Putting out Fires
One of the most unique customs of Kansans is our tradition of spring pasture burning, In the early spring, about March and April, farmers and ranchers set fire to their grasslands. This intentional burning gets rid of the old dry grasses and burns invasive weed seeds and shrubbery that is encroaching upon the grasslands. Grass is prized in Kansas. We have one of the largest tracts of native grassland in the world: the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, covering ten thousand acres in Chase County (Editor’s Note: one of my favorite books ever is PrairieEryth by William Least Heat Moon…awesome book about prairies!). It was the exceptional grasslands of Kansas that drew the early settlers to the state, but the conversion of prairie to cropland has made the native grasslands an endangered ecosystem. Believe it or not, growing good grass is a lot of work. The biggest threat to good grasslands is the encroachment of trees, shrubs, and noxious weeds. It is for this reason the pastures are diligently torched every spring. Additionally the lush growth of grass that pops up two weeks after the burning is a big benefit for the cattle that are released into the pastures. Some of the best fattening of cattle occurs on these lush grasses.
We don’t usually have a lot of pasture to burn off because of our grazing systems. Most of our pastures are rotationaly grazed, which means we give the livestock small portions of pasture to graze down before they are moved to a new fie[d. This means the livestock have to eat alL of the grass, not just the sweetest blades; The pasture gets more evenly grazed, and the weeds don’t have as much power Over the grasses. We do have some summer pastures that we don’t rotationally graze because we rent them. We don’t want to put a lot of expensive interior fencing into a pasture that we may not use the next year. These are the pastures we will burn. Pasture burning is an unforgettable experience: long lines of crackling fires beneath starry skies, thick with the sweet scent of burning grass. Because of the drought, there is not much uneaten pasture growth to burn off this spring. The livestock couldn’t be - choosy about the best tasting grasses this year- they just ate all the green stuff that they could find!
While the grass fires are controlled burns, they do occasionally get out of control if the wind direction changes or its speed increases (which never happens in Kansas!). The other year. we were burning off our waterways (grass strips between fields) when the fire got away from us. We watched In dismay as it gobbled into ten of our 1,300 pound hay bales. We really needed every one of those for the winter.
Grassfires aren’t the only fires we put out. At our farm, the unexpected is always happening:. We had a customer call requesting an immediate processing date for his 500 chickens. We scrambled around calling in extra employee and now plan of attempting a chicken speed- dressing record (for us)!
We are going to attempt to dress and chilI 850 birds in the same amount of time we have been doing 600. We’ll see. Today I got a phone call “There are two thousand chicks coming for you in two days! Are you ready?”
Then just before I departed for Wisconsin, I got a call about a. neighboring pheasant farmer who was concerned that all of our farm guests were bringing in contagious diseases that could spread to his flock.
I was pretty confident that my farm defense plans had addressed this unlikely issue, but I scrambled to place calls to the USDA and K-State veterinarians to confirm that we were not a risk.
It’s never dull around here. If we’re not putting out the fires, we create them. The other day I went to scoop out chicken feed and found a mouse in the feed sack! I am not scared of mice, but I do not like,them because they are destructive little critters. I looked down into that feed sack at the mouse and thought “Now what do we do with you?” I didn’t really want to let him go so he could eat more chicken feed . Just then, Missy the rat terrier wandered up to me. Ah ha! Into the feed sack Missy goes!
We brought Missy to the farm so she would help control the mouse and rat populations, but we weren’t confident that she was earning her keep; To understand the situation, I need to tell you that this was not a standard 50 pound feed sack. This was a giant feed sack five feet wide and six feet tall that held a ton• of feed. There was plenty of room in the sack for a small terrier and a mouse. I held up the edges of the sack so the mouse (and the dog) could not escape. To do this, I had to climb upon two nearby tractor tires to give me an extra three feet of height so I could hold up the sack. Missy confirmed our suspicions. She is not much of a mouser. She would chase the mouse, bat her paws at the mouse, but would never once bite the mouse! In fact, a couple of times the little mouse ran underneath a crouching Missy to hide from her. Missy didn’t seem to care a bit. Disgusted at our terrier’s lack of hunting prowess, we decided to teach her to kill a mouse. Poor Wolf was the unsuspecting teacher that wandered up while we pondered how to teach a dog to kill mice. Joanna and I promptly dumped Wolf, our crippled Lab into the bag with Missy and the mouse. Wolf was a poor teacher. He ignored both the mouse and Missy, an proceeded to slurp up the chicken feed! We took Wolf out of the bag. Joanna and I watched Missy play with the mouse (or the mouse play with Missy, I’m not sure which) for a bit longer before concluding that Missy was a hopeless student of mousing. We released the dog and disposed of the mouse ourselves, We had successfully changed a split-second mouse sighting into a thirty-minute circus. And some folks thought we would run out of writing material? Not at our farm!