Effects of spring headfires and backfires on tall grass prairie

  • Published source details Bidwell T.G., Engle D.M. & Claypool P.L. (1990) Effects of spring headfires and backfires on tall grass prairie. Journal of Range Management, 43, 209-212.


Prescribed burning is frequently used to manage North American prairie grasslands. This study compared responses of tallgrass prairie vegetation to late spring headfires and backfires on a moderately cattle-stocked shallow prairie at the Agronomy Research Range 15 km southwest of the city of Stillwater, Oklahoma (south-central USA).

The study area was grazed at a moderate stocking rate (2.4 AUM/ha) from mid-July to mid-November in 1985 and 1986, before treatment application in spring 1986 and 1987.

Dominant grasses include big bluestem Andropogon gerardii, switchgrass Panicum virgatum, indiangrass Sorghastrum nutans and little bluestem Schizachyrium scoparium
Treatments (headfire, backfire, and unburned control) were replicated four times in a randomized block design on 10 x 20 m plots oriented with the prevailing wind direction.
Current year’s vegetation standing crop was determined as a measure of fire effects. This was estimated by clipping to ground level in five 0.25-m² quadrats per plot in June (peak cool-season standing crop) and mid-August (peak warm-season standing crop).
Clippings were separated into: 1) tallgrasses (e.g. big bluestem, indiangrass and switchgrass); 2) little bluestem; 3) other perennial grasses, sedges (Cyperus and Carex spp.) and rushes (Juncus);4) forbs, and 5) cool-season annual grasses (primarily downy brome Bromus tectorum).

Headfires advanced about 2.7 km during a normal 6 h burning period; backfires only advanced about 0.2 km in 6 h.

Standing crop of tallgrasses in August was 21% (400 kg/ha) greater on headfire than backfire plots. Little bluestem usually responds negatively to late spring burns, but was unaffected by burning or fire type (in June average around 600-700 kg/ha in all treatments) in this study; pre-burn precipitation was average or above average in both years thus moisture was apparently adequate to protect growing points.
Burning reduced ‘other perennial grasses’ standing crop in June (around 1,100 vs.1,440 kg/ha in controls), but by August burned and unburned plots were similar (around 2,200-2,400 kg/ha). Forb standing crop in August was 26% (98 kg/ha) greater on backfire plots than headfire plots.
Late spring burning by backfires or headfires thus have potential to be used to manipulate the standing crop of tallgrasses and forbs in tailgrass prairies to meet different management objectives.
Note: If using or referring to this published study, please read and quote the original paper, this can be viewed at:


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