Ted McCollum, Texas Cooperative Extension livestock specialist, sometimes recommends prescribed burning to rid pastures of defunct forage and foster new growth. He just wouldn't do it with 60-mph winds and completely depleted soil moisture, the conditions that helped trigger in early March the largest wildfires in Texas history.

Only after the winds died, and a mix of snow and rain doused Mother Nature's wrath, could ranchers, farmers and weary firefighters and government officials comprehend the incredible damage. The result was 12 human deaths, and more than 700,000 acres of pasture, dozens of homes, barns, other structures and vehicles decimated.

Ranchers lost more than 3,000 cattle to the flames and oxygen-robbing smoke. There were cases of burned udders, hooves and other injuries to cattle, while horses and wildlife also were victimized. The inferno also claimed thousands of miles of fence.

Texas agriculture and humanitarian groups have established relief efforts (see sidebar), and money, food, pasture, pens and hay been made available. As of early April, more than 1,500 round bales of hay had been donated, along with more than 200 tons of cake. The Farm Bureau collected $92,000 for the relief effort.

Caring for decimated land

McCollum says there's no question land will recover, but he tells affected producers to avoid putting cattle onto the new grass spawned by spring rains. Burned land needs plenty of recovery time.

“It could take several months to a couple of years,” he says. “Don't be tempted to put cattle on newly grown grass after spring rains, or even in the summer. Wait until after the first frost to evaluate conditions and begin making stocking decisions.

“If you must graze this summer, wait until mid-July, then allow pastures time to re-grow before dormancy,” he says. “Plan on two grazing seasons to obtain full productivity.”

On partially burned fields, he suggests installing temporary fencing to help prevent overgrazing and enable burned ground to fully recover. It also will allow “forbs,” usually non-grazeable weeds and other forage, to remain as valuable ground cover.

Finally he encourages producers to wait until next spring to reseed pastures. “Wait and see what will recover, then reseed if needed,” he says.

Feed 'em or sell 'em?

If pasture recovery takes a long time, it likely will impact culling decisions. “Producers should look at a cow's age, production and the cost of maintaining her,” McCollum. “It may be best to focus on the core group of productive middle-aged cows.”

Dustin Gaskins, Extension risk-management specialist in Amarillo, says ranchers need to consider whether to hold over cows by supplemental feeding, or cull them this spring during seasonally higher markets.

“Culled-cow prices tend to be higher in the spring,” he says. “According to current projections, it would cost about $840 to keep a cow (through supplemental feeding) through the summer and into fall. That compares to a projected price for replacement heifers of about $800 this fall.”

Gaskins says producers should “consider partial liquidation of their herds,” which could pencil out better economically. It also removes the temptation to put cattle back onto new summer grass too early.

Other alternatives, such as early weaning, should also be considered to help relieve pressure on mother cows, which could then be re-bred normally, he says.

Fencing replacement

Fencing — both outlying fences and those for interior pasture traps — is also top of mind for affected operators. USDA's Farm Service Agency (FSA) has made Emergency Conservation Program (ECP) funds available to the burned region.

For land to be eligible for ECP, FSA says a natural disaster must create new conservation problems that, if untreated, would impair or endanger the land. The disaster must also materially affect the land's productive capacity; represent unusual damage that, except for wind erosion, isn't the type likely to recur frequently in the same area; and be so costly to repair that federal assistance is or will be required to return the land to productive agricultural use.

Keith Martin, Collingsworth County FSA director, says the amount of assistance available to replace burned fence depends on the fence's age and condition.

“It's a cost-share program for new fencing or major repairs,” he says. “If the fence was built in the last five years, ECP funds will cover 75% of the replacement cost.”

Impacted ranchers with fencing 6-10 years old would receive 60% of replacement cost, he says. Fencing older than 11 years, with 30 years being the limit, will receive 45% of replacement cost. Martin says ranchers who have made repairs to fences over 30 years old may qualify for the 11-year-old category.

Fencing replacement must be examined by FSA officials before payment is made, and there's a $1,000 minimum loss requirement, as well as a $200,000 payment limitation. “Replacement costs can't exceed half the cost of the land,” Martin says.

He notes different regions and disaster situations determine the type of ECP or other funds available to those affected.

Clint Rollins, Natural Resources and Conservation Service (NRCS) range specialist, says the fire brought back to him unwanted memories of a 320,000-acre wildfire north of Abilene in 1988.

“I have 29 years in this business and never thought I'd be struck by lightning twice,” he says.

Rollins says NRCS monitored every fire-hit region. Once disaster assistance has been made, producers can apply for Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) funds, useable in voluntary conservation programs for farmers and ranchers for the purpose of promoting production and environmental quality.

He says EQIP funds aren't useable for emergencies but may be available later on, once pastures have had a chance to fully recover. NRCS can help with management practices, such as cross fencing, livestock water development and brush management.

“EQIP offers financial and technical help to assist eligible participants install or implement structural and management practices on eligible land,” Rollins says.

Ken Cearley, Texas A&M University wildlife specialist, advises ranchers with burned pastures to remember wildlife can help in conservation efforts.

“There will be benefits provided by wildlife,” he says. “When replacing fence, the bottom wire should be slick and 18 in. off the ground. Then, barbed wire should be 10-12 in. apart.”

Cearley suggests producers keep water systems up and running to benefit wildlife, even if cattle are removed. Supplemental feeding of deer may be needed in a large burned area.

“By following sound practices that encourage pasture recovery, producers could see their situations improve,” McCollum says. “They could have more grazeable acres and more productivity than before the fire.”

For more on the wildfire and pasture-restoration methods after fire, visit: http://amarillo.tamu.edu/wildfires/.

Larry Stalcup is a freelance writer based in Amarillo, TX.

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