Fixing windbreaks in Kansas

Windbreaks are an important practice for many Kansas farmers and ranchers. Among many benefits they help protect the soil and enhance crop productivity. But many windbreaks in the state are old and tired, and in need of repair. The Kansas Forest Service (KFS) identified this concern as a priority in its State Forest Action Plan, and a few years ago organized windbreak assessments in the southwestern and western parts of the state to learn more about the condition of existing windbreaks.

Fixing windbreaks in Kansas

“Our traditional forest inventories do not capture the condition or location of our windbreaks,” said KFS Rural Forestry Coordinator Bob Atchison. “Thanks to a grant from the U.S. Forest Service, we have engaged farmers and ranchers we’ve never worked with before.”

The Logan County Conservation District was one of several partners enlisted in 2013 to help organize assessments in the seven-county area. The district helped to map windbreaks in need of further study and obtained landowner permission so that KFS could conduct an on-site assessment.

To grade each windbreak, KFS created seven criteria to indicate a healthy stand:

• Less than 25 percent of the trees are dead
• Continuous barrier; no gaps
• 50 percent density or greater
• No smooth bromegrass or fescue sod
• No livestock activity in the windbreak
• Tree regeneration is present
• Windbreak will live/function another 20 years
A ‘good’ grade required the windbreak to meet all seven criteria; a ‘fair’ grade required five of seven; a ‘poor’ grade met four or fewer criteria.

The results confirmed what KFS had suspected – help was needed. In fact, in 11 of the 14 pilot counties, at least 25 percent of the windbreaks assessed scored a poor or fair rating.

The project also aimed to demonstrate the effectiveness of windbreaks in terms of yield. There is often a decrease in yields immediately adjacent to the windbreak due to shading and root competition, however conservation professionals note significantly higher production may occur two-to-15 times the height of the windbreak downwind.

“In addition to reducing wind-blown soil,” said Atchison, “research documents that windbreaks can increase crop yields from 8 to 23% for corn, soybeans and wheat.”

This fall, KFS once again turned to conservation districts to help with the second phase of this project. State forestry provided form letters and funding for the district to mail to all landowners identified in the assessment as having windbreaks in fair or poor condition. Each letter contained a brochure covering the benefits of the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), which offers cost-share assistance to landowners looking to renovate existing windbreaks.

“Districts in our state know the local farmers and ranchers,” said Atchison. “They have the trust of those people. To be able to use that network was critical to our success.”

The response rate has leaders excited. Of the approximate 120 letters sent out by Logan County Conservation District in September, 12 landowners responded. Nearby Wallace County Conservation District sent out 136 letters and received 25 responses.

KFS District Forester Bryan Peterson met with landowners in November to develop plans. So far 20 landowners have filed applications for cost-share assistance to renovate their windbreaks through EQIP.

“I am positive the high number of applications this year was due to the mailing and field visits made by Bryan,” said Dana Charles, District Manager for the Logan County Conservation District. “My main concern is that there will not be enough funds to assist all the landowners interested in cost-share.”

Wallace County Conservation District Manager Bev Elder appreciated the working relationship with Kansas Forest Service. Peterson updated the district regularly on the status of plan development, which allowed district staff to answer landowner questions. “Without his hard-working efforts to make personal contact and get plans back so efficiently this (level of success) would not have been possible.”

The windbreak restoration project has helped to expand relations between Kansas Forest Service and the state’s conservation districts. According to Elder, because of the success of this project her district is in the planning process to host a tree workshop in cooperation with KFS sometime this upcoming spring.

The windbreak project scope has shifted to the south central part of the state where Atchison says assessments are currently underway in another seven-county block. Once completed, KFS will enlist conservation districts to assist with landowner outreach in those areas, he said. “It was a no brainer to use conservation districts as an outreach partner.”

To learn more about this project, contact Bob Atchison, Kansas Forest Service Rural Forestry Coordinator, at 785-532-331 or via email at atchison@ksu.edu.
What is a windbreak?
Per the National Agroforestry Center… Windbreaks are linear plantings of trees and shrubs designed to enhance crop production, protect people and livestock, and benefit soil and water conservation.

There are several types of windbreaks. Field windbreaks protect a variety of wind-sensitive crops, control wind erosion, and increase bee pollination and pesticide effectiveness. Livestock windbreaks help reduce animal stress and mortality, reduce feed consumption, and help reduce visual impacts and odors. Living snowfences keep roads clean of drifting snow and increase driving safety. They can also spread snow evenly across a field, increasing spring soil moisture.”

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