While working to round up and find safety for his cattle near the Oklahoma border southwest of Protection, Kansas, fear blew in with a wind shift. Bill Barby began to wonder if the largest fire in Kansas history had encircled and trapped him and his herd.
Ultimately, on that early March 2017 day, all were guided to a nearby winter wheat field and waited as the Starbuck wildfire scorched every acre of Barby’s B bar B Ranch. Yet, Barby knows he’s fortunate.
“Other than fences, respiratory issues and stress-induced aborted calves, we didn’t lose any livestock, buildings or other property to the fires,” he recalls. “Neighbors and friends across the region lost so much more.”
As he began rebuilding, Barby felt fortunate again.
“We knew post-fire management of our rangeland would be critical,” he says. “We were able to find interim homes and where we could ship cattle while allowing grass to build back. That rest period made all the difference.”
It also preserved the hard work he’d put in through his years on the ranch — 50 years in the family, the last 10 under his guidance — including putting in the miles of fence and developing a solar-powered water system that allowed moving from just two pastures to today’s 27 paddocks.
“With the infrastructure in place, we shifted our focus to conservation,” explains Barby, who serves as chairman of the Kansas Grazing Lands Coalition and is active in several other cattle industry and conservation organizations. “Our grazing system allows for full recovery in each paddock. That was our goal after the fire too.”
The wildfire also brought the chance to expand his grazing base by reclaiming 750 acres previously lost to invasive tamarisk (saltcedar).
“We’d used several approaches to clear that saltcedar, none with much success,” Barby says. “We tried to force prescribed burns into those trees, but there was no fuel to carry a fire.” However, under extreme humidity and wind conditions, the Starbuck fire burned through the dense saltcedar stand, consuming all above-ground growth. Barby took notice.
“That subirrigated meadow is the best piece of ground on the ranch,” he explains. “But with a solid canopy of saltcedar, we were getting zero production from it — for cattle or wildlife.” With the canopy opened, Barby was amazed at how quickly the land sprung to life. But it wasn’t all positive.
Although it appeared the wildfire had killed the saltcedar, regrowth soon sprung from the base of the decades-old trees. Barby knew he had to act; his window of opportunity was tight.
“This was a chance to reset that piece of ground,” he says. “I didn’t want to let saltcedar re-establish.”
Before the Starbuck fire, Barby already had been working with folks from the Kansas Partners for Fish & Wildlife (PFW) — the private lands arm of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service — on other conservation projects, including saltcedar control. Immediately after the wildfire, priorities associated with rebuilding infrastructure and herd management convinced PFW biologist Aron Flanders to put the saltcedar work on hold. But then he saw the rangeland’s transformation and Barby’s interest in capitalizing on the event.
“These are important sandy and subirrigated ecological sites,” Flanders explains. “This particular site supports a diverse plant and wildlife community, while producing 8,000 to 10,000 pounds of forage per acre for grazing. I was surprised by how quickly the warm-season grasses emerged after the canopy opened.” But then, too, along came the saltcedar regrowth.
A STUDY IN TWO METHODS
Flanders decided to tap a new partnership between the PFW and Corteva Agriscience™. The company supports the PFW in multiple ways, from supporting educational meetings and outreach events to providing technical assistance, demonstration sites, herbicides and financial contributions. Additionally, the Kansas Grazing Lands Coalition and Kansas Forest Service signed on as contributing partners for the saltcedar control work.
At the B bar B, Corteva Agriscience has provided expertise, along with Milestone® and Remedy® Ultra herbicides and equipment. In August 2017, a helicopter treated part of the site with a tank mix of Remedy Ultra plus Milestone and methylated seed oil in water. In another area, individual saltcedar trees were treated with Remedy Ultra in an oil-based carrier using the low-volume basal treatment method and an ATV-mounted sprayer.
Evaluated almost a year after treatment, the low-volume basal individual plant treatments continued to provide nearly 100 percent control of the regrowth. The aerial treatments appeared to control the post-wildfire regrowth, but additional regrowth emerged this spring.
The difference likely can be attributed to herbicide uptake, says Scott Flynn, field scientist with Corteva Agriscience.
“Saltcedar is a deciduous tree,” Flynn explains. “The challenge with foliar treatments is to get enough herbicide into the leaves and translocated throughout the plant for complete control — especially when the plants and their root systems are so well-established.”
The low-volume basal treatment, on the other hand, provides a more direct route for the herbicide into the plant and provides a better opportunity for more complete control.
“We want to fine-tune the aerial applications,” Flanders says. “Finding success will give us a better chance to eventually reclaim a bigger chunk of the more than 50,000 saltcedar-infested acres in Kansas.” Meanwhile, they’ll continue gaining ground using herbicide to make individual plant treatments, mechanical control and prescribed fire.
DRIVEN BY RESULTS
From Barby’s perspective, failure against saltcedar is not an option.
“With the forage response we’ve seen already, it’s almost like getting a new ranch,” he says. “Returning these acres to even 50 or 75 percent productivity will allow us to add this pasture into our rotation and run another 75 to 100 cattle. For us, increasing carrying capacity is an economic driver for profit.”
For Flanders, restoration is an opportunity to re-establish the diverse prairie and scattered native willow-cottonwood community capable of supporting wildlife habitat and livestock grazing.
“Our goal is to support our land stewards and work toward common goals,” Flanders explains.
“It’s really about a love for the land,” Barby says. “Ranching with a conservation mindset shows that you care. What’s good for the bird is good for the herd.”
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