Extreme and hazardous winds have left farming and livestock operations in some of the most fertile parts of the United States – the Great Plains – vulnerable to erosion. As many of the region’s producers know all too well, erosion negatively affects the soil’s ability to store water and nutrients, effectively lowering the overall quality of the soil, contributing to higher rates of nutrient runoff, and increasing crop loss. The inclusion of windbreaks, however, has helped many farmers in the Great Plains keep their soils in place.
Conservation leaders from eight states gathered in Manhattan, Kansas, for the Great Plains Windbreak Initiative, a three-day meeting designed to advance the “research, understanding, and use of windbreaks in the Great Plains.” The Great Plains Windbreak Initiative laid the foundation for a region-wide plan to advance the knowledge and use of windbreaks for supporting profitable and sustainable farms and ranches in Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Colorado, Wyoming, Oklahoma, and Texas. Conservation districts in these states continue to assist in these efforts. Windbreaks – one of five recognized agroforestry practices – are created by planting trees, shrubs, or grass in rows to protect crops, livestock, wildlife, or people from hazardous winds. When properly designed, located, and managed, windbreaks can produce environmental and economic benefits. The earliest windbreaks date back to the mid-1930s, but the practice gained widespread acceptance in the 1970s and ’80s.
The Great Plains Windbreak Initiative is working with groups such as the University of Wyoming Extension, which promotes conservation district seedling tree program as a way to obtain trees for a planned windbreak. Another group that is helping people set up their windbreaks is the South Dakota Association of Conservation Districts (SDACD). They update an annual windbreak survey that tracks the acreage and purpose for each windbreak planted in the state back to 1944. Last year, South Dakota conservation districts helped to plant more than 3,000 acres of windbreaks, more than two-thirds designed for field and feedlot protection.
In addition to mitigating hazardous winds, windbreaks help save energy and can cut home heating costs. Windbreaks also help net big gains in carbon storage, improve income by increasing crop yields, and protect livestock from heat and cold stress. But in order to create windbreaks, landowners need programs to provide tree seedlings. According to University of Wyoming Extension Agriculture and Horticulture Educator Bridger Feuz, “Seedling tree programs provide a relatively inexpensive source of good, quality trees that have been selected to be adapted to the Wyoming climate and conditions.”
Also, programs like the one set up by the South Dakota Conservation Districts for feedlots help a lot. “The winds that blow across South Dakota’s fragile soils create wind erosion concerns as well as stress our livestock,” said SDACD Executive Director Angela Ehlers. “Assisting producers by planting and caring for windbreaks provides the producer needed natural resource protection and the conservation districts earn funds to operate. A secondary benefit of many of our field and feedlot windbreaks is the wildlife habitat they also provide.”