Written by: Peter Newman
Work hard; be good to your mother.
Never rush a good job.
Be patient burning narrow windrows – conditions are everything.
We have learnt a lot about burning narrow windrows over the years with the aim always being to kill the weed seeds while keeping the fire in the windrow.
Get it wrong and you have strips of weeds, or worse, the whole paddock burns and wind erosion results.
Get it right and you are on the path to a low seed bank and cleaner crops.
If you are burning windrows for the first time, or you need a quick refresher before burning season, read on to learn from the best in the windrow burning business.
Few people have burnt more narrow windrows than Andrew and Rod Messina. Between them, they have burnt over 100,000 hectares of narrow windrows over the past fifteen years on their Mullewa properties in Western Australia. Their message?
Be patient and wait for the right conditions.
Many growers are preparing to burn narrow windrows for the first time this year, particularly in SA and NSW. If history repeats we can expect a lot of rain! In 2002 in Western Australia we saw large scale adoption of narrow windrow burning for the first time, and guess what happened? The heavens opened up with loads of summer rain.
Setting up narrow windrows for the first time is like washing your car or hanging washing on the line. It’s bound to rain, but all is not lost. The windrows will still burn and there is money in mud!
The art of burning narrow windrows – with Andrew and Rod Messina
- Harvest low.
- Harvest low.
- Harvest low.
- If you didn’t harvest low, wait until May to burn cereal windrows. If it was a high yielding crop you may need to wait until after a drop of rain.
- We burn lupin and canola windrows during the afternoon as they are low risk of escaping. Watch out for willy willies (dust devils) on hot days. They can pick up burning trash and dump it in the bush.
- We always burn cereals in the evening when the humidity rises and the temperature and wind drops. Later in the burning season (late April / May) we light up cereal windrows in the afternoon so that burning is finished in the early evening to avoid the dew that can come in and put the fire out.
- Barley is a big challenge due to its leafy nature.
- We use an Accufire to light up windrows and highly recommend them as the best fire lighter.
- We seed / harvest up and back with two laps of the harvester as headlands.
- We light up the outside two laps of the paddock first by driving two laps of the paddock with the Accufire continuously on. We wait until this fire has died down and nearly burnt itself out before we start lighting up the rest of the paddock. The burnt outside two laps forms a fire break to limit the fire escaping the paddock.
- We aim for a light cross wind, 90 degrees to the direction of the windrows. This does a couple of things. Firstly the light breeze fuels the fire all of the way to the soil surface where the weed seeds are. Secondly, it allows us to light up the windrows every 200 to 400m. If the wind is blowing down the windrows then the fire will travel quickly in one direction and may burn over the top of the weed seeds on the soil surface. With a cross wind the fire creeps in both directions creating a hot burn. If we burn with no wind at all sometimes the fire does not burn all of the way to the soil surface.
- If we have a high yielding wheat crop over 2.5 t/ha with big windrows we wait. We will often wait until just before seeding to burn these windrows. This way if the fire escapes and the paddock burns it is only exposed to wind erosion for a short time before it rains. Also, the temperature and humidity are better at that time of year to give us the best chance of burning just the windrow. For really big crops we will burn a few days after a drop of rain to reduce the risk of fire escapes.
- We don’t have sheep any more but we used to give our windrowed paddocks a light graze before burning without any problems. The sheep eat some leaf material off the cereals making burning safer. Heavy grazing is not a good idea. The sheep spread out the windrows too much and put in too many fire breaks. A mobile watering point is a good idea when grazing a paddock with narrow windrows to avoid the tracks that sheep make to a permanent watering point.
Picking the right burning day
Firefighters use the McArthur grass fire index to determine the fire risk on a given day. Grain growers can use the same tool to pick the right day for narrow windrow burning. The easiest way to access this index is to use the PocketFire app. All you need to do is input the temperature, wind speed and humidity (set grass curing to 100%) to determine the grass fire index. An index of between 2 and 10 is ideal. Check out this video by DAFWA about grain grower Doug Smith who pioneered the use of this app:
There is nothing like experience, the next best thing is learning from other people’s experiences. Few people have more experience with burning narrow windrows than Andrew and Rod Messina. They might be worth listening to!
Follow the links below for further information: