Effects of 34 Years of Experimentally Manipulated Burn Seasons and Frequencies on Prairie Plant Composition

Timothy L. Dickson, Barbara A. Hayes, Thomas B. Bragg

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

13 Scopus citations


Historically, tallgrass prairie burns occurred at many seasons and frequencies. Currently, tallgrass prescribed burns often occur annually in the spring, usually for cattle forage production. Altering burning season and frequency is known to affect plant composition and biomass production, but researchers are still uncertain how burning season and frequency interact. We present the long-term effects of a factorial combination of different burn seasons (spring, summer, autumn, or variable [rotated through seasons]) and frequencies (annual or quadrennial) on the plant composition and biomass production of an ungrazed, restored tallgrass prairie in eastern Nebraska, United States. The experimental plots were established in 1978 and visually surveyed for baseline data in 1979 and 1981. Experimental burn treatments were begun in 1982. Plots were visually surveyed until 2011 with the following results: 1) annual spring and summer burns increased C 4 graminoid abundance; 2) annual autumn burns increased forb abundance; 3) burn season had little effect on plant composition for quadrennial burns; and 4) variable season burns generally led to plant composition that was intermediate between annual spring/summer and annual autumn burns. We also clipped biomass to estimate aboveground annual net primary production (ANPP) in 2015, a year in which both annual and quadrennial burns occurred. Total ANPP did not differ significantly between burn frequencies nor between spring and autumn burns (772 g m − 2 average) but was lower in summer burns (541 g m − 2 ). ANPP results were similar to visual surveys, with significantly higher C 4 graminoid ANPP in spring than autumn burns and significantly lower forb and C 3 graminoid ANPP in spring than autumn burns. Overall, these results suggest autumn burns can increase forb and C 3 graminoid abundance, without strongly affecting total ANPP relative to spring burns. Future studies should compare plant and livestock production between spring and autumn burns in grazed fields.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)82-91
Number of pages10
JournalRangeland Ecology and Management
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2019


  • annual net primary production (ANPP)
  • burning
  • fire
  • grassland
  • percent cover of forbs and C / C grasses
  • tallgrass prairie

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology
  • Animal Science and Zoology
  • Nature and Landscape Conservation
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law


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