By Connor Lynch
GUELPH — OMAFRA’s agri-forestry specialist said farmers can get a yield boost of as much as 20 per cent just by planting some trees.
Windbreaks aren’t anything new in Ontario. But Todd Leuty said that crop farmers can see significant yield boosts from windbreaks, particularly if they’re in a windy area.
They work exactly like you’d imagine: Typically planted in at least two rows, the trees physically block strong winds, reducing soil erosion and keeping crops upright. The downwind benefit, going by the research, is the equivalent of as much as 15 times the height of the tree (ie. A 30-foot tall tree would protect crops downwind as far away as 450 ft).
Averaging data over 10 years, Leuty said yield benefits for conventional crops like corn and soybeans can be as high as 20 per cent. That’s an average, however, based on the trees in the windbreak having a severe wind in some of those years to block.
There are, of course, downsides and difficulties, not to mention mitigating factors. Farmers on lighter, sandier soil will see the most benefits. Farmers who do tillage also stand to benefit the most, since that freshly-tilled soil is the most likely stuff to blow away. You’re not immune if you’re on clay, however, Leuty said. “Working in Essex County and Kent County, I remember seeing soil blowing through.”
It’s not cheap either. Putting in a double or triple row of trees can cost a couple of thousand dollars per acre over a couple of years, counting maintenance and weed management. Conservation authorities do have cost-share programs for farmers. Leuty said a thing for farmers to keep in mind is that conservation authorities will tend to steer farmers in the direction of native trees, but non-native trees might be a better fit. Colorado Spuce isn’t a native tree, he said, but it’s a great choice along a roadway, since it’s highly tolerant of road salt.
The trees can also be a pain if you have tile drainage. They can clog the tiles with their roots, although Leuty said tillage companies can put in non-perforated tiles to get around that issue.
Trees can also make an effective home for problem wildlife, and the trees themselves can hamper crop growth. Said Leuty: “I know farmers will often point out raccoons and deer eating crops, roots competing with crops. But the overall advantages outweigh that in the long run.”