The grasslands at NCC's Old Man on His Back site stretch across the horizon. (Photo by Mark Taylor)

The grasslands at NCC's Old Man on His Back site stretch across the horizon. (Photo by Mark Taylor)

Research examines livestock grazing patterns in response to management strategies, including prescribed burning

Roaming bison at Old Man on His Back ranch (Photo by Mark Taylor)

Roaming bison at Old Man on His Back ranch (Photo by Mark Taylor)

The Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) and the University of Saskatchewan plan to conduct small prescribed burns at Old Man on His Back Prairie and Heritage Conservation Area (OMB), starting in the spring of 2018. The spring and fall burns are tentatively planned for the next three years. The prescribed burns are part of a five-year research project to better understand how to influence where cattle and bison graze at OMB and how fire as a disturbance changes the plant community.

As part of the research, NCC is working with local producers and patrons using GPS collars to track cattle and bison movements. This will allow us to monitor how they respond to various management techniques. There will be eight small burn patches (restricted to 22 acres [8.9 hectares] each, but that will likely to end up smaller due to irregular amounts of fuel on some). These patches will help us learn if the regrowth can attract animals to unused parts of a pasture. Fire is used to make a quick reduction in the height of vegetation and change the growing conditions for the plants. The regrowth of plants after a fire attracts grazing animals that benefit from the higher protein content of the grass.

Unlike wildfires that generally happen when the weather is hot and dry and are made worse by wind, a prescribed burn is a fire set intentionally, under very strict weather and moisture conditions. There are many things that influence whether or not a prescribed burn can occur, including humidity, temperature and wind speed. Burns will only be conducted when every one of the very specific conditions is met.

The plan is to burn in early spring and late fall at times when the moisture content of the grass is high enough to allow for a slow burn that can be easily controlled. Unlike the extreme results of a wildfire, this type of burn creates specific conditions designed to encourage vegetation regrowth. Extensive planning is involved when organizing a prescribed burn to ensure that the team of well-equipped, trained professionals can easily control the size and direction of the fire. Detailed burn plans, fire permits and insurance are all prepared and obtained in advance. NCC staff will monitor weather conditions and grass moisture content and will only burn if the conditions for a safe prescribed fire are met. The local fire department has been consulted on the burn plan, will be kept up to date on our activities, and has been invited to take part in the prescribed burn.

Prescribed burning creates a mosaic of varied vegetation heights, which serves as habitat for a variety of species, while keeping forage for grazing cattle and bison. Fire can also reduce some of the invasive plants growing at OMB that are not native to the area. This work is all part of ensuring that OMB continues to be healthy habitat for the birds and animals that live there, as well as a working ranch that provides quality forage for grazing patrons.

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