Windbreaks provide economic management tool
In a region of the country where wind can reach over 100 miles per hour, investing in windbreaks in range situations can not only improve cow and calf health, but also can improve performance and ultimately, a producer’s profits.
“If we lose three calves because of weather, we could have paid for a windbreak,” says Natrona County Extension Agriculture and Horticulture Educator Scott Cotton.
“A windbreak creates what we call an air movement shadow downwind behind it,” says Cotton.
For every one-foot increment in the height of the windbreak, there is approximately nine feet from the bottom of the backside of the windbreak that the wind is blocked.
“If we’re trying to shelter 100 feet, we really need a 10-foot-high wind break,” explains Cotton.
When planning the size to build a windbreak, producers need to estimate how many square feet they need sheltered and how many cattle they need to provide shelter for.
“If we figure that that every cow needs about 100 square feet to get out of the weather, then we’re going to need that 10-by-10 foot area behind the shelter for each cow,” he continues.
“Choosing the right location is about knowing what our drifting patterns are,” says Cotton.
He explains that placing windbreaks in the wrong location can result in drifts that form behind the windbreak that are nine times the length of the barrier.
“Along the railroads and highways, we put them quite a bit away so that the snow drifts and then scours again where we want it clear,” he continues.
From personal experience on their operation, Cotton notes that many producers should be able to identify problem areas on their land that need windbreaks.
“Most ranchers have been on their land so long that they have an idea of where the bad winds are and can put the windbreaks in, so it gives the cattle an opportunity to move in a logical direction,” says Cotton.
Many ranchers will place windbreaks intermittently, such as in one-mile intervals.
Cotton explains, “Cattle will move about a mile downwind to get away from the wind.”
Cattle typically move away from the dominant wind until they find a location that is sheltered.
“This can be good when they come down to windbreaks,” he says. “It can be bad though if they go down into a creek bottom or somewhere the snow can blow right over them.”
Cotton notes that it is important to train cattle where windbreaks are and to use them in the event that the wind encourages animals to move in the opposite direction of windbreaks.
“If the wind pushes them in a direction away from the windbreaks, some will go to it if they’re really familiar with the windbreak,” he explains. “Others might turn straight downwind, and then we have problems.”
When choosing a location to build a windbreak, it is also important for producers to consider ease of access in and out for livestock.
“We encourage producers to be sure that windbreaks are places that cattle can move in and out of, so they don’t get trapped and they also have access to water,” says Cotton.
Placing windbreaks in higher elevation areas can help improve access for cattle.
“The windbreaks on top of a hill are a lot safer than ones down in a creek bottom. They’re easier to see from the rancher’s perspective, too,” continues Cotton.
Providing thermal protection is another important goal for windbreak placement.
“Windbreaks usually face north-northwest, so the sun comes in from the southeast side and makes a warm spot out of the wind for the livestock,” he explains.
Another factor that producers should consider is whether to have a solid windbreak or leave small air gaps.
“The solid windbreaks tend to make a cleaner line drift behind it and sometimes creates blockages, whereas the ones with the little air gaps tend to feather the wind and makes it a more uniform and gentler line behind them,” he notes.
Cotton notes that while windbreaks can be made from a number of materials such as steel, wood or straw, choosing the most economical option will depend on material availability.
“If we’re in a timbering area, slat wood is pretty inexpensive. An average windbreak that’s a 100-foot-by-100-foot L-shape will probably cost $500 to $600 plus labor,” he says.
He notes that areas of the state that are not close to a lumber mill would require ranchers to use higher-quality materials, increasing the cost.
In some areas, producers may utilize snow from previous storms to build windbreaks.
“Some ranchers take a V-plow and build windbreaks out of snow. The only cost is fuel,” Cotton says. “The down side is, if we get a bad enough storm, that snow starts moving, and our wind break goes away.”
Using hay or straw to build a windbreak can serve multiple purposes, says Cotton.
“We typically use our low-quality hay. The cattle can get behind it as shelter, and they can just eat on the windbreak,” he concludes. “Some of those big square windbreaks can last two or three years successfully.”
Emilee Gibb is editor of Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.