Living snow fences keep roads clear, wildlife sheltered

2011-01-17T09:16:00Z Living snow fences keep roads clear, wildlife shelteredBy Gene Lucht, For Farm & Ranch Guide Farm and Ranch Guide
January 17, 2011 9:16 am  • 

BUFFALO CENTER, Iowa – John Laflen understands fewer farmers probably left rows of corn standing in their fields to act as snow fence along roads this fall.

High corn prices and a beautiful harvest season will make farmers think twice about leaving any crop behind.

However, Laflen isn’t worried about that. Instead, he enjoys checking out the trees, shrubs and grasses he planted as part of a more-permanent natural snow fence in this level, windy part of Northern Iowa a few years ago.

“It has worked out quite nicely,” Laflen says as he inspects a row of red osier dogwoods. “It’s a major thing in stopping the snow.”

Laflen, a retired USDA official who is knowledgeable about soil erosion from his work with the National Soil Tilth Lab, worked with his local Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office to plant this snow fence in 2005.

It’s an ongoing effort as he replaces some of the conifer trees that died since then. But, the basic design is used in many natural snow fences, NRCS officials say.

It starts about 140 feet from the road with a row of trees. Laflen mostly has white pine or white spruce.

After a gap of grass, there is a row of the dogwoods. Then there is about 100 feet of tall grass. In this case, it is mostly switchgrass and some native grasses.

The combination of trees, shrubs and grasses, spaced far enough from the road to allow the snow to drift in the field, provides wildlife habitat and also helps keep snow off the road.

In Laflen’s case, the land was put into the CRP.

“Most of the ones we’ve put in have been in CRP,” explains Brenda Tenold-Moretz, Winnebago County District Conservationist.

NRCS officials help design the natural snow fences, and Farm Service Agency officials deal with some of the financing options.

Some farmers use programs, such as EQIP or WHIP, to help pay for the project, notes Sue Snyder Thomas, area NRCS conservationist in Fort Dodge.

Those programs help to inform people about how to build a natural snow fence as well as how to fund it, says Kevin Kelly, with Kelly Tree Farm in Clarence.

“Not a lot of people are willing to take land out of production and put in trees and grass if there is no financial incentive,” Kelly says.

There is no perfect design for a vegetative snow fence, Kelly says.

Some people plant double rows of fast-growing willow trees.

If planted early in the spring, those trees can offer some help by that fall.

Others use designs, such as Laflen’s, with a combination of conifers and shrubs.

Officials concede planting the trees or shrubs by themselves with no grass strip between the trees and the road can work, but sometimes the soils in that downwind area may be cool and wet in the spring.

Also, having tall grass will help catch the snow as the wind drops.

Of course, NRCS officials say having any vegetation on the field over the winter can help to catch some snow, particularly in open areas of the state.

In Laflen’s part of Northern Iowa, close to the Winneba-go/Kossuth County border, the wind blasts across long level fields stretching the few miles to Minnesota.

Windbreaks around farms are important to residents.

Also, snow fences along roads potentially can be the difference between getting to town or waiting for a snow-plow.

That makes programs, such as the continuous CRP’s 10- to 15-year contracts, for living snow fence more attractive.

It can provide landowners a 50 percent cost share and 40 percent practice-incentive payment, as well as additional funds.

That program usually requires two rows of conifers or a row of conifers and a row of shrubs, along with a snow-catch area seeded to native grasses, such as big bluestem, Indiangrass, switchgrass or Canadian wild rye. The trees must be at least 100 feet from the road.

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