April is nearing and in the Flint Hills that means burning season is near. The burning of native tallgrass prairie is necessary to keep it healthy and thriving. Without fire, the prairie will transition into brush and eventually into forest. It is the continued use of fire that has kept our Flint Hills a prairie. Last spring that seemed to be threatened by the EPA and air quality in Kansas City and Wichita.
I must admit, I am like many of my fellow farmers and ranchers, and I am skeptical of the EPA. "I am from the government and I am here to help" are words that raise the hair on our necks. That was how I feared it would be when I heard that the EPA was looking into Flint Hills burning and heightened levels of ozone in Kansas City and Wichita. However, at least in this instance and at least for now, I was wrong.
It is also easy for those of us affected by this to look at our city neighbors as bad people. After all it is their cars, their businesses and their cities that are the base of the ozone problem. However, that view is also very short-sighted. The reality is that our city neighbors are our customers and ultimately our partners in paying taxes and growing our economy.
What happened may be a model for solving future problems. A very diverse group of individuals representing agriculture, government, business, cities and special interest groups came together to formulate a plan to manage the smoke in the Flint Hills.
The plan is voluntary and asks producers to look at where their smoke is going to go when deciding when to burn. Our burns are called prescribed burns. Much like the prescription your doctor would give you, we decide when to burn by what we want to accomplish with that burn.
K-State research proves that burning around April 15 will add an additional 23 pounds to feeder cattle grazed in the Flint Hills, thus lowering the amount of grain needed. Other research promotes burning later in April to control woody invasive species (remember I told you that the tallgrass prairie would revert to brush without fire), lowering our need for chemical and preserving the last tallgrass prairie. Some burns are utilized to promote the growth of forbs for wildlife habitat. There are many different reasons to burn and many different times (within about a 6 week window) utilized to accomplish different outcomes.
The plan is voluntary for producers, so it doesn't restrict the time of the year that they can burn. It simply asks for them to consider other elements such as upper atmosphere mixing height, wind direction, and wind speed when deciding what day to burn. New Internet tools have been developed to help with these decisions. K-State, the National Weather Services, KDHE and various farm groups such as KLA and Kansas Farm Bureau have combined efforts to aid in education and implementation of this plan. It is truly a group effort
Now it is our time, as farmers and ranchers, to put this team effort into place and make a difference in the air quality for our city neighbors while still preserving our absolutely necessary management practice of prescribed burning. This is also a shining example of the partnership and communication that we, as farmers and ranchers, must have to ultimately forge a bond and an understanding with our customers.