Controlled burns keep grass in check

By Gretchen Teske, Mt. Pleasant News


This spring, farmers have been burning their fields to prevent grass from taking over. Henry County residents have noticed the blaze and called in. These burns are controlled and local fire authorities have been made aware before the burning.

These are known as Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) fields. According to the Farm Service Agency (FSA), CRP fields are rented land designed to improve the overall health and quality of the environment.

Instead of planting agriculturally rich product, the land is used for the planting of environmentally rich plant species that will enhance the quality of the environment. According to the FSA website, the long term goal is to, ?re-establish valuable land cover to help improve water quality, prevent soil erosion, and reduce loss of wildlife habitat.?

Virgil Schmitt, Extension Field Agronomist at Iowa State University, said in an email that the burning of the grass in the field is vital to allow for proper growth. ?If the field is all grasses, the burning will destroy the thatch and stimulate tillering, thus improving the stand,? he explains.

Thatch refers to the soft build up of soil at the base of grass. According to the article, ?Managing thatch in lawns? by Peter Landschoot, professor of Turf grass Science at Penn State, it is comprised of living and dead plant matter and can block root growth. Thatch is also known to harbor insects and pesticides that are harmful to the soil. By destroying the thatch, tillers (plant stems) have unrestricted access to land thus improving their room for growth.

By allowing grass to take over, there is risk that plant growth will suffer because it cannot grow through the thatch. Plant growth is essential for the wildlife who thrive on it and for the health of the environment in which it grows. ?If the seeding is a mixture of grasses and forbs, (and) if the field is not burned every three years or so, it will become entirely grass,? Schmitt says. ?The burning allows the forbs to maintain a presence in the field.?

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), forbs are plants that lack woody tissue and can grow above or below ground. Forbs are most commonly recognized as white flowers that appear in grass. These are essential for environmental health because they possess perennating buds which allow them to be resilient against unfavorable weather conditions.

?Burning is also a method of controlling unwanted woody species, such as red cedars, that may be starting to grow in the field,? he says.

Plants that do possess woody tissue, such as tree shoots, are not welcome in fields because they are harder to destroy and can cause problems when the field is once again used for agricultural reproduction. Burning fields is a common agricultural practice and must be controlled. Those planning to burn their fields must call the local fire department first and make them aware in the event a passer-by calls the fire in as trouble.