Sunday, November 16, 2014

Thinking About Windbreaks

About a week ago, the temperature was in the 80's, then the most recent "Polar Vortex", "Polar Invasion", "Arctic Outbreak", or "whatever the heck they've decided to call it" reached Oklahoma, and the temperature dropped into the twenties and thirties.  That might be shirt-sleeve weather farther north, but with the wind also blowing 20-30 mph, it's seemed pretty cold to me (especially since the temperature dropped that much almost overnight). 

It's been so cold that the ponds have frozen a couple of days and I've already had to chop holes in the ice for the cows (I don't think I've ever had to do that this early in the year before). This morning it started snowing and they're forecasting a low of around 16 degrees tomorrow, which is awfully cold for mid-November in Oklahoma. 
When it's cold, the wind's blowing, and it's snowing, I'm driving to check the cattle instead of walking
All this cold this soon has gotten me to thinking once again about building some sort of windbreak for the cattle. 

About four or five years ago, when my calving season started in mid-February, a big storm hit right as the cows were starting to calve.  The temperature dropped to well below zero (24 degrees below zero), over a foot of snow fell, and the road to the farm drifted closed for a few days until the county brought in a bulldozer to move the snow.  I was lucky that time and didn't lose any calves, although I ended up with a couple that had frostbitten ears and tails. If the storm had hit a week later when more cows were  calving, I really would have been in trouble. 

After that storm, I moved the calving season to March trying to avoid the worst of winter weather and started thinking about building some sort of windbreak in that pasture.  I also built a loafing shed so I'd have somewhere to put any newborn calves if a storm hit during calving season. 

I soon found out that calving in March didn't mean that I'd avoid most of the ice and snow winter storms.  I also found out that a loafing shed doesn't really help as much as I thought it would with newborn calves, because unless I babysit each and every cow that might be ready to calve, it's impossible to move a calf to the loafing shed quick enough to make a difference in a storm that's bad enough that a calf might need to be in that loafing shed.  A loafing shed has a use on the farm, but it doesn't really help in blizzard unless I could somehow put all the cows into it before the storm hit.   

Most local pastures have enough trees and protected areas that windbreaks would be an unneeded luxury, but the pasture where I like to winter my cows doesn't have enough trees in the right places to provide enough shelter.  Planting more trees is probably the best long-term solution, but for the short-term, building some sort of windbreak might be useful.    

Even though I've thought about building a windbreak for a couple of years, I've never got around to actually building anything (mainly because I can't decide exactly what I want to build or if a windbreak would even work).  In the process of trying to decide what to build, as a test, I hung a tarp on one side of the working pens to make a 6'x24' windbreak last winter right before one snow storm which did block the wind, but I didn't see any cattle around it at all. I'm not sure if it just wasn't tall enough, it wasn't wide enough, it wasn't in the best location, or it was something else? 

Another time right before a snowstorm, I stacked about ten bales of hay in a line next to an already somewhat sheltered area.  This idea did work to block the wind, some of the cattle gathered around it, and some calves even bedded down out of the wind next to the bales like they were supposed to.  The only problem was that the cows ate just enough of the bales that when I tried to move them after the storm, I had a big mess of falling apart hay bales so I had to just leave them out for the cows to clean up.  After they'd eaten part of the hay and wasted a heck of a lot of it, I then found out that it was almost impossible to get all that baling twine cleaned up.   Except for when I'd need an emergency shelter, I don't think building a windbreak out of stacked hay or straw would really work for me.   

After all that , I've been thinking about building a honest-to-goodness windbreak like they use up in places like Canada.  I've seen a few interesting designs online for portable windbreaks that look like they might work that are about 10-12 feet tall and about 20-24 feet long built out of pipe and covered with either 2x6 lumber or sheet-metal.  Last year, I got as far as drawing up some rough plans and making out a materials list (which I can't find now) and estimated that it would cost around $400-500 for materials (for all new steel and lumber).   

For anyone interested, some of my ideas came for these two links:  a forum post on Rancher.net  and an agriculture publication from Saskatchewan about Portable Windbreak Fences.

I hoping that thinking out loud about windbreaks on this blog combined with this early snowstorm might help push me enough to start building a windbreak this winter in time for calving season instead of next summer when it's too late.  Wish me luck, and if I build one I'll share the building process in the future.  

If anyone had any ideas or suggestions to add, feel free to share them.

11 comments:

  1. Keep me posted, I'm pondering the same thing.

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    1. I would have thought that fixed windbreaks of some sort (and maybe even portable windbreaks) would be fairly common in places like WY or MT. I'd guess that a windbreak would be even more useful in WY than here in OK.

      I would have built something in the past, but for some reason, I was thinking that it would cost a lot more to build a windbreak, but if my rough calculations are right, spending $500 to build a 24' windbreak would be quickly paid off if it managed to save a couple of calves during a freak snowstorm.

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    2. Nope, we don't build windbreaks, and nobody else does either. It surprises me somewhat also. And I can see the use for them, although nobody does it.

      Basically, as the pastures are so large, cattle just find a natural windbreak. Or if they're in need of some protection, they're brought in close to the ranch house where the barns are. Calving heifers are brought in next to the barn, so they have its protection.

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    3. There are more protected areas in most of the other pastures on the farm, but I usually winter the cows and like to have them calve in this pasture and it's much more open.

      It's mainly bermuda grass which tends to be shorter than the native grasses on the rest of the farm. It also used to have more trees before the tornado hit, but for whatever reason the trees didn't grow back like they did everywhere else (it's probably partly due to the times of year when the cattle are on it).

      Long-term I'd like to get some more trees growing for both winter protection and summer shading.

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  2. Many of the farmers around here use round hay bales but ones that have been wrapped in plastic. It prevents the eating and falling apart problem that way. Instead of twine, they are wrapped in plastic with the ends exposed. I've seen a few lines where the end ones were hollowed out but some run a hot wire from their fence out to protect the ends and prevent that problem from happening.

    Mostly though our terrain of rolling hills and some small ravines are enough so that they aren't needed. From your pictures, your area is a lot flatter which makes the wind a bigger problem. If I remember right, don't you have a dozer of sorts? Perhaps you could just build a permanent berm of dirt with one.

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    1. Locally, round bales are either net-wrapped or tied with twine, I don't think I've ever seen any of the white plastic wrapped "baylage" type bales (if that's what you're talking about).

      At one time, I thought about baling up some wheat straw, building one of those bigger stacks (2 rows on the bottom, 1 row on the top), and running an electric fence around it to keep the cattle away from it. That would work (and I still might do something like that), but it's something that would need to be built or re-built every year. For the amount of straw it would take to build one, I could probably sell the bales of straw for enough money to build a portable windbreak that would last for years.

      After mulling it over, I'm starting to lean more and more towards building portable windbreaks so that I can easily move them to different parts of the farm. As an example, if I had cattle out on a wheat field I could also move a portable windbreak out on the wheat field during the winter, then move it off when I take the cattle off, or if I ever decided to get something like hair sheep, I'd have shelter for them.

      But, I'd still like to build a huge stack of wheat straw just for the heck of it. Something like a huge pyramid stack with three rows on the bottom, then two rows, and a single row up on top would look impressive and slightly out of place around here.

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  3. I think we are talking about two different things. There are bales completely wrapped which around here are called haylage which is probably the same thing as what you are referring to with baylage. The other type is plastic wrapped around the circumference of the bale but not on the flat ends. It prevents loss due to ground moisture and rain from above and is supposed to pay for itself by preserving the hay in a higher quality state than leaving it exposed all winter. Of course, we probably have more moisture than Oklahoma so it is probably more justifiable. HERE is a picture I found of what I'm talking about.

    I think the key to portable windbreaks is making them light enough to be portable but heavy enough not to blow away or get knocked over by the cows. It will be interesting to see how you solve that problem.

    Our neighbor runs a lot of cows and stacks bales two high in the fields. He puts some three high in an open sided barn but I've never seen him go three high out in the fields. I wonder if two high is all the higher one can go freestanding? It would be neat to see a three high round bale pyramid.

    On a side note, every time I get out west I am always fascinated by the loaf of bread shaped stacks of loose hay that I see. I've always wanted to see the equipment they use to pick those up out of the field and feed them out to livestock.

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    1. I've never seen any haylage around here (it's so rare that I confused the name baylage with haylage), and I'm only vaguely aware of wrapping hay like you describe. I'd imagine that wrapping hay like that would be more likely to pay off for higher quality alfalfa hay or horse hay.

      I've never stacked bales that high, but I'd think that stacking them three high might be a little more stable because your base would be wider. I'd want a nice reasonably level area to stack them though.

      I remembered today that at one time I was thinking that it might be an option to stack some wheat straw and put a hay tarp (much better than a billboard tarp) over the stack to build a windbreak. Hopefully the tarp would keep the cattle away from the straw and the stack/windbreak might last for a few years.

      The only loose hay stacks I've heard of are Beaverslide Hay Stackers (it has nothing to do with the beavers), which used to be all horse-powered but there's a series of videos of a mechanized version on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R6onOA4JGho

      I think they used to just let the cattle have access to the stack or they'd fork it into a wagon for feeding. I'm not entirely sure how they feed them today.

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  4. Interesting about the Beaverslide Stackers. I've never seen anything like that. The ones I was talking about are much smaller stacks, perhaps the same amount of hay in five or six round bales. While looking for what those were made with, I found this picture of round bales stacked five high in a pyramid shape. Thought you might get a kick out of it.

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    1. You'd need an excavator with a grapple or something similar to get those top bales off of a stack like that.

      It'd be my luck that a cow would get to the stack, start eating the "keystone" bale at the bottom, and the whole thing would come tumbling down.

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  5. After looking through hundreds of pictures, I think what I'm referring to is the same thing as the Beaverslide Stackers. I'm guessing because I've only seen them out west where scale can get lost due to the clear sight lines, they appeared to be smaller than they really were. Some of the pictures of what is left behind after the stacker does its thing look just like what I remember, only much bigger since there are people or equipment in the picture providing scale. Interesting stuff for me.

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