Tree windbreak systems provide savings, protect livestock
Torrington — The cold Wyoming wind can take its toll on a newborn calf.
A cow’s nutritional needs also increase when Wyoming’s weather turns cold and windy. If the temperature reaches zero and the wind is blowing at 25 mph, the windchill is 44 degrees below zero. At this temperature, the animal is under extreme stress and will require more feed to convert to energy just to maintain its body temperature. At this outdoor temperature, the cow is less efficient at converting feed to energy and more susceptible to becoming sick or developing a health problem.
There are, however, some proactive steps that can be taken. Planting a tree windbreak system around the north and west perimeter of a calving area can make a world of difference for a rancher at calving time says Rex Lockman, wildlife and range specialist with the Laramie County Conservation District.
“A tree windbreak can really be beneficial when calving and feeding cattle in the cold wind,” Lockman explains. “If you can calve your cows behind the windbreak, the survival rate of the calves will increase because the wind chill factor won’t be as low.” Feed costs will also be reduced because any time the cattle are cold, they require more feed. The use of the windbreak during the winter reduces wind speed, which improves feed efficiency, reduces stress on cattle and improves overall cattle health.
Help is available for ranchers interested in planting a tree windbreak system. Lockman says ranchers should contact their local Natural Resource Conservation District Service (NRCS) office. Representatives from NRCS can come to the ranch and draw up a plan for the windbreak system and determine the chances for obtaining a cost-share to help pay for the system.
As shown in the diagram, a plan is important so a producer can get optimum use from the windbreak. John Crisp of the Wyoming State Forestry Division says there are important factors to consider — the type of trees and how tall they will grow, how much space a producer has for the tree windbreak system and the amount of snow received in the area. By drawing up a plan, the producer will be able to determine how far to plant the trees from the fence so cattle calving or being fed in the area won’t become buried in snow if it blows over the tops of the trees. The time spent planning out a good system and maintaining it can provide many long-term economic benefits to the landowner.
In most areas, Lockman says a minimum of three and not more than five rows of trees are recommended for the system. “If more than five rows are planted, we have found there is not really any extra benefit other than for wildlife,” he explains.
In a three-row system, Lockman says they typically plant one row of shrubs and two rows of evergreen trees, alternating different species. The most common evergreens are Rocky Mountain Juniper and Ponderosa Pine, but representatives from the NRCS can give the rancher an idea of which trees will work best in their area. Lockman says the NRCS will look at the trees that are the most drought-tolerant and disease-resistant. “The evergreen trees are denser and will create a more solid barrier,” says Lockman.
Crisp says a row of shrubs work well in a system because the evergreen trees will grow up and the bottom of the trunk will be bare. “As the trees grow up, there will be wind movement under the trees,” he explains. “The shrubs will provide protection for the bare trunk.”
Crisp adds that the shrubs also grow at a faster rate than the evergreens so they can provide some benefit from the wind sooner than the evergreen species.
Although it depends on the environment, Lockman says it can take up to 10-15 years to see any benefit from a tree windbreak system. “It could be sooner than that in some areas, depending on the soil and moisture in the area,” he says.
Water and proper soil preparation are vital to the establishment of the trees. “We usually recommend tilling the ground to a 12-inch depth where the trees will be planted,” Lockman says. “It will give the roots a better point to become established.”
When the trees are planted, Lockman says the application of a fabric mulch can reduce weeds and grass growing with the trees and competing for moisture.
Crisp adds that some type of supplemental watering is required, especially during the dry years. “Water is the limiting factor for growth and vigor,” he says.
Some ranchers put in a drip irrigation system. “The trees will need supplemental water to establish a root system,” Crisp says.
Lockman says they typically recommend supplemental watering of the tree at five gallons of water per tree per week. “Anytime you can supplemental these trees with water, you will improve your growth and survival rate,” he says.
Lockman says the ideal time to plant a tree windbreak system is in April or May. Local Conservation Districts can sell trees for windbreak systems at lower costs than a tree nursery. Many varieties of trees are available and they can be purchased as bareroot trees or container trees. To order trees from the program, a producer can contact the local Conservation District office.
The trees should be planted as soon as possible after they are received in order to have the best probability of success. The trees can be planted by hand or mechanically. Producers should check with their local resource offices to see if they have mechanical tree planting equipment.
Lockman and Crisp both say the EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program) program can be used to offset some of the costs associated with putting in a livestock windbreak system. The program is offered through the NRCS and offers a cost-share on windbreak and shelterbelt establishment. The program is offered at the county level, so each county has different funding levels and qualifications for the program. Some counties also have tree planting services available for a fee.
Because of EQIP, and similar programs, Lockman says many ranchers were putting in tree windbreak systems for their livestock. “In the last five or six years, this has kind of tapered off because of the drought,” he says. “A lot of them want to do it, but they are waiting until they feel comfortable doing it without a (tree) loss.”
Gayle Smith is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup.