Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Fire! Prescribed Burn Season Begins

Image of three person prescribed burn crew.

Line crew lights flanking fire in tight fire break.

The spring melt means that the very best time to control invasive brush and weeds starts this week across much of Wisconsin. Whether you manage an acre or several thousand, nothing beats controlled fire for land conservation.

Public land managers know this very well. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources start their annual burn season any day.

Controlled fire can knock down invasive trees, shrubs and weeds like nothing else. The Wisconsin landscape is adapted to fire. Many native plants tolerate low intensity fire and some even require it. Because controlled burns are used in the late fall or early spring, while native plants are dormant, most are completely unaffected.

Effective use of prescribed burns can get more done in a day than months of hand pulling or weeks of spot herbicide treatments. It is cheaper than broadcast herbicide treatments; without harming native plants.

Learn To Burn Safely

Crew checking backpack pump cans

Crew checking backpack pump cans

The Prairie Enthusiasts will hold a prescribed fire training class this Saturday. The one day class is designed for people without previous burn experience or those who want a refresher.

Here is a great place for those hesitant about using controlled fire to start learning the skills needed to confidently use fire on their land.

This training follows the guidelines of the Wisconsin Prescribed Fire Council. Successful participation in this training, plus working on two TPE burns as an apprentice, provides qualifications to be a new crew member on TPE burns. Check out our event announcement for more details.

Line crews and UTVs set to start prescribed fire.

Two crews prepare for prescribed burn of prairie.

Build Skills While Giving Back

Volunteering with groups like the Prairie Enthusiasts of Nature Conservancy will give you the experience and confidence to put controlled burn to work for you on your property.

January 2018

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Landowners Get Help from CSP

CSP poster encourage landowners to participate.

You probably know about the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and may already be participating. But there are more things you can do around the farm or ranch to improve your bottom line while helping the land. The Conservation Stewardship Program provides help for forest landowners, ranchers and farmers. Your application must be received by March 2, 2018 to be considered this year for this funding but year. Applications received later will be considered for the 2019 growing season.

Apply for the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) to improve your operation and land health. USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) uses CSP to help private landowners build their business while using conservation practices that improve sustainability. NRCS plans to enroll up to 10 million acres in CSP in 2018.

How Does This Work?

CSP lets you earn payments for actively managing, maintaining, and expanding conservation activities, including: cover crops, ecologically-based pest management, buffer strips and pollinator habitat. These go hand in hand with maintaining active agriculture production on your land. CSP also helps you adopt new technologies and management practices such as precision agriculture applications, on-site carbon storage & planting for high carbon sequestration rate, and new soil amendments to improve water quality.

Some of the benefits of CSP include: improved cattle gains per acre; increased crop yields; lower input costs; more and wider variety of wildlife. CSP activities can also improve drought resistance and storm water management.

The CSP website has a CSP Enhancements tool that lets you select your land use and conservation concern. Then it displays a list of recommended enhancement practices. There is a downloadable pdf file for each enhancement.

Contact your local USDA service center or visit for more information.

We’re Just Getting Started

CSP and CRP are by no means the only games in town. There are more programs that can help with both money and technical assistance.  The programs you choose will depend on your management goals; as well as current and planned land uses. Here is a listing of landowners programs, run by both governments and non-profit groups. You might just find the help you need for your next conservation project.

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Great Brush Pile Burning

Author with leaf blower brush pile burning in the background.

There is more to burning a brush pile than dousing it with gasoline and throwing a match at it.

Mid winter is a great time for brush piles burning in Wisconsin. My wife Anette and I unpack the Forrester: first the sled; then the leaf blower, pump sprayer and torch fuel. Fill the chainsaw with gas and bar oil. No need to bring along extra as the saw will see limited work today. Some snacks, tea and juice will keep us happy through the upcoming afternoon. Finally, I tuck some dry kindling and a roll of old construction prints what will be our starter.

A mid January thaw during last week put the burn day in doubt. Forecast snow on Sunday night meant plenty of snow cover for the Martin Luther King holiday and our brush burning. A moderate snow, light winds and weather in the twenties meant we will be comfortable all afternoon.

The sled is half full and that is just fine with me. Anette grabs the rake closes up the car are we leave the county highway behind. The local snowmobile club came through this fall after harvest and dragged a beautify trail across the corn stubble. Access to the Vermont creek will be quick and smooth. I throw the rope across my shoulder and make fast work of getting to the easement.

