When things got complicated and tough decisions needed to be made on the farm, 87-year old Ray Rieker would head to his 800 acres of pasture ground and sit for a while. While watching his cow/calf pairs graze in the lush green hills and canyons that mark his land, eventually things got a lot clearer. This piece of ground in southwest Nebraska near Eustis, has always meant a lot to Ray and his wife, Virginia, and they want to pass it down to their four children.
But over the past 10 years Rieker has seen eastern red cedar trees take over one corner of the pasture, more than 200 acres. “I couldn’t believe how quickly they took over. Virginia asked me what I was going to do about it. If we didn’t get rid of them, we’d have to sell that property and with all those eastern red cedars in the pasture, it would not be worth much. I wasn’t about to sell, so I considered a prescribed burn. Today, the pasture is as lush and green as I have ever seen it, with no red cedar trees,” he said.
Rapid Invasive Species
The eastern red cedar tree is the most rapidly invasive species in Nebraska. It is a statewide problem and if it is not controlled, it has the potential to overtake pastures and reduce grazing acres by half or more, said Scott Stout, president of the Nebraska Prescribed Fire Council, member of a prescribed burn association and landowner in southwest Nebraska.
“When eastern red cedars dominate a landscape, the impacts can be severe on grazing land for cattle. Farmers and ranchers could see a 75 percent decline in forage for livestock. For many years the eastern red cedar was a tree used in windbreaks, because the trees were sturdy, long-lived and drought resistant. This is how the trees have spread. No one knew that eventually the eastern red cedar would encroach on our grazing lands,” Stout said.
One of the easiest ways to stop the spread of red cedars is to stop planting them and remove the source of spreading seeds. But the use of prescribed fire is the most cost-effective way to control red cedars that is known today.
“There is a mechanical and chemical method used to get rid of these trees, but each one on its own can be cost prohibitive. Using mechanized equipment to prepare for the fire, and then hold a prescribed burn is the safest, most effective and lowest-cost way to control this invasive species,” he said.
The Rieker prescribed burn was a combined use of machinery and a prescribed burn. Some eastern red cedars were cut down to create a burn line, those trees were then carried into the burn unit and stuffed into live trees to be used as dry fuel. The cut trees are highly flammable and a good fuel source to kill the eastern red cedar. The fire in a prescribed burn needs to get the cambium layer of the cedar tree to 150 degrees to kill the tree, Stout said.
In southwest Nebraska, the cost to do a prescribed fire to control red cedars is in the neighborhood of $14 to $21 an acre to rent or buy the needed equipment. Having a prescribed burn association can help mitigate these costs by working together and sharing equipment to perform a burn.
“The cost to the landowner is very minimal when burning with a prescribed burn association in southwest Nebraska. They just need to buy food and water for the burn crew, along with a few other small expenses like drip torch fuel. The rest is donated labor and equipment by other landowners. The landowner is usually asked to give a donation to the prescribed burn association to maintain the equipment and keep it functioning correctly. It is a win-win for the landowner and Nebraska’s ecosystem,” Stout said.
Ray and Virginia Rieker are glad they held a prescribed burn on their pasture. Although, it was a difficult decision.
“At first, I was completely against doing a prescribed burn, but in the end, not only did the burn take care of the red cedars, but I was pleased to see how healthy the pasture looks. Virginia and I and glad we invested our time and money to make this happen,” Rieker said.