series is scheduled for 10 a.m. on May 29. Please join us in Watertown or Aberdeen.

I’ve had the opportunity to work with many organizations and producers in the use of prescribed fire as grassland/pasture management tool over the years. I want to remind folks about the real benefits of wise fire use for grassland renovation/rejuvenation, grazing system management, and wildlife habitat. I also want to remind everyone about the real harm that unwise fire use can cause. The recent escaped prescribed fire near Lemmon, S.D. had lessons for all. With some spring moisture, those areas that burned will likely flourish under proper management. However, because it was an unplanned escaped fire, many folks were negatively impacted and at least one ranch was severely impacted through loss of pasture, fences, and feed supplies. A harsh reminder that we need to use fire wisely and that we need to prepare for the unexpected when using fire.

In the spirit of safe fire use, we’ve been barnstorming the eastern portion of the state over the past 5 weeks instructing producers and NRCS staff on the prescribed fire planning protocols and implementation techniques. For those who missed these sessions and are interested in starting the planning process for utilizing prescribed fire on your CRP (or other) acres, please visit your local NRCS office for details and a copy of the plan format.

If you are planning to use burning as a grassland management tool, please do not forget these necessary steps before you light a match: 1) have a written plan, 2) communicate that plan with those who may be impacted 3) notify neighbors, sheriff’s office, and your local fire department, 4) check your weather, 5) know your county rules for notification and permitting, and 6) ensure that you are not in a burn ban. I’ll be posting an article on in the next couple of weeks that will have more detailed information for you to reference for safe prescribed fire planning. Call me at 882-5140 or email questions to