Why Do They Do That? – Burning Fields and Ditches

This time of year you may see billowing plumes of smoke rising up across Iowa. Menacing blazes are seen by motorists traveling the state roads. Ditches are being burned and in some cases entire fields get burned. But, why?

Seventy-one years of Smokey the Bear have ingrained in us that fires are bad. We see their destructive power when they level a house or destroy a forest. But, throughout history fires have been an essential tool in land management.

042115_Burn_Meier1Each spring farmers and other land managers use controlled burns (also called prescribed burns) to put nutrients back into the soil and revitalize the land. These intentionally set fires serve a valuable purpose. At the end of the growing season plants will leave a lot of dead matter above the ground where it does not easily decompose. Fire breaks down that plant matter and releases the nutrients so they are available to the soil and can help promote future plant growth. These prescribed burns are often applied to road side ditches where dead plant matter can build up quickly.

Fires can also help seed new plants. Many seeds have a thick outer shell that needs to be broken before the seed will start to germinate. Fire can break this shell and then the seed ends up laying in a nutrient rich bed to start growing. Healthy soil is the primary goal of using fire as a tool. Secondary goals of prescribed burn include brush and weed control. Fires can even help control ticks and parasitic worms that might infect livestock that graze on the land.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANative Americans also used prescribed burns to manage grasslands long before we started farming in Iowa. Native Americans saw the improved plant growth after a fire and how the animals they hunted gravitated to this new growth. They used fire to manage the grasslands and ensure the herd health of the animals they hunted.

Farmers Take Great Care

stelprdb5294229Prescribed burns or controlled burns are effective because they are controlled. Land managers set fires in the spring when the ground is still wet and there is high humidity. This makes the fire easy to control and direct. It is also important to pick a day with very little wind. Too much wind can make the fire large and uncontrollable.

Land owners doing prescribed burns are careful to never leave them unattended. They carefully monitor the fire in progress. They often work with the local fire department to ensure the fire stays under control. And of course they are sure to obtain the appropriate permissions and permits necessary to do prescribed burns.

grassWhile fire might initially cause ugly, charred pieces of land, it is an important tool to create lush, rich vegetation.

– Will

8 thoughts on “Why Do They Do That? – Burning Fields and Ditches

  1. Interesting article, thank you. I do think it needs to go into the down sides of burning, however. Today, Sioux Falls’s air quality is a red on air.gov’s air quality charts, due to field burning i’m told. It’s otherwise a nice spring day but due to this level of burning outdoor activity isn’t recommended and ppl with lung issues like COPD are at risk. Needless to say, I am not a fan of burning in these amounts anywhere, but especially near large populations of people. There are alternatives; let’s use them.


    • Thanx. Interesting indeed, however, as far as putting essential nutrients back into the soil, how does burning the matter, instead of allowing it to decompose naturally happen? My 2nd problem with burning fields are, isnt burning killing the micro organisms, thus preventing natural decomposing, how do we promote “no or mimimum till” if we kill the micro organisms in our soil? I can go along with the other reasons for “controlled burns” but these doesnt make much sense to me


      • Letting plants decompose naturally is a great idea. However, the dead plants mostly only decompose when they come in direct contact with microorganisms living in the soil. The plant has to fall over and be integrated into the soil to really decompose well. So dead plants that stay standing upright take a very long time to decompose – multiple years. Think about grasses that even when dead stay standing up. This allows the amount of available plant matter to burn to increase year after year. Then if there is a fire (accidentally) it will burn uncontrollably and cause a lot more damage. Burning kind of speeds up the decomposition process reducing the plant to its base elements. Those elements then become easily used by seedlings as they sprout up. Prescription burning isn’t a must, but it is one tool that land managers can apply to help improve the ecology of the soil.

        Burning a field does expose some microorganisms to heat that could be lethal. But this is only in the top couple centimeters of soil. If practiced regularly, prescribed burns won’t get so hot as to scorch the earth. Heat is largely determined by the amount of fuel present. If there is less fuel, there is less heat. And since only the top couple centimeters is affected, microorganism communities can quickly bounce back. Worms and other insects can simply move deeper into the soil and be saved from the heat.

        Check out our other blog posts about plowing and our discussion of no-till practices (which we definitely endorse!)


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