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Habitat Topic #1 – A Fabric-less Woody Cover Planting System

April 18, 2017 by

Habitat Topic #1 – A Fabric-less Woody Cover Planting System

After having just renewed my first CRP contract ever, a 12 acre, 15 year old, 5 row, field windbreak, I feel like I have some expertise to offer the habitat implementer.  If not from learning, it would certainly be from figuring out all the wrong ways to do something.  As I say often to folks, “My secret to success is a failure based model”.

It’s been 15 years since that first CRP contract went in the ground.  Since then the 3 biggest issues that stand out to me about windbreaks are:

1.       I am told that the cost of establishing these belts can be in the neighborhood of $2,000 an acre.  This is compared with CRP grassland establishment costs that might run $100-$200 an acre.  This system can reduce those costs by more than 75%.

2.       The fabric installed on our first windbreak is 15 years old and still very much intact.  I have heard scenarios where the hole wasn’t cut big enough in the fabric where the tree comes through that overtime it will cut through the bark of the tree as it grows and girdle it which kills it.  I was told that this fabric should decompose after 5 years.

3.       I know that the prairie is not known for its woody cover. I am still amazed at why there is not more of it given the highly functional benefits of managed windbreak systems both for production Ag fields and Farmsteads.

My opinion is that the Conservation Districts around the region should offer multiple solutions to windbreak planting systems and can generate consistent revenue or multiple years in a fabric-less system vs. belts with fabric in them and the high upfront costs.

How to Plan, Implement and Maintain a Fabric-Less Windbreak

First let’s make some assumptions that the standard windbreak is in the range of 3 to 13 rows with row spacing of 14 feet and tree spacing in the row of 6-8 feet apart on average dependent on species.  From a planning standpoint you start with where you want the benefits to result from the belt.  Benefits are typically downwind or as a wildlife travel corridor between various areas on the farm.  Downwind benefits are usually for the crop field or the farmstead which means you are going to locate them on the upwind side of where you want the benefits.  Typically the north or west sides.  I won’t go into a lot of detail on design here because there was always excellent technical design expertise from NRCS or Pheasants Forever Farm Bill Biologists and I would seek out their assistance as a partner in your project.

Once you have your location, species and belt dimensions completed you are ready to begin ground prep.  Yes, as I have learned the hard way and have heard over and over, this is the key to your project success.   Traditional planting systems involve soil disturbance via heavy tillage both before, during and after planting.  A fabric-less system is more closely aligned with soil building biology based No-Till systems seeking to minimize soil disturbance as much as possible.

I’d like to think this system is an original idea but folks who have been around longer than I have seen trees planted into sod in the old days.  The new fabric-less system involves better technique’s coupled with newer herbicides.  The methodology I prescribed to is simply “Setback & Release”.  This means setting back the competition to release the desirable plants.

Although many may not have access to high tech GPS systems you can get access to guidance affordably in order to get your rows setup and marked.  Once you do this you may not need guidance but my system uses precision technologies as much as possible such as auto steer and farm field mapping to automate annual maintenance functions as much as possible.  For instance, once you layout where you first row is going a GPS auto steer system will allow you to auto steer all other driven passes virtually forever off that initial row.  There are great efficiencies in this.

Ground prep can start as early as the fall prior to the spring the trees are to be planted in.  This is the case if they are going into sod.  If planting into old heavy sod the objective is to remove litter and kill the sod base.  The management band in the row where the tree is to be planted might be 24-36 inches in width.  First you could clip/mow this as short as possible and use a hay rake to move the litter off to the side or other.  I use a 4 wheel hay rake on a tractor mounted 3 point.  Wait for the mowed strip to green up and spray with glyphosate in order to kill all vegetation.  With the vegetation being dead in the spring you should be able to come back and rake the rows again to make a clean strip of fairly bare ground.  As an alternative you could rotary till a narrow strip on the row if other methods don’t work but we are seeking to minimize soil disturbance as much as possible.   In crop stubble you would just need to rake your rows clean to bare ground.  Another idea I had would be to mount a typical Ag trash sweep on the tree planter to provide additional last minute row cleaning.  A one row strip till device would work nicely as well in the fall.

Once you have your clean rows you will need to put down a timely pre-emergent like Treflan which is a triflurin based product (similar to a product called Preen many use in their home gardens).  When you start using herbicides the key is to educate yourself on their use from the labels that come with the product.  Focus on the active ingredient name and not the brand name.  There is excellent information on the labels.  Another great resource for info and also a source for the products is Keystone Pest Solutions https://www.keystonepestsolutions.com/

Here's another great resources I came across recently from the state of Kansas specifically on chemical weed control in woody plantings.

One of the issues I see many owners get into is they don’t insure success by selecting vigorous (if not even invasive) species.  Some of my favorites are American Plum, Freedom Honeysuckle, Silver Maple, Eastern Red Cedar and Russian Olive.  In my opinion you should design belts for protection and not to feed or be ornamental.  In other words I would select species based on their tolerance to herbicides.  I have learned recently that there are good herbicide options to spraying for both grass and broadleaf weeds in both conifer and deciduous woody cover, post-emergent.

As far as spraying equipment I like this system because, overall,  it involves low horsepower, lost cost, precision methods.  You could spray with a single nozzle and a 15 gallon tank on an ATV.  My setup is a 60 gallon tank in a UTV with a manual throttle I can set at 5MPH and a 12 foot boom with various nozzles in the center section but 2 - 45 degree angled fenceline nozzles on each end.  The fenceline nozzles are what I spray the rows with and allows me to spray 2 rows with one pass.  I like a nozzle with an 80 degree spray pattern vs. 110 and a nozzle that delivers 40 gallons of water at 4-5mph and 20 PSI.  There is also a huge difference in spray drift at 20 PSI vs. 30PSI.  Don’t be afraid of all this just commit yourself to get educated in these matters and it will save you effort and dollars in the long run.  What I love about tree belts is they may take 3-5 years to establish but after they are pretty maintenance free.

In between the rows I like to establish a ground cover.  NRCS acceptable standards are now side oats and blue grama grasses because they a light in height and water competition.  I drill the rows in between trees right after planting trees with a 10’ no till drill.  This is a much better solution than the old weed badger and roto till everything to keep it black.  I also like to let vegetation grow up tall towards fall to not only protect trees from windburn but also act as a snow catch to trap moisture over winter and bank as much water in the soil structure as possible for spring and even summer if a drought is incurred.  There is also some discussion on the beneficial relationship of the trees and what is planted in between tree rows.

During growing season you will have to determine which broadleaf and/or grass herbicides you need to apply in order to setback competition and allow for trees to outcompete.  Each spring until trees naturally outcompete what is growing next to them because of their canopy size I always spray a pre-emergent of Prowl H2O (generic is Satellite) before bud break.  I like this product year 2 because you cannot use it pre-plant and it does take out more species of weeds that just the treflan.

Regarding ongoing maintenance, that is it.  I would clip the tree belts once in the spring early season before bud break.  This is so I can get a good pre-emergent herbicide application on the row.  Once your trees root and aggressively canopy out (3 years) you will soon realize that your maintenance days are over with because you will no longer be able to drive down the row to mow.

The unforeseen benefits of windbreaks like soil trapping, micro climates, evaporation and thermal cover are hard to measure but I can reassure you that these belts produce season long pheasant holding cover and also great trophy whitetail habitat among a multitude of other wildlife and farm asset sustainability benefits.

Posted in: UGUIDE News, Upland Bird Hunting, Conservation, Habitat Management, South Dakota Pheasant Outlook


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