Roles of trees may change from Lee to Lyon, but their value to Iowa farmers doesn’t waver

November 22, 2019 4:17 PM

One of my first exposures to Iowa came in the form of a motorcycle ride my Dad and I took across northwest Iowa in 2014. As we roared across the landscape, my mind was actively engaged in “70 mph forestry”. I delighted in the streamside timber lining the valleys of the Big Sioux, Little Sioux, and Floyd Rivers. Even more impressive than these water-cleaning beauties, however, was the prevalence of windbreaks and shelterbelts working to protect the region’s homes, farmsteads, and livestock. Looking back to that ride, I now realize that although roles of trees may change across our state, be it 300 acres of timber in Lee County or a shelterbelt protecting 300 head in Lyon, their strong value to Iowa agriculture does not waver.  

As far as trees acting as assets to farm enterprises, windbreaks and shelterbelts represent top practices for northwest Iowa producers. Both practices entail single or multiple rows of trees or shrubs arranged in linear configurations - “linear forests”, as some folks say. Shelterbelts protect our homes, outbuildings, and feedlots again temperature extremes – decreasing heating and cooling costs, as well as improving livestock gains. Windbreaks benefit our crop fields through reduced soil erosion from wind, increased moisture retention, and protection from wind-related damage. In addition, both practices boost aesthetics, wildlife habitat, carbon sequestration, and even water quality across our landscape.

You may have windbreaks or shelterbelts already established, but are they doing their job? Performance can, and does, decrease over time as plantings age and decline. Windbreak / shelterbelt renovation is an absolutely critical, yet often overlooked, practice necessary to maintain peak performance. Pruning, thinning, planting, and row additions act to maximize functionality and allow for resilience in the face of climatic, insect and disease, and herbivory stressors. As with all forestry practices, monitoring and maintenance are key – you can’t just plant, walk away, and expect success!

Trees can be challenging to grow and maintain, but the rewards are worth it. District Foresters and Forestry Specialists with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources can provide the technical expertise required for successful projects. ISUEO Forestry and the Natural Resources Stewardship Team provide online resources, as well as in-field programming and educational events. Cost share for establishment and renovation may be available through the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), and Resource Enhancement and Protection (REAP) – see your county USDA Service Center for details. In closing, I am thrilled for the opportunity to promote windbreaks and shelterbelts across northwest Iowa. Join me on the leeward side of one in mid-January, and I’ll let you be the ultimate judge of their value!

Additional Resources:

Farmstead Windbreaks: Planning

Farmstead Windbreaks: Establishment, Care, and Maintenance

Windbreaks for Wildlife