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Are Snow, Wind, and Rain Driving You Insane?


Providing winning solutions for horse management and the environment since 1997

Are Snow, Wind, and Rain Driving You Insane?

Alayne Blickle

Eye-stinging, bitter cold wind. Sideways driving rain. Mountains of drifting snow. Are the elements dampening your spirits and making you and your horses miserable this winter? Are you tired of having to ‘batten down the hatches’ every time a storm passes through?

Winter weather can create wildly varied scenarios, some of which leave you with more work than you can possibly handle. Save moving, there are some ‘weather fixes’ that can help keep wind and snow at bay and make life more comfortable for you and your animals, as well as make your farm more productive.

Last month, Alayne wrote about her spring hedgerow plans, which she is planting both for aesthetic reasons and to attract pollinators - providing pollinators shelter and a year-‘round food source. This month we explore taking hedgerows a step further, by having them function as part of a shelterbelt, windbreak, or snow fence.

Early settlers used windbreaks as a standard practice to protect their homes, livestock and crops. Unfortunately this practice has diminished over time, leading to soil erosion and other wind related problems.
Left: photo courtesy of USDA National Agroforestry Center

The Long List: Wind Control Benefits

According to University of Missouri Extension, by planting multiple rows of trees or shrubs (a shelterbelt) at the correct distance from an area you want to protect, you can create an effective windbreak which can reduce the wind's velocity by up to 50 percent, and also deflect it.

Here’s what having less wind can do for you:

  • Improve crop and pasture yields by preserving soil moisture and temperature
  • Reduce heating and cooling costs by conserving energy
  • Decrease the labor and expense of clearing snow
  • Create natural, outdoor protection zones for livestock
  • Create protected outdoor feeding areas
  • Decrease windchill factor, helping livestock expend less energy to stay warm
  • Increase native wildlife, migratory bird, and pollinator habitat
  • Protect areas from drift of neighboring spray and wind-blown soil (dust)
  • Help reduce soil erosion
  • Add beauty and privacy to your property
  • Reduce temperatures in summer as plantings evaporate water into the air
  • Save money and resources as a result of the above benefits

Alternately, you can use fencing to achieve the same effect. Both windbreak fences and shelterbelts are typically placed a minimum of 60 feet away from driveways, farm yards or other areas you want to protect, and are placed perpendicular to prevailing winter winds.

Utah State University Cooperative Extension says that the use of a living windbreak can increase crop yield by up to 44 percent. In addition, reducing cold air infiltration into buildings can reduce winter heating costs by 20 to 40 percent.

Besides wind, your windbreak can control and direct snow. High velocity air holds more snow, so when it hits a windbreak it will drop some of it - a little on the windward side and most on the leeward side. Which is why, if you live in snow country, it is not a good idea to plant a row of trees along your drive, you’ll just be gathering more snow there, where you least want it.

This drawing shows a well designed shelterbelt that protects the livestock area.  It also includes foundation plantings to help control building temperatures and deciduous trees on the sunny side of the barn to protect it from summer heat but allow for sun in winter.

Planning: Tips for Less Wind and Snow

You don’t want to spend time and money creating a windbreak that doesn’t work - planning out your windbreak is the key to success. The free internet resources listed at the end of this article can be a huge help in creating a successful outcome. Windbreaks and snow fences won’t stop wind and snow, but they do channel it to places where you can live with it, by reducing the velocity of a dominant wind pattern.

Some key considerations to keep in mind:

  • Know the prevailing wind patterns and build your windbreak accordingly. The height of a windbreak and the velocity of the wind determine the size of your protected zone.
  • Buildings and other structures can affect the efficiency of your windbreak; they catch and tunnel wind, which can create windy micro-climates between structures. Plan your windbreak to take into account all the structures in your protected zone.
  • A two-sided windbreak is usually best, as winter winds can be variable in most areas. A ‘U’ shape windbreak can also be useful, or, if you have large acreage, a series of windbreaks every few hundred feet to protect large swaths of land.

Before planting a shelterbelt, this farm used shade cloth to test the protection a shelterbelt might provide. They did not want to lose their view, so they tested what the minimum height for protection would be. The shade cloth will stay up until shelterbelt plantings are mature.

