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Shelter Belts & Windbreaks

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Farmstead shelterbelts have long been a feature of the Midwestern landscape; sheltering wildlife, livestock and farmsteads from winter's harsh grip. Without dense woody cover, winters can be deadly for farmland wildlife. Harsh winters can be equally devastating to livestock and heating budgets. The so-called dust bowl days of the 1930s prompted land management practices that included strip and farmstead shelterbelts to conserve soil resources. Ensuing decades through the 1970s saw the intensification of agriculture and the drive to put increasingly more land into production. As a result, extensive removal of shelterbelts throughout the nation's agricultural lands occurred. Today, a renewed interest in the restoration of farmstead shelterbelts exists. This brochure explores the numerous benefits of shelterbelts and explains how to establish shelterbelts on your farmstead.

Shelterbelt Design

Shelterbelts should be designed to contain 10 or more rows of trees and shrubs to provide maximum benefit to wildlife and homeowners. Placement is primarily on the north and west sides of farmsteads to block the prevailing winds. Four important design factors: snow catch, height of the lift trees, number of evergreen rows and overall width of the belt from west to east and north to south will determine the effectiveness of any shelterbelt.

Shrubs are planted in the outermost rows to catch drifting snow. A well-designed snow catch stops virtually all the drifting snows without burying and damaging any of the inner rows of trees. It generally consists of two closely planted (3-6 ft.) shrub rows, located at least 30 to 50 feet to the west and north of the remainder of the shelterbelt. When planning the snow catch area landowners have the option of farming it, putting in a food plot or planting a garden. When planting a food plot make sure to use crops that will withstand the heavy snows in the catch area. Corn and grain sorghum are among the most reliable food sources and are the best choices. Planted separately or in combinations, they retain grain on stalks, stand well in winter weather and provide very high-energy food.

In the middle of the shelterbelt, 4 rows of tall deciduous trees "lift" chilling winds above the farmstead for approximately 20 times their height. Conifers (evergreens), are planted on the inside four rows and effectively reduce the remaining wind and drifting snow and provide critical winter habitat for wildlife. For maximum protection, a shelterbelt should be at least 150 feet wide.

What and where to plant

To allow normal farm machinery and snow removal operations, the innermost row should be no closer than 50 feet from the nearest building, feedlot or roadway. Shelterbelts should also extend at least 50 feet beyond the most southerly and easterly buildings. This keeps snow drifts that develop near the end of the shelterbelt away from buildings. Spacing between and within rows is specifically designed to aid cultivation, provide adequate room for tree growth and maximize the effectiveness and longevity of the shelterbelt.

Field windbreaks used for feedlot protection should be at least 200 feet long to prevent overcrowding of livestock. Since windbreaks are generally not as wide as shelterbelts, the best design incorporates several rows of conifers flanked on each side by a row of shrubs. Any shelterbelt or windbreak should be fenced to prevent trampling and browsing damage from livestock. Also, avoid planting shelterbelts and windbreaks under or near power lines.

The Benefits of Farmstead Shelterbelts

  • Home Energy Conservation - Well designed shelterbelts will often cut winter heating bills, by as much as 30%.
  • Cost Savings in Livestock Production - By reducing wind chills, shelterbelts cut feed costs because livestock require less feed to maintain body weight. Shelterbelts can also minimize calf losses and make feeding operations easier.
  • Snow Control - In as little as two years shelterbelts can effectively protect buildings and roadways from drifting snow.
  • Wildlife - Shelterbelts are an important link in the over winter survival of pheasants and other farmland wildlife. In addition, shelterbelts provide loafing, feeding, roosting and escape cover for pheasants. Research has proven that shelterbelts play an important role during spring and fall migration of songbirds, providing cover for as many as 92 different bird species.
  • Air Filtering and Soil Conservation -Trees remove atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) and produce the oxygen we need to breathe. By reducing wind velocity, farmstead shelterbelts and field windbreaks conserve soil by limiting losses to wind erosion.
  • Aesthetics -Trees add diversity to the landscape and beautify farmsteads, cost-effectively increasing property values.

Establishing a field windbreak or farmstead shelterbelt

A successful project requires several basic steps: (1) selection and ordering planting stock, (2) proper preparation of planting site, (3) suitable planting techniques, and (4) proper care after planting.

  • Planting Stock - When selecting shrub and tree species suitable for shelterbelt plantings contact a local wildlife or forestry professional. Plants must be matched with local conditions, including soil types, specific site problems and climate. Please refer to the table on the next page for suggested species. Select at least six and preferably eight or more tree and shrub species for each shelterbelt. Remember, a shelterbelt with an array of plant species will attract a greater variety of wildlife and have a better chance of surviving a wide range of environmental conditions. Local Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCD), state forestry departments and commercial nurseries can provide most if not all of the species and the size of stock preferred for these types of plantings.
  • Land Preparation - One of the most important factors in establishing a shelterbelt is proper seedbed preparation. Summer fallowing or maintaining the land in a cultivated crop, such as soybeans, the year before will help produce a weed free, loose seedbed. Grass or existing alfalfa fields are poor choices unless the soil has been plowed and disked for at least one year prior to planting. Just prior to planting, apply a pre-emergent herbicide specifically approved for the tree species to be planted.
  • Planting Techniques - The best time to plant is between the time the frost leaves the ground and May 15. If ordered early (the previous December), the planting stock should arrive during this critical time. Before planting, stake out the rows for proper location and spacing. These markers will keep the tractor driver on the proper course when mechanical tree planters are used. Tree planters are often available through the local SWCDs or state forestry offices. When using planters set the trencher at the proper depth and keep the stock moist until it is in the ground. When a tree planter is not available or when planting container grown conifers, make sure the hole is wide and deep enough to hold the entire root system without crowding.


The work of planning the shelterbelt, ordering trees and getting the trees in the ground is wasted if you are not committed to controlling weeds and watering your new shelterbelt for at least five years. For the purpose of establishing a shelterbelt the most important "weed" to control is grass. More specifically, sod-forming grasses like bluegrass, brome or fescue must be eliminated.

Weeds will compete with seedlings for the limited moisture, nutrients, light and space. Good control of grasses and weeds can cut the time it takes seedlings to reach mature height by 50%. Left unchecked, broadleaf weeds and grasses can kill seedlings.

Weeds must be controlled for five years. For dry land sites in the West and Great Plains this will mean keeping the entire area between trees and rows weed-free. In the Midwest and East this means a four-foot weed-free zone around the plants. There are several ways to control weeds.

Mulching is very effective for controlling weeds and reducing moisture loss, but it can be expensive and labor intensive. Commercially available fiber matting can be used as an effective mulch. It allows moisture to penetrate and will last for five years.

Herbicides control weeds effectively when applied in proper amounts at the right time. Both pre-emergent and post-emergent herbicides can be used.

Mowing in the fall helps to reduce cover for rodents, which can girdle or cut off trees. Mowing however is not effective for controlling weeds and grass.

When watering, it is important to provide a good soaking once or twice a week. Light watering encourages root growth too near the surface making the plant susceptible to drought.

Need more information?

Try the Pheasants Forever Essential Habitat Guide — a handy reference on all kinds of pheasant cover, including shelterbelts. And, be sure to check with your local Pheasants Forever chapter, where you will find cost sharing, planting assistance, or just advice from a friendly chapter volunteer.