Whither the wind: How to decide on windbreaks

Find out what your options are for protecting your herd from wind and snow this winter

Find out what your options are for protecting your herd from wind and snow this winter

If beef producers want to have healthy, productive herds, making sure they’re protected from the wind is crucial, says Jenifer Heyden.

“We want the cattle to be able to maintain condition on cold, windy days,” says the livestock and feed extension specialist with the Government of Saskatchewan.

While beef cattle are tough, and can handle fairly cold weather, it’s the wind and wet of snow that can make them vulnerable.

“Without a windbreak, the cow’s energy requirements go up, so you end up having to feed them more so your costs go up,” Heyden says, adding that extreme wind and snow also have a detrimental effect on the cattle’s health. If they lose a lot of condition, they’re more susceptible to disease.

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Fortunately, if farmers make them available, cattle naturally gravitate to windbreaks for shelter.

Heyden says that most cattle ranchers in her province have some sort of windbreak system. In the north, where there are more trees, natural windbreaks are more common and in the south, where the prairies are flat and treeless, there are more man-made windbreaks.

Natural versus man-made

While natural windbreaks — mainly trees and shrubs — are more cost competitive, especially if they already exist, Heyden’s a big fan of the man-made portable ones because the producer has more control over where the herd winters.

“You can move them around to wherever you need them,” she says. “If you are on pasture, you can get the manure and urine from the cattle into a larger area, providing better soil nutrient coverage.”

Alternatively, producers can keep the windbreaks in one spot and feed their cattle in areas where there is a soil nutrient deficit. Parcels of land that might never be used for anything else could also be used with windbreaks.

Jennifer Heyden is a livestock and feed extension specialist with the Saskatchewan government.
photo: Supplied

Natural windbreaks also afford less control over porosity, she says.

Optimal porosity — or air flow — for windbreaks is 25 to 33 per cent. This provides the maximum amount of protection from the wind without having too much turbulence on the downwind side.

Luckily, she says making that happen is easy. Buying or making a structure with six-inch wide planks that are two inches apart will achieve 25 per cent porosity and putting them three inches apart gives 33 per cent. The planks can be placed either horizontally or vertically.

Another downside to natural windbreaks is that they obviously can’t be moved around and are often found near water bodies, which presents the potential for manure runoff and water contamination.

Construction

Man-made windbreaks should be 10-feet (three metres) high and the length should allow for one foot of fence for each cow. Research has shown that a 10-foot high fence will provide protection for 80 to 100 feet (24 to 30 metres) behind it.

The number of cows in a herd determines the number of windbreaks needed, and if they’re mobile, they can’t be too big or cumbersome to move. A one-foot space at the bottom of the windbreak helps ensure snow and ice don’t pile up and make it impossible to move.

Permanent man-made windbreaks would be better suited to cow-calf operators who keep their cattle in one or two pastures all winter, and the mobile types are better for rotational and cropland grazing.

Heyden says that, for the permanent installations, producers should consider where the cows are calving, where they’re feeding and what sacrifices they’re willing to make in soil compaction and plant biodiversity. She also warns that if snow builds up around these structures in winter, they limit cattle movement and nutrients are concentrated in the areas around them.

Movement and placement

Mobile windbreaks have to be small enough to be easily towed or carried in a front-end loader.

Most are made out of wood and can be either vertical or angled — with angled windbreaks, the space that’s nearest the ground can provide additional shelter for calves.

They need to be placed perpendicular to the prevailing wind, which normally comes from a consistent direction, although during a snowstorm the direction can change.

Heyden says that windbreaks need to be placed far enough away from water bodies to prevent runoff.

“In the end, each producer must figure out what will work best for his or her operation,” she says. “Each has different goals and a different set of circumstances — the decision about what type of windbreak is best should be based on animal welfare and economics.

“If well-built, man-made windbreaks should last many years.”

More information on windbreaks is available through Saskatchewan Agriculture and Ontario Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.

— Lois Harris is an experienced Ontario freelance writer and editor working in the agriculture and food industry.

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Lois Harris is an experienced Ontario freelance writer and editor working in the agriculture and food industry.

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