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Planting windbreaks: Any way the wind blows

Where do you start in renovating old windbreaks or planting new ones at new locations?

Curt Arens, Editor, Nebraska Farmer

April 25, 2024

3 Min Read
a windbreak
FIELD SHELTERBELTS: Wind blows relentlessly on the High Plains, so field windbreaks such as these in Box Butte County, Neb., can help protect crops from wind and soil erosion, improving yields and protecting crop residue after harvest. Plantings have been on the uptick for new home construction and livestock protection windbreaks, but not many new field windbreaks are being planted. Curt Arens

Old windbreaks may not look pretty, but they are still doing their job. With tree windbreaks widely planted across the Great Plains states — from Texas north to the Canadian border, as part of the Prairie States Forestry Project — it is easy to identify these older shelterbelts in the countryside.

From 1935 until 1942, 18,599 miles of windbreaks were planted through the program, and hundreds of thousands of acres of shelterbelts have been planted since on farms and ranches in Plains states. But how do landowners evaluate the usefulness of windbreaks that are almost 90 years old?

“Don’t judge a windbreak because it doesn’t look pretty,” says Pam Bergstrom, National Technical Assistance agroforester. “Landowners will know when their windbreaks are declining by standing on the downwind or leeward side of the windbreak, and they can feel the wind come ripping through gaps or wind tunnels that have come about because trees are dying or failing, especially in spots that are wet, and the correct tree wasn’t planted in the right spot.”

Spare the bulldozer

Bergstrom says that most of the time, a bulldozer is not the answer. “Just adding rows can help improve the windbreak,” she says.

Doak Nickerson, retired Nebraska Forest Service district forester, has been fond of saying, “The best time to plant a windbreak is 20 years ago. The next best time is today.”

Related:Remembering and rebuilding first shelterbelts

“Windbreaks provide so much to the Great Plains all year round,” Bergstrom says. “In the spring with calving, you will see calves and cows using the windbreak to get out of the snow and protect themselves from harsh winter weather that still pops up in springtime.

“In the summer, windbreaks can help protect crops from high winds and increase yields. In the fall, when harvest is ongoing, they act as a living screen to prevent dust from getting into homes out in the countryside. In the winter, a correctly designed and planted windbreak can help reduce the heating costs of homesteads and also divert snow from falling on the roads.”

Uptick in plantings

Bergstrom notes that there has been an uptick in windbreak plantings in recent years around new home construction, especially in rural settings or semi-urban areas. There also have been more shelterbelts planted to protect livestock. However, few new field windbreaks have been installed to protect crops in recent years.

If a landowner has an older windbreak — planted between the 1930s and 1960s, for instance — they may need new rows of trees to strengthen their impact, Bergstrom suggests.

“Trees planted from the 1970s to 1990s are, for the most part, in need of some thinning out,” she says, “especially from volunteer trees that have sprouted and are choking out the original planting.”

The newer plantings may look good, but recent droughts have tested their resilience, Bergstrom adds, “and some have dead spots that need to be reestablished with new trees and maybe different tree species.”

But where do landowners start if they are interested in renovating windbreaks?

“The first step is to contact a natural resources professional who is proficient in windbreak design and implementation,” Bergstrom says. “You will go through how and why windbreaks are designed the way they are. You, as a landowner, need to not rely on one or two species of trees, but a variety of trees and shrubs for your windbreak.”

There are county zoning rules and laws to consider when planning how close to plant a windbreak to property boundaries or roads, she adds.

But Bergstrom, like Nickerson, encourages landowners to begin sooner than later in planning a windbreak renovation or new planting. “Windbreaks provide so much for us in all four seasons, yet we take them for granted,” she says.

Learn more about windbreak design and plantings from your state forest service professionals.

About the Author(s)

Curt Arens

Editor, Nebraska Farmer

Curt Arens began writing about Nebraska’s farm families when he was in high school. Before joining Farm Progress as a field editor in April 2010, he had worked as a freelance farm writer for 27 years, first for newspapers and then for farm magazines, including Nebraska Farmer.

His real full-time career, however, during that same period was farming his family’s fourth generation land in northeast Nebraska. He also operated his Christmas tree farm and grew black oil sunflowers for wild birdseed. Curt continues to raise corn, soybeans and alfalfa and runs a cow-calf herd.

Curt and his wife Donna have four children, Lauren, Taylor, Zachary and Benjamin. They are active in their church and St. Rose School in Crofton, where Donna teaches and their children attend classes.

Previously, the 1986 University of Nebraska animal science graduate wrote a weekly rural life column, developed a farm radio program and wrote books about farm direct marketing and farmers markets. He received media honors from the Nebraska Forest Service, Center for Rural Affairs and Northeast Nebraska Experimental Farm Association.

He wrote about the spiritual side of farming in his 2008 book, “Down to Earth: Celebrating a Blessed Life on the Land,” garnering a Catholic Press Association award.

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