October 2020 California Cattleman

Page 27

maintaining fine fuels at or below 1200-1300 pounds per acre during spring and summer will keep flame lengths below four at wind speeds up to 40 mph. This number is affected by other factors however, and during very dry weather conditions, fine fuels may need to be kept at or below 800 pounds per acre to keep flame lengths below 4 feet. These numbers are useful for interpreting the impacts of reducing fuel levels, but they still need to be experimentally validated in California. In addition to reducing fine fuels, cattle grazing can also reduce rangeland fuels by preventing or slowing FIGURE 3. 500 LBS./ACRE OF GRASSLAND VEGETATION



encroachment of brush and trees onto grasslands. This is valuable from a fire safety perspective because brush can increase fire hazard and fire intensity. Reducing fire hazard is not as simple as grazing rangelands to bare soil or even to low level of fuel. Rangeland managers need to balance different management goals. They aim to leave some forage on rangelands at the end of the grazing season (before the first fall rains) to protect soil from erosion, support future forage production, avoid growing some types of weeds and often provide fall forage for their cattle. In some areas, it is important to leave more than 1,200-1,300 pounds of forage per acre to achieve these goals, so reducing fuel loads will have to be done carefully to avoid conflicts with other management targets. Conclusions Cattle grazing plays an important role in reducing fine fuels on grazed rangelands in California. Without grazing we would have hundreds to thousands of additional of pounds/acre of fine fuels on the landscape, potentially leading to larger and more severe fires. The bulk of this fuel reduction occurs in regions of the state with higher forage production per acre. Therefore, while average fuel reduction rates are higher in these regions, residual fuels may not be low enough across all grazed rangelands (even in regions with high fuel reduction rates) to avoid long flame lengths. Fortunately, cattle do not generally consume forage uniformly at the field, ranch or region scale. At many locations within grazed rangelands, there will likely be patches that are grazed low enough to significantly alter fire behavior and patchy fuels can slow fire extent and rate of spread. Widespread and severe wildfires are predicted to increase over time in California. This “new reality� requires that we take advantage of all the tools in our management toolbox to protect public safety while meeting our broader rangeland management objectives. Grazing all rangelands to ideal fuel levels is not logistically feasible or compatible with management goals. However, there are opportunities to improve fire safety in California by grazing rangelands that are not currently being grazed or even by increasing grazing intensity on very lightly grazed areas. The number of beef cows in California today are only about 57 percent of their peak numbers in the 1980s. This reduction is mirrored by declines in public lands grazing. Strategic implementation of cattle grazing, including potentially fee-for-service agreements, on key private and public lands can meet multiple natural resource objectives, while also lowering fire hazard through reducing fine fuels, reducing fuel continuity and slowing or stopping brush encroachment into grasslands.


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