Our first brush pile was made during two days work in early and late fall. The pile is made up almost entirely of honeysuckle and buckthorn with a couple small boxelders for good measure. The first task is blowing the snow off the pile and clearing a small ring around the pile.

It takes one calorie to raise the temperature of one pound of liquid water one degree Fahrenheit. To melt that same pound of ice to liquid water requires 36,150 calories of heat. To take that pound of water from 32 degrees to its boiling point requires a mere 180 calories of heat. However, to boil off that heat and drive it out from soaking wet wood require a colossal 241,765 calories. This is called the latent heat of melting and the latent heat of evaporation.

That frozen wet wood on my burn pile needs to thaw out heat up and drive off its water, then continue up to the 700 degrees needed for wood to Ignite. Now consider that there is a cold wind trying to carry off the precious heat from my fire. No wonder it is so hard to get a brush pile to burn in the dead of winter.

Blowing the snow from the pile and around it suddenly makes a lot of sense. So does bringing along paper and dry kindling. These will make sure I have fuel that can easily light and stay burning long enough to dry our surrounding wood in the pile.

Torch fuel is a two to one mix of diesel fuel and gasoline. Diesel has a low ignition point but a high flash point which makes it much safer to work with than straight gasoline.

A wise friend finally put me straight about using accelerants on brush piles. “You don’t want the torch fuel to burn. You want the torch fuel to make the wood burn. Let it set there for ten minutes and see what difference it makes.” He was right! All my life I would pour fuel on a pile and light it, never understanding that the fuel was sitting on top of the wood and burning itself off without heating up the wood enough to get it to ignite.

Now I pour on a quart where I would have used a gallon. By walking away for ten of fifteen minutes, the diesel has time to soak into the wood. There is no big whoosh of flame, instead the dry kindling and paper take off and heat up the surrounding wood that is ready and raring to burn.

Snow on the ground means embers will not ignite surrounding vegetation, making it safe for a couple of people to burn several piles at once. Many towns are weary of issuing burn permits in the spring and fall when dry grass and leaves make spot fires from brush piles a real danger. Winter burn permits are easy to get and are easy to watch.

Anette keeps vigil using the rake to push remaining branches from the edges into the coals where they are quickly consumed.

I head upstream to a downed tree that needs to be cut and stacked. It takes a half hour to get the pile set, but because this is a black walnut that is not yet finished drying out, our efforts to burn the pile meet frustration. After several failed attempts, it is time to move on to a third pile.

Like the first pile this is one has plenty of honeysuckle, which burns easily, buckthorn that burns okay when dry and preheated, and boxelder that has laid there for several years. As this large tightly packed pile springs to life, Anette breaks out cookies, chocolate hot tea. The snow is flying all around; we relax and enjoy the now fading sun as it forces itself through the snow and cloud cover.

As the sun begins to fade, I once again take out the leaf blower. There is a large bed of coals and large sections of trunk burning in the middle of the fire. There remains plenty of brush around the downwind edge of the pile that I am in a hurry to dispatch. Braving the smoke, I rake the remaining unburned fuel into the hot center where it sits listlessly. The small pile seems to be waiting for an invitation to burn.

So I supply just such an invitation. My leaf blower comes out of the sled and springs to life. Its supercharges stream of air turns the bed of coals into a blazing forge. The coals become furious and through intense flames and heat that make short work of the remaining branches that threatened moment earlier to suffocate the those same coals.

A few minutes running around the edge of the fire with the leaf blower moves the mixture of snow, leaves and twigs at the margin out into the snowy barren reaches beyond. A wide patch of charcoal black mineral soil now separates the two worlds and provides a safe barrier for the remaining wood to finish consuming itself.

We pull back across the field and wipe off the snow from the bottom of the sled. It slides into the back of the Subaru as the last rays of sunlight fade.


Thursday, 11 January 2018

Waterfowl Deaths Warming Lakes Linked

Photo of dead waterfowl on the beach.

Photo by Michigan Sea Grant – University of Michigan

Researchers at the UW Madison found that tissue in a majority of dead waterfowl found at three locations around Lake Michigan contained botulism toxin. They just published their findings in the Journal of Applied Ecology. These deaths followed warm water algae blooms where counts of botulism producing bacteria (Clostridium botulinum) spiked.