  • The length of a windbreak is important. It determines the total area receiving protection. The first rule is to always make your windbreak longer than the height; it is recommended that a length/height ratio of at least 10:1 will provide the largest area of protection (100 feet in length for a 10 foot high windbreak).  
  • Purdue University Extension explains, “As a general rule, wind protection is usually adequate for a distance equal to about 20 times the fence [or tree] height, whereas the major snow drop is in an area downwind [the leeward side of the windbreak] equal to about 10 times the fence height.”
  • High velocity air holds more snow and will drop it close to the windbreak. Because of this, most experts recommend placing windbreaks for snow control a minimum of 60 feet from roads and protection zones; calculations will vary depending upon the height of your windbreak.
  • Windbreaks need to allow air to move through them. For wind alone, having 20 percent airspace is a rule of thumb. In other words, if you are using vertical slats, allow a gap of 20 percent of the slat width between them. Otherwise you may create more windy problems, like downdrafts in your protection zone, or a windbreak that cannot withstand high velocity winds. Keep in mind, you are just trying to slow the wind, not stop it.
  • Snow fences need larger openings than windbreaks to allow snow to keep sifting and drifting through the fence so it remains effective. There should also be space left between the bottom of a snow fence and the ground to allow snow to blow underneath it. Purdue University Extension Service recommends that snow fences be constructed with openings 2 to 2 1/2 inches wide, either horizontally or vertically, and be mounted off the ground about 12 inches in areas with high snowfall. If you are using pre-made plastic, metal or wood snow fence, this is a typical opening size.
  • Plantings for shelterbelts can include anything that grows well in your particular conditions. It is best to have a minimum of two rows, alternating the plants in each row so there are no big gaps that compromise the wind control. For covering large acreages, up to five rows of plantings are sometimes used.
  • Select plants that have water requirements that make sense for your resources and climate, are resistant to insect damage, and add habitat for any beneficial wildlife you want to attract. The most economical way to obtain shelterbelt plantings is at your local extension or conservation district plant sale in springtime. These are generally bare-root saplings and will require maintenance (watering, weeding and soil amendment) in the first few years, or until they become established.

Building Fixes: Swirl Chambers, Venting, Berms, and Shade Cloth

If you can’t add a windbreak, you can still implement some building fixes to make life more comfortable in the winter. If prevailing winter winds are causing back-drafts of wind and snow into your buildings, there are some fixes on Purdue University’s bulletin: Wind and Snow Control Around the Farm. They include adding swirl chambers, partitions, pressure relief venting and eave panels.

  • A swirl chamber is simply an “L” shaped windbreak fence placed next to open-front buildings. It is typically as high as the building eaves, and a minimum of 10 x 10 feet square. As high winds come up over a building, the swirl chamber breaks up some of the wind, allowing air to lose speed so that less is entering into the building.
  • In addition, utilizing berms can be an effective tool if you have the resources on hand to build them. Berms can make good wind breaks and create warmer micro-climates if they are designed properly and enough material is used. The windward side of the berm should be a long slope toward the ground, like a ski slope.

Shade cloth can help keep some of the wind, snow, and rain out of barns and arenas, making more usable winter space. Fabric should allow for at least 20 percent air flow and be securely fastened to withstand wind and snow loads.

  • Shade cloth is another tool for creating a windbreak, and the same rule applies regarding air flow. Find a fabric with around 20 percent air flow woven in. Many shade cloth companies will cut and grommet sections by special order for you, and also sell cording kits to securely attach the cloth to structures.
  • For temperature control in buildings, foundation plantings can help to regulate the temperature inside, creating conditions for warmer winter temperatures and cooler summer ones. Low growing, dense evergreens typically are the most effective plantings, as they work well in all seasons.

What is working for you to keep the weather at bay? Leave us a comment!

Utah State University: Windbreak Benefits and Design
Purdue University Extension: Wind and Snow Control Around The Farm
University of Missouri Extension: Landscape Plantings for Energy Savings
Penn State Extension: Windbreaks
University of Minnesota: Building Soil Berms
USDA: Windbreak Series