Windbreaks – a Worthy Investment


“For every $1 invested in a livestock windbreak, a beef cow producer realizes $7 in return,” says Doak Nickerson, northwest district forester for the Nebraska Forest Service.

Weather is an unpredictable factor everywhere, but when it comes to winter storms in the heart of America’s cattle country, the environment can make or break the beef industry.

Nebraska has undoubtedly faced its share of winter storms, summer droughts and everything in between.

In 2019, an “inland hurricane” named Winter Storm Ulmer made its debut in March, covering Nebraska’s entire east/west reach (500 miles wide). Heavy rain and ice plagued eastern Nebraska, and a full-fledged blizzard packing wind-driven snow ravaged western Nebraska.

“We were not prepared for it. We were in the middle of spring calving season when baby calves are most vulnerable to wind, cold and snow,” Nickerson says.

According to Nickerson, Winter Storm Ulmer brought rain, snow, flooding and 60-plus mile-per-hour winds, ultimately leading to a devastating experience for ranchers.

“I’ve never seen anything like it. It was a complete mess,” Nickerson recalls. “That was an atrocity and an unbelieve livestock loss. In spite of losing more than 1 million head of cows and calves to this disaster, cattle lucky enough to have access behind windbreaks, which were holding 20-feet-deep snow drifts, survived. Unfortunately, each winter storm has a major impact on our industry here in Nebraska.”

Nickerson has 40 years of field experience with planting, managing and educating about the use and utility of windbreaks in the Northern Great Plains, Washington, Canada and Australia. Throughout his service in agricultural and environmental science, Nickerson has been responsible for the training, oversight and implementation of windbreak planting programs, accounting for more than 4 million seedlings and 7,000 miles of windbreaks.

“Up here in Nebraska, our nemesis has to be winters,” he explains. “These windbreaks and shelterbelts have proven their worth, time and time again, in terms of getting our cow herds through these winter storms and blizzards that we have.”

Often, Nickerson refers to the use of tree and shrub windbreaks as an insurance blanket or a year-round buffer that serves to protect Nebraska’s No. 1 asset – beef cattle. According to Nickerson, windbreaks and shelterbelts can help eliminate risk and flatten the curve of extreme weather that occurs during winters and summers across the Northern Great Plains.

“There is agreement with an industry this big and this important to us in this part of the U.S. – do the best we can to shelter the industry from the rigors of the weather that can plague us here in beef country,” Nickerson says. Windbreaks and shelterbelts can do just that.

The Use of Windbreaks

A resource published by University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) Extension states windbreaks are an important component to ensuring the protection of livestock. Notably, windbreaks can provide benefits, including reduced wind speed, improved animal health and increased feedlot efficiency. The list does not stop there.

“In the Great Plains, it is all about what we do to manage and manipulate land and how that impacts our lives. Windbreaks, quite literally, break the wind, and they are barriers that we use to break up the straight-line force of windy days and harsh weather,” Nickerson explains.

Other known benefits of windbreaks outlined in the UNL Extension resource include the following: significant amounts of wildlife habitat, a protected work environment and livestock area, and a screen for noise and odor that can be associated with livestock operations.

Nickerson says when it comes to different designs for windbreaks, the sky is the limit.

“Windbreak design is based on tree and shrub species composition; windbreak length, height, density and width; the minimum number of rows planted, which cannot be less than one; and the maximum number of rows limited to how far upwind the landowner wants to plant,” Nickerson says.

While that may seem like a lot to keep track of, windbreak design is also dependent on the direction of winter winds. For example, the UNL Extension resource indicates that windbreaks should be located on the north and west of operations in the Upper Midwest and Northern Great Plains. Occasionally, the south side is encouraged, as well, to protect from late winter and early spring storms, but it is important not to block summer breezes.

“Talk to neighbors who plant and grow windbreaks. Confer with a natural resource professional, such as a forester or conservationist, and ask a lot of questions,” Nickerson advises.

A Worthy Investment

As if known benefits are not enough to prove the reward for implementing windbreaks, Nickerson shares a model developed to show producers the cost-benefit ratio of investing in windbreaks.

Through thorough investigation and careful calculation, Nickerson partnered with UNL and other land grant universities to form a few basic assumptions regarding the implementation of windbreaks. One of these assumptions includes 1 to 5 percent of a farm or ranch being dedicated to tree shelter.

Breaking down the numbers can be intriguing, but the highlight of the findings is in this statement by Nickerson: “For every $1 invested in a livestock windbreak, a beef cow producer realizes $7 in return.”

Windbreak Options

Communication is key for agriculturalists in Nebraska. There are species of trees and shrubs that are often in the limelight of debate among producers, foresters and conservationists alike. According to Nickerson, whether a tree or shrub species is successful vs. unsuccessful or noninvasive vs. invasive depends on the management of the windbreak.

“Depending on where you are located in the country, there are a number of evergreen, broadleaf tree and shrub species that can be substituted for the Eastern Red Cedar,” Nickerson says of windbreak alternatives.

With questions regarding investing or implementing windbreaks, Nickerson advises you to contact your local U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service office and/or Conservation District.

For additional resources and information about windbreaks, contact your local land grant university Cooperative Extension office, which for Nebraska producers, is UNL Extension.

Written by: Grace Vehige, Contributing Writer
Source: Nebraska Cattleman October 2021 Issue

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