Breaking the wind Making it work in every situation
In climates where wind chill can be a problem during colder months, planning ahead for winter weather can save stockmen money in reduced feed costs, reduced illness and health costs, and less loss of body condition – and better gains on young animals. When cattle are stressed by wind, they seek shelter. If there are no natural windbreaks available, artificial wind barriers can give protection from wind and drifting snow.
Dr. Steve Paisley, Extension Beef Cattle Specialist (University of Wyoming) says cow-calf operations have different requirements than feedlots, and each stockman needs to figure out what might work best in his own situation.
Windbreaks in corrals
“At our SAREC research station near Lingle, Wyoming, we’ve been putting up windbreak fabrics on existing fences but are now looking at something more durable. We run a bull test here every year and about half our bulls are horned Herefords. The fabric doesn’t work as well in confined feeding pens because they tend to tear it up,” he says.
Several companies sell fabric windbreaks and other windbreak materials. “Some of them make windbreak sections that you can either put up alone or incorporate into existing fences,” he says.
“Fabric windbreaks can be attached with zip-ties or laced to existing panels or fence. Even though the fabric windbreaks are not a long-term structure they seem to last fairly well. My parents in western Nebraska have some in their calving pens. Those have been there more than 12 years. I think fabric windbreaks would have at least a 5 year lifetime, depending on how well they are attached, how much the wind can grab, and how much the cattle rub on them. In a corral with bulls rubbing they don’t last as long.”
In a feedlot, a good windbreak can be provided with hinged metal panels. “These act as windbreaks when rotated down, and during summer you can rotate them up and they act as shade. In confinement feeding, this gives the best of both worlds. It protects feed bunks from wind and provides shade in summer. Several companies make these tall, solid windbreak panels hinged in the middle,” he says.
“What we are interested in now, both for the Laramie station and our own station is recycled conveyor belting, putting it up along many of our fences. This can be a challenge to put up but is more durable than fabric. The belting can be obtained from several companies that recycle various materials. For instance, a re-purposing company at Denver, Colo., receives a lot of surplus storage and packing material and they send a weekly e-mail to let people know what’s available. They salvage and re-purpose all kinds of materials. They have a lot of 3-foot-wide conveyor belting and some other widths, many of which might be handy for creating windbreaks on existing fences,” says Paisley.
“We get our used belting from a cement factory in Laramie, Wyoming. Many of our fences at the research station are pipe posts set in concrete, so this works nicely. The belting is heavy so we cut it into sections of manageable length, fasten it to a pipe post at one end with lag bolts and then use a skid steer loader to lift and stretch it into place. At our Laramie research facility we’ve built crowding tubs and working alleys using this belting and it’s nice because it has a lot of flex. It does need some backing, like cable or a pipe or pole behind it to hold it in place, but we really like it.”
This type of material can be dual purpose as both a fence and a windbreak. “When cattle hit it, the belting has enough give that it minimizes injuries. It would work well in any corral situation,” says Paisley.
Windbreaks in pastures
In pastures that don’t have existing protection, it pays to create windbreaks in strategic locations. “It should be a manageable site, because you’ll probably create some ground disturbance wherever you put it,” he says. It may help to look at what other people have done in your area, and talk to people who have worked with windbreaks, such as NRCS.
Porous windbreaks – such as slats on a fence with small spaces between them – work best regarding how much space behind them will provide wind reduction. A solid structure only gives protection immediately behind it. “All you need is about 80 percent wind blockage. Much of the research on windbreaks was done in the 1970s and 1980s by Bob Jairell here in Wyoming. He developed a lot of the snow fences that are now in standard use. He’s retired now, but had some amazing slides and data that are still being used today,” says Paisley.
“One problem with permanent structures is that sometimes people put them in the wrong spot. The snow dump is a ways behind the windbreak. You have to take this into consideration when you create a wind break, because the snow dump may be in a place you don’t want it,” he explains. It pays to do some homework before creating windbreaks, to make sure they work properly.
Every ranch is different, regarding terrain and wind direction. The air currents may be different depending on whether you are in a valley or on the plains or situated on a mountainside. “In Wyoming the state has a lot of information available regarding the prevailing wind directions. It’s a hot topic now, with all the wind energy development. A lot of wind mapping is already done. If you know the direction of prevailing winds in your area this may help. In Wyoming it’s also seasonal. We get most of our wind during November through April, with less during summer,” says Paisley.
“Our cowherd at Laramie – on the windswept plains – needs protection and we have calf shelters on skids that we drag out and move around the pastures for calves to get out of the wind. These have boards across the front so the cows can’t get in. They give calves a lot of protection but also congregate the calves and possibly accentuate the spread of scours. Everything has positives and negatives,” he says.
“People are paying more attention now to the problem of wind during blizzards – after the cattle losses earlier this winter in northeastern Wyoming and South Dakota. Many ranchers are considering putting some form of protection in certain pastures. It can be hard to know the best way to do this, and windbreaks are expensive,” he says.
“That storm also devastated existing windbreaks. Many of the tree windbreaks they planted years ago were destroyed or damaged by that storm. People are looking at possible federal dollars for assistance in renovating some of the natural windbreaks that were planted in the 1980s and 1990s. People need to realize those need maintenance,” he says. You can’t just plant rows of trees and expect that they will be there forever.
“Some get choked and jammed with tumbleweeds or broken branches. You need to clean these out and keep the tree stand healthy. Here in Wyoming we’ve seen the old pine tree windbreaks devastated by bark beetles. These problems were discussed at a recent NRCS meeting, looking at ways to maintain or renovate some of the existing windbreaks,” says Paisley.
It is difficult to prepare for some of the worst storms because cattle drift ahead of the storm to seek shelter and may bunch up behind a windbreak. “In that big storm, some cattle suffocated because they crowded in behind them and were covered in snow. You want protection for cattle, but also need to consider snow patterns and how the wind deposits the snow behind a windbreak. You may create a bigger problem with the drift created by the windbreak,” he says.
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Outtagrass Cattle Co. cartoon by Jan Swan Wood for the Oct. 23, 2021, edition of Tri-State Livestock News