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Cattlemen and researchers have long known that prescribed fire has multiple benefits. New research on patch burning has found yet another – fly control.
Is patch burning a silver bullet?
“Patch burn grazing has a tremendous effect, and an effect we never expected, on reducing horn flies,” Talley says. “But I’m cautioning people that it’s one tool you need to put in your back pocket.”
Both Scasta and Talley say patch burning, despite the research results, isn’t an alternative to conventional fly control methods like ear tags, sprays or growth regulators. Instead, where patch burning is feasible, it should be considered as a part of an overall integrated pest management strategy.
That’s because horn flies can move, given the right incentive, four or more miles. So depending on your neighbors’ management and how close their cattle are to yours, you can do everything right and still have horn flies.
However, Scasta and Talley think that patch burning could be a tool in the larger issue of insecticide resistance. “Because of their short life cycle, horn flies have the potential to develop insecticide resistance very rapidly, and this has been a major problem with trying to manage them,” Scasta says.
“If you can at least delay when you’re putting that product on, like an ear tag, I think it will make that ear tag more effective,” Talley says.
He’s seen Oklahoma cow-calf operators tag as early as March because they started seeing horn flies. “That’s really not going to get you through the whole season,” he says.
The operative word, however is “if.” Many traditional management systems, where cattle are handled at branding and turnout, then gathered in the fall for weaning, don’t provide an easy way to gather the cattle again in June or July to apply ear tags. Scasta and Talley know that, but they say if it’s something that might work in your management system, it’s worth considering.
That’s because, Scasta says, of the economic implications of uncontrolled horn fly populations. “Adjusted for inflation, it’s estimated that nationally, horn flies have over $1 billion of economic loss annually,” he says.
Scasta says that while the observation that patch burning reduces horn fly populations is new, “I think it’s probably always been happening where people have burned, they just didn’t realize it.”
In fact, he says, Native Americans, Australian Aborigines and tribes in Africa all used fire for a variety of reasons, insect control among them. “There’s documentation of using fire by African tribes to reduce ticks,” he says. “So it’s an old idea we’re looking at; an old idea made new.”
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