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Extension, Utility Experts Urge Caution, Planning During Post-Harvest Burns

By Ryan McGeeney
The Cooperative Extension Service
U of A System Division of Agriculture
  • Extension: about 25 percent of Arkansas rice fields burned each year after harvest
  • Out-of-control burndowns can lead to structural damage to nearby utilities, resulting in power outages and hundreds of thousands of dollars in losses
  • Growers should know surrounding area thoroughly before burns
As rice harvest draws to a close in Arkansas, many growers will be burning some or all of their rice fields to clear residue and prepare for next year. As producers plan their controlled burns, utility companies are hoping they’ll take into account nearby power lines, transformers and other equipment in order to avoid damaging important infrastructure. 
Monty Harrell, transmission lines supervisor with Entergy Arkansas, Inc., said that each year, the company loses about three structures to crop burndowns that get out of control. The steel structures and wooden poles support approximately 5,000 miles of electric transmission lines throughout the state. In September, a burndown in Desha County damaged a transmission tap line, which carries about 115 kilovolts of electricity, Woods said.
Harrell said that the average price of each Entergy structure lost to burndowns is about $30,000, a cost that the utility company has historically tried to recoup from the landowners responsible for the blazes, he said.
The periods of highest concern are October, when growers may burn harvested rice fields, and late spring or early summer, when wheat producers may do the same.
Jarrod Hardke, extension rice agronomist for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, said on average rice producers in Arkansas burn approximately one quarter of all rice acreage each year -- 300,000 and 400,000 acres burned each year between 2012-2014. Fields are burned as a means of crop residue management because rice straw is difficult to incorporate into the soil and slow to decay, which can lead to production issues in subsequent seasons.
Most Arkansas producers of wheat, corn, grain sorghum and other grains don’t find burning necessary, said Jason Kelley, extension wheat and feed grains agronomist for the Division of Agriculture. He estimated that less than 25 percent of all non-rice grain fields are burned in any given year.
Sammy Sadaka, extension biosystems engineer for the Division of Agriculture, said field burndowns may not be right for every situation and that there are potential alternatives, including processing remaining stalks into biochar, a charcoal-like product that can be used as a soil conditioner. 
Keith Perkins, cooperative extension agriculture agent in Lonoke County, said growers should familiarize themselves with local burn laws and take into account current weather conditions when planning a controlled burndown.
“If there are electrical lines, phone lines, any kind of lines running through the property or by the property, you need your fire to stop well short of anything that doesn't need to be burned,” Perkins said. “When the field is set on fire, make sure none of your employees are in the field, and none of your equipment is left in the field. There have been cases of tractors being burned up.”
Perkins said growers should also be aware of traffic on nearby roads, as heavy smoke from a burndown can lower drivers’ visibility and make driving hazardous. Most burndowns in Lonoke County are between 40 and 100 acres, he said.

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