According to the USGS Field Manual of Wildlife Diseases, “Most botulism outbreaks take place during the summer and fall when ambient temperatures are high.”

Lake Michigan waterfowl botulism deaths linked to warm waters, algae

Wildlife Study

Professor Ben Zuckerberg led the research into botulism deaths in Great Lakes waterfowl.

Microscopy image of waterfowl with Clostridium botulinum.

Photo from Wikipedia

Invasive zebra mussels have increased water clarity which along with warmer waters temperatures created the low-oxygen environment where the botulism toxin-producing bacteria thrive.

Birds do not use bacteria as a food source, however, they eat the insects and other invertebrates that do. According to the USGS “Invertebrates are unaffected by the toxin and, because they feed on decaying matter, they can effectively act to concentrate toxin.” That is how birds get lethal doses of the botulism bacteria.

To keep track of these deaths, the USGS National Wildlife Health Center created a citizen-science program called AMBLE (Avian Monitoring for Botulism Lakeshore Events) in 2010. Volunteers from AMBLE walked beaches in three areas around Lake Michigan.

 The Zuckerberg team also found that die-offs were located within a roughly 25-mile radius of one another.

These findings are no surprise to anglers and duck hunters on the Upper Mississippi. Rafts of cutes have been washing up on Mississippi dams along the State’s western border for several years now. There too toxicology reports show botulism as the cause.

Looking Forward

The hope is that scientists may be able to predict when botulism outbreaks could occur by watching environmental conditions.


December 2017

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Landowner Help for Common Reed Control

Picture of standing man with common reed towering over him.

Photo by James H. Miller, USDA Forest Service,

Landowners across southeastern Wisconsin know about common reed, an invasive grass that is even tougher than cattails. If this invasive species is on your hit list we have good news for you.


Common reed (Phragmites australis), also called phragmites, invades moist habitats including lake shores, river banks and roadways. It has extensive rhizomes that can quickly spread underground and take over large areas. These rhizomes store energy, as a result, the plant can recover from cutting, burning or grazing. 

Common reed alters hydrology and wildlife habitat, increases fire potential, and shades native species. It can spread through root fragmentation, long runners above ground, and sometimes windblown seeds or cut stem fragments. Phragmites is on the Wisconsin DNR Chapter 40 list of prohibited and restricted species.

According to the Wisconsin Wetlands Association, Phragmites is the tallest wetland grass in Wisconsin. It grows upwards of 14 feet. Seed heads are visible from August to September, and it has a round stem, long, wide leaves. Its prominent plume-like seed head that is whitish to purplish in color. Be aware, there is a variety of Phragmites native to Wisconsin that forms less dense patches (you can generally see through the stand) and flowers earlier (July to August).

The Midwest Invasive Plant Network (MIPN) is working in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service Region 9, to host a series of 3 webinars in January and February featuring case studies of the restoration of sites invaded with exotic pest plants.


Illustration of common reed seed head.

The first event will be on Tuesday, January 16th, 11:30 – 12:30 CST. The presentation is titled “Bridging the Gap – New Insights on Technology and on-the-ground Management of Phragmites.” The presentation will be given by Steve Apfelbaum, Founder and Chairman of Applied Ecological Services out of Brodhead, Wisconsin.

For free registration, please visit the MIPN site, and make sure the email address is in your approved contacts to receive the webinar link.

Monday, 11 December 2017

Forest Killing Weed: Japanese knotweed

closeup of Japanese knotweed flower

Japanese knotweed, also called Mexican bamboo grows up to 15 feet tall.

What would you say if somebody told you that a weed could crack the asphalt in you driveway, force its way through the foundation of you house and prevent maple regeneration in your woodland? The weed is called Japanese knotweed and it is here in Wisconsin.

Picture of silver maple floodplain forest community.

Healthy silver maple lowland floodplain forest community with native ferns as ground cover. Courtesy of the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.

Researchers in Pennsylvania found that the invasive plant, Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica), can grow so thick in river floodplains that it can prevent silver maple seeds from taking root and regenerating the forest canopy.

It appears, however, that poison ivy may be a competitor for Japanese knotweed. And unlike knotweed, poison ivy seems to be much more of a team player. Areas with high density of poison ivy had more diversity than those dominated by knotweed. Not withstanding the problems it causes humans, poison ivy seems to be  better neighbor for stream bank plants.

Japanese knotweed is a serious threat in wet soils, especially in lowlands and along riverbanks. Knotweed is also found along bike paths in Madison and roadways in Iowa County.

Knotweed Control

Getting rid of Japanese knotweed is very tough. It grows up six to ten feet tall on hollow stalks that die back in the winter. Knotweed produces a large amount of seed that sprouts really well. High water and even mower decks can easily spread seed or small pieces of cut stalks; both of which can start an whole new infestation. Knotweed also spreads through underground roots called rhizomes that can grow up to fifteen feet deep and twenty feet horizontally in a single year.

Kill very small patches by covering with black tarps that must be held down in place and cover an area fifteen feet wider than the patch itself to keep the roots from creeping out around the edge. The tarps must be left in place continuously for at least three years. This approach does not work for most situations.

Use a combined approach to attacking your Japanese knotweed problem. Cut down in June when the plants are around knee high. This removes stored nutrients from the roots and weakens the plant. Carefully bag and remove EVERYTHING and burn it completely or take it to a commercial landfill. Every small piece of stem that contains a node (where the leaf and stem meet) can form a completely new plant. NEVER take cuttings to a compost facility or place them on a home compost pile.

Repeat the process of cutting, bagging and removing all stems, leaves, flowers and seeds in late August or the first week of September. Again, burn the cuttings completely or taken them to a commercial landfill.

Three weeks later, spray the plants that have re-sprouted with Glyphosate (commercial products include Roundup) according to the label directions.

Japanese knotweed requires three years or more following the same regime to totally eliminate the problem.

Find More Help

For more information about managing Japanese knotweed, check out the Wisconsin DNR Invasive Species factsheet or the UW Extension bulletin.

November 2017

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Prairie Strips Protect Soil

Prairie strip embedded in an agricultural (corn) watershed. Prairie strips increase nutrient and sediment retention, reduce runoff, and increase biodiversity. Iowa State University

Farming is tough and farmers want to make sure they make good decisions. Most farmers have a deep conservation ethic and commitment to their land. Now doing well by doing good may be just what the soil doctor ordered.

A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences describes the results of a ten year study. The practice of prairie strips began as research plots at the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Prairie City, Iowa, and has expanded to 47 commercial farm sites in Iowa, Missouri, Illinois and other states.

Iowa Public Radio interviewed Lisa Schulte Moore, the primary researcher and a professor at Iowa State University. She cited the following benefits:

  • reducing soil loss by 95 percent
  • reducing phosphorus runoff by 77 percent
  • reducing overall nitrogen loss by 70 percent
  • attracting pollinators
  • increasing the number and diversity of birds.

By swapping out deep rooted native plants for cool-season monoculture grasses currently in use on field edges and across gently sloping fields, many farmers can significantly improve soil retention while reducing runoff.

According to a study by Helmers and Zhou incorporating prairie strips at the footslope position of annual rowcrop systems provides an effective way to reduce sediment loss in agricultural runoff from under a no-till system.

While not specifically sited in the study, water that stays on the land also improves groundwater recharge at the same time it is capturing phosphorus and nitrogen.

Friday, 03 November 2017

Fill’er Up!

Fall means it’s time to head into the woodlot to make wood for the furnace or fireplace. The cooler temperatures and fallen leaves also make brush cutting much easier.

Most landowners own several pieces of two-cycle equipment. Usually that list includes a chainsaw, though it may also include leaf blower, brush saw and even an old outboard motor or dirt bike. One thing is for sure; they all need fuel to run.

Two-cycle engines are popular because their power to weight ratio is so much better than four-cycle engines. That means a two-cycle engine will be a whole lot lighter its four-cycle cousin. As we all know, the trade-off is that they need to burn a mix of gas and two-cycle oil. Try using straight gas and watch you power equipment destroy itself as the pistons become welded to the cylinder walls.

What you may not know, however, is that most two-cycle engines are not designed to burn gasoline that contains ethanol, which eats away various gaskets and seals. 

While running a tank of ethanol containing gas may not immediately damage you equipment, many of us leave gas in the tank for days, weeks or months. To tell the truth, that half tank might sit unused in you brush saw or chainsaw for several years. Over that kind of time, even a single load of ethanol containing fuel cause significant damage.

