A farmer knows where to find his cow herd at various times of the day, which is helpful as he goes out to feed, count and check on them this time of year in the early spring calving season. Typically the cows tend to huddle near a stretch of trees to block the wind and keep warm.

Flash forward a few months, and the same farmer evaluates his corn with gratitude, as another row of trees along this field prevented strong spring winds from damaging his crop.

Healthy trees—including those in windbreaks and woodland areas—can add more economic value to land than most farmers might realize, said Bob Atchison, rural forestry leader for the Kansas Forest Service.

Assessing windbreaks

Kansas windbreaks, also known as shelterbelts, offer a variety of benefits to Kansas farmers, Atchison said. Windbreaks can help farmers increase crop yields up to 23 percent, improve calving survival, save 13 percent on feed bills and reduce energy costs around the farmstead by 25 percent. Additionally, windbreaks provide wildlife habitat, sources of fuel and forage, and recreational opportunities.

Following the Dust Bowl, windbreak planting occurred mostly in central Kansas, he said, and a majority of windbreaks in the state are believed to be in the central and western areas. It remains undocumented scientifically where windbreaks are located, however, which brought on the need for a windbreak assessment for the state, in which Atchison took part.  

“The assessment in the Kansas Smoky Hill region found 69 percent of (windbreaks) in good condition, with 31 percent in fair to poor condition and in need of renovation,” Atchison said. “The study took place in Wallace, Logan, Gove, Trego, Ellis, Russell and Ellsworth counties using a process called remote sensing.”

Remote sensing uses computer software and aerial photographs from the National Agricultural Imagery Program to identify the location of the windbreaks in a particular region, he said. Following the remote sensing process, Kansas Forest Service foresters assessed a percentage of the windbreaks on the ground to collect a variety of information on condition, size and species.

“This important information helps our foresters focus their resources and efforts where they can be most effective to sustain this valuable natural resource,” Atchison said.

The windbreak assessment found that in the Smoky Hill region, Ellis County had the largest number of windbreaks at 769, followed by Gove with 645. Average length of the windbreaks was about 900 feet, and the most common trees found were eastern red cedar, pines (Austrian, Ponderosa, Scotch), Siberian elm, honey locust and Osage orange.

Forty-five percent of the windbreaks protected crop fields, according to the assessment, with 37 percent protecting farmsteads and 18 percent protecting livestock. More than half the windbreaks contained a single species, most commonly eastern red cedar, and Ellsworth and Gove counties had the healthiest windbreaks in the study area.

In general, windbreaks in the Smoky Hill region were younger than those assessed in seven additional counties in southwest Kansas that included Ford, Clark, Gray, Haskell, Hodgeman, Meade and Seward.

Atchison said Kansas Forest Service foresters plan to work with local conservation districts to ask landowners to consider renovating their old windbreaks and also think about possible locations for new ones.

Managing woodlands

Most Kansas farmers don’t consider themselves “woodland owners,” and woodland areas on farms often get little attention, Atchison said. One reason might be that managing woodlands in Kansas can be confusing.

“Farmers might ask themselves, ‘Where do trees belong?’ or ‘How can these trees increase the economic value of a farming operation?’” Atchison said. “Well-managed woodlands can contribute to the overall economic value of a farming operation and provide a place for our children and grandchildren to experience wildlife, the beauty of the natural world and many other benefits.”

He said preliminary data from the 2011-2013 U.S. Forest Service National Woodland Owner Survey estimates 62,000 Kansas farmers own at total of 2.1 million woodland acres. The majority of these woodlands occur in small patches of 40 acres or less.

Atchison recommends farmers and other landowners who own patches of woodland areas to contact the Kansas Forest Service and visit with a professional forester about ways to improve land value. Some possible ways include harvesting timber, removing invasive trees and plants, planting trees beside streams to stabilize stream banks, and renovating old windbreaks and planting new ones to improve crop yields and reduce windblown soil.

Also, establishing pecan, black walnut and Christmas tree plantations can add even more value for landowners, he said.

In addition to the Kansas Forest Service, the Kansas Tree Farm Program, Kansas Forestry Association, Walnut Council, Kansas Christmas Tree Growers and Kansas Nut Growers are all important groups that can help landowners diversify income and increase overall value, Atchison said.

Visit Kansas Forest Service for information on how to contact these groups, or call 785-532-3300.