Kansas Forest Service to study windbreak impact on yields

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Following the drought and dust storms of the 1930s, the federal government’s response was to invest $13.8 million to plant over 200 million trees and shrubs throughout the Great Plains.

These plantings were initially established to reduce windblown soil, but research suggests that there is an additional benefit that would surprise many agricultural producers: Windbreaks may increase crop yields.

“Conventional wisdom suggests otherwise since the zone immediately adjacent to windbreaks usually exhibits obvious reductions in crop yields,” said Bob Atchison, rural forestry coordinator with the Kansas Forest Service. “But is seeing always believing?”

“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,” Atchison said. “These yield increases were summarized on a world-wide basis as far back as 1986 at the First International Windbreak Conference and documented 12 percent yield increases for corn, 8 percent for spring wheat, 23 percent for winter wheat, and 15 percent for soybeans.”

Some economists also suggest that field windbreaks will also pay for themselves within 10 to 15 years and provide additional income over their remaining life span of 50 years or more, even when you consider the land removed from production by the windbreak and the yield reductions that occur immediately adjacent to the trees, he said.

In an attempt to check the validity of this long-standing research and discourage the removal of shelterbelts and encourage planting new ones, a crop yields study associated with windbreaks is being considered throughout the Great Plains.

“For the Great Plains Crop Yield Study, we propose to obtain information from yield monitors that allow producers to assess the effects of weather, soil properties, management, and in our case, windbreaks on agricultural production,” Atchison said. “The concept behind this study is to compare multiple years of data from fields with and without windbreaks over a large area and from many farmers.  Because we are looking for relative crop yield changes and not absolute numbers, this approach will minimize the variables of rainfall, fertility, crop rotation, and farming methods.”

The key is that the data already exists with farmers because many have crop yield monitors installed on their equipment. When combined with GPS, yield monitors can provide crop yield data for virtually every point in a field.

The first step, the forester said, is to find conservation-minded landowners who understand the intent of the study and are willing to share their yield monitor data. Ideally, the data would be from both windbreak-protected and unprotected fields. The field(s) will be identified on aerial photography and when windbreaks are involved, their effectiveness will be determined. Then the landowner can either upload the monitor data to a site for analysis or save it to a storage device for uploading later.

“The eventual outcome from the study will be an updating of our knowledge of the windbreak/crop yield interaction,” Atchison said. The information will be shared among farmers and conservationists through technical reports, journals, agriculture-related publications and conferences.

“By the way the study has been designed, it will not be possible to report comparison yield results for a specific location,” he said. “However, if the study can include several years of data, we may in time, be able to answer other questions, such as, do windbreaks have greater, lesser, or no effect during times of drought? Are they more effective with some crops and less with others?”

A database that spans several years and a wide region may potentially add value to agriculture production beyond the original purpose of the study, he added.

Farmers, scientists, and other stakeholders interested in participating in the study should contact Atchison at 785-532-3310 or atchison@ksu.edu.

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