Many stations only sell gas that contains ethanol. Others may sell ethanol-free gas but only in premium grades. It really makes sense to take the extra effort to find and use ethanol free gasoline in your power equipment. is a website that lists gas stations that sell ethanol free gasoline. Their About page get into the nuts and bolts of ethanol free fuel. Whether a particular brand or grade contains ethanol can vary from one location to another, so you need to pay attention every time you stop at the pump.

Be safe and have fun in the woods.

October 2017

Saturday, 28 October 2017

Bring in the Hit Squad

Picture of young garlic mustard plants.

Young garlic mustard plants are especially easy to treat in the late fall or early spring when native plants are dormant. [Conservation Media, llc]

Are you struggling with tough invasive like garlic mustard and reed canary grass? This is a great time to put a serious hurt on these super species. It is also among the most economical times to get your revenge.

By now, native plants have gone dormant. The landscape should by and large be brown and tan. For landowners, who are battling any number of exotic weed species, the remaining green is a bitter reminder of their problem.

Fortunately, this green also represents a unique opportunity. Since native plants are safely sleeping beneath the soil, landowners are free to use non-selective herbicides that would otherwise harm beneficial plants. Chief among these is glyphosate, which is cheap and highly effective.

Those living plants that are sprayed now will either be killed outright or severely weakened so that they are unable to survive the stress of winter. By contrast, application made in spring or summer might stress but not kill something like reed canary grass, which could substantially recover before the arrival of winter.

Glyphosate is short lived, breaking down in the soil in just a couple weeks. This means that wildflowers and native grasses that emerge in the spring will be unaffected by fall spraying.

I still avoid broadcast spraying in most situations because it is wasteful. Spot spraying is way easier when your green target weeds stand out so well. This tactic is especially useful in situations where weeds are scattered among more rate native plants I want to protect.

Depending on weather, this window can be short. Snow and hard freezes will force even hearty weeds into dormancy. Herbicides tend to be more readily taken up on warm sunny fall days. 

Herbicide needs to be part of an integrated weed management approach that includes management tools like controlled fire, cover crops and mowing. As always, follow label directions to minimize the amount of chemical used while making sure it will do its job.

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

EPA Awards $2.7M for WI Weed Control

Picture of Lake Michigan beach with trees, dune grass and shrubs.

Lake Michigan’s magnificent shoreline faces huge challenges.

The EPA announced that it has awarded 2.7 million dollars to five Wisconsin groups to help control invasive plants in the state. The grants are part of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

The Southeastern Wisconsin Invasive Species Consortium will receive $600,000 to implement a multi-organization collaboration to control the spread of invasive species along 2,000 miles of roadways and more than 600 acres of woodland habitat. The collaboration will include local government roadway crews, property owners, community-based organizations and school groups.

Picture of someone spraying herbicide on a tree stump.

Volunteer treats freshly cut stump sapwood with Garlon 4 to prevent the tree from re-sprouting.

The Bay-Lake Regional Planning Commission is granted $599,997 to control invasive species on approximately 1,000 acres in Kewaunee County, Wisconsin. Funding will help protect high quality habitat, as well as increase access to the coastline and nearshore areas.

The Wisconsin Tribal Conservation Advisory Council will use their $393,750 grant to employ four tribal civilian conservation corps, who will work with eleven tribes to prevent the degradation of subsistence fish and wild rice resources. Funded staff will also manage aquatic, wetland and terrestrial invasive species on more than 500 acres of tribal lands.

Picture of chainsaw and helmet on truck tailgate.

Gearing up for oak savanna restoration.

Two new invasive control employees will be funded for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. They will receive $551,669 to pay for two new crew members to control invasive species in 900 acres of the Great Lakes Basin. Lake Winnebago Chain of Lakes and the Fox River above Green Bay will be targeted.

An award of $599,673 will go to the Lakeshore Natural Resource Partnership to control invasive species on approximately 1,370 acres of wetland and aquatic habitat in northeastern Wisconsin. The funded project will improve the ecosystem services and enhance tourism, property values and navigation.

According to Jim Kettler, Executive Director of the Lakeshore Natural Resource Partnership. “LNRP efforts to control and limit Phragmites spread will focus on collaboration between stakeholders including federal, state, and county agencies, local townships, private landowners, community non-profits, and natural area and right-of-way managers through the implementation of best management practices, education, and outreach.”

Contact Allison Nowotarski ( for more information about these grants.