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What's a windbreak worth to your crop?

Jeff Caldwell 12/02/2013 @ 1:28pm Multimedia Editor for Agriculture.com and Successful Farming magazine.

They've been around for decades. They perform some vital functions on a lot of farms – many during times when conditions are harshest – but are often undervalued in the context of crop production systems. A new study now aims to assign just how much windbreaks are are worth to a farmer's bottom line.

During the massive regional effort to repair the damage inflicted on the landscape by the "Great Plow-up" that preceded the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, more than 200 million trees were planted around the Plains at a cost to the federal government of almost $14 million. They were ultimately planted to keep soil most susceptible to wind erosion intact and ultimately have long helped provide cover from harsh winter weather and other conditions hazardous to both crops and livestock.

Yet there's rarely a "windbreak" row on the balance sheet for a corn, soybean, or wheat crop. So the value of a windbreak to a crop is uncertain. Kansas Forest Service rural forestry coordinator Bob Atchison is hoping to change that through a new study.

"Conventional wisdom suggests otherwise since the zone immediately adjacent to windbreaks usually exhibits obvious reductions in crop yields. But is seeing always believing?" he says. "This same research further supports that the visible yield reductions immediately adjacent to windbreaks are more than compensated for by increased yields in the rest of the field, the area that falls within the 'protected zone' of the windbreak. These yield increases were summarized on a worldwide basis as far back as 1986 . . . and documented 12% yield increases for corn, 8% for spring wheat, 23% for winter wheat, and 15% for soybeans."

Atchison says his years of work in forestry verify the yield gains provided by the protection of windbreaks. The study he's working to assemble looks to enumerate what he's seen and give farmers hard, fast guidelines to ultimately apply to a crop balance sheet.

"Windbreaks do indeed increase crop yields. This study builds on years of past research that has supported that windbreaks do indeed increase yields. It's never been applied to field. In other words, most producers don't believe it," Atchison says. "If ag producers understand that windbreaks are a moneymaker, I think we might see a new interest in field windbreaks . . . especially with future drought predictions. Windbreaks are often the last conservation tool to keep soil from blowing in drought conditions, when there is little residue to hold the soil."

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