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Farmstead Forest: Soil moisture is everything in a semiarid environment.

Curt Arens, Editor, Nebraska Farmer

March 4, 2021

3 Min Read
Field windbreaks near Hemingford, Neb
HIGH PLAINS PLANTINGS: These field windbreaks near Hemingford, Neb., use fabric weed barrier to conserve moisture and improve tree survivability. While not necessary in wetter regions, site preparation on the High Plains might include one year of fallow, when vegetation is kept clear from the 6- to 8-foot-wide swath where trees would be planted the following spring. Curt Arens

The semiarid High Plains areas of the Great Plains and Mountain States are quite different than other parts of the country. Crops are different. Topography and elevation are different. The methods used by landowners to plant trees differ as well, mostly because of unique soil types and far less precipitation.

At a Nebraska Forest Service windbreak short course, NFS northwest district forester Doak Nickerson of Chadron, Neb., discussed site preparation for tree plantings on the High Plains.

Nickerson is quick to point out that soil moisture is everything when it comes to planting trees under conditions of less than 14 inches of precipitation annually. With drier and windier conditions on the High Plains, numerous strategies are necessary to conserve moisture for tree plantings — and to protect the soil from excessive drying and wind erosion.

Save moisture

“Plantings will suffer from poor soil preparation,” Nickerson says, “especially when it is coupled with inadequate weed and grass control.” He suggests controlling grasses, crops and weeds with herbicides a year in advance in a 6- to 8-foot swath where trees will be planted.

“Fallow for this region is not just protecting the ground from vegetation in the fall; it is protecting it for an entire year ahead of time,” Nickerson explains. On crop ground, killing the crop and keeping the dead crop residue weed-free is part of the fallow process. The same method could be used on grassland.

Nickerson recommends leaving vegetation between the 6- to 8-foot swaths, because standing dead vegetation will catch snowfall in the winter and add moisture to the soil before planting.

Other methods of site preparation include wide scalping, which uses a motor grader to remove 3 inches of soil in a swath 6 to 8 feet wide from the upwind side, followed by deep tillage or a roughening of the soil one year in advance of planting.

  Tree planting site preparation recommendations according to land use, topography and soil type

The windrow of soil left from the process catches winter snow. Then, before planting in the spring, the soil windrow and dead sod is spread back out over the swath where the trees are to be planted.

Narrow scalping of a furrow that is 12 inches wide and 3 inches deep — which is another method used on the High Plains — is accomplished with two small plow share attachments or scalpers that mount on both sides of a tree planting machine’s coulter wheel. The units scalp the soil and dead sod residue as the tree seedlings are being planted.

On cropland sites that are being planted to trees, Nickerson recommends deep-ripping the site one year in advance to remove any hardpan that would have developed after a century of plowing or disking the ground. This might be especially important on heavily tilled sugarbeet fields. See the table above for specific recommendations for site preparation under different soils and land uses.

Firsthand experience

Nickerson says that he has seen the benefits of site preparation firsthand. He photographed two Rocky Mountain juniper trees that had been planted in Sioux County in the same field on the same day.

One tree was planted into shortgrass prairie without site preparation of any kind. The other tree was planted into ground that had been prepared. Ten years later, the juniper planted on the unprepared site was 2 feet tall, while the other tree planted with site preparation was 6 feet tall.

After planting, fabric weed barriers or herbicide control of weeds and encroaching grass within the planted strips is also crucial in tree survival, specifically in these arid regions, Nickerson adds.

Learn more by contacting Nickerson at [email protected].

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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