Oklahoma Dust Storms: Trees are the Answer

Last week a terrible dust storm shut down portions of I-35 for several hours. Foresters with Oklahoma Forestry Services, a division of the Department of Agriculture, Food, and Forestry, were left wondering what happened to the windbreaks that used to keep most of these bare fields from blowing away.

“Agriculture producers who had windbreaks in place didn’t see the same devastation,” said George Geissler, Oklahoma State Forester. “Their fields had some protection from the trees and other permanent cover so they didn’t lose their precious topsoil like the unprotected fields did.”

Several factors lined up last week making conditions ripe for the perfect dust storm--prolonged drought, high winds and bare soils left unprotected as farmers readied their fields in advance of winter planting season causing many to think of another period in our states history.

Similar conditions occurred in the 1930s prompting President Franklin Roosevelt to establish a tree planting program designed to tame the dust storms on the Great Plains during the “Dirty Thirties.” Oklahoma led the way for the nation as our state forester at the time, George R. Phillips, served as the director of the Plains Shelterbelt Project and the first tree in the nation’s first shelterbelt was planted near Mangum, Oklahoma in 1935.

Thousands of miles of windbreaks were planted as a part of the project but many of those are in dire need of restoration or were removed as the dust storms of the 1930s became a distant memory. Windbreaks were abandoned or removed to increase acreage available for crops and farmers began adopting other practices to alleviate soil erosion such as no-till, crop rotation, use of cover crops and other techniques.

“Today’s windbreaks are usually only two or three rows and take little land out of production, yet they provide an invaluable service in protecting crops and livestock throughout the plains,” said Secretary of Agriculture Jim Reese. “Several years ago I worked with my local Oklahoma Forestry Services forester, Dan Stidham, to plant a windbreak on my farm and have been very pleased with the results.”

To learn more about windbreaks or to request assistance from an OFS forester visit www.forestry.ok.gov/windbreaks-shelterbelts or call 405-522-6158.

What is a windbreak/shelterbelt?

By definition it is rows of closely spaced trees and shrubs planted at right angles to the prevailing winds to protect crops, soils, animals and buildings.

What are the benefits?

• Enhance crop yields.
• Reduce wind erosion.
• Shelter livestock, crops and structures (homes, outbuildings, roads).
• Reduced heating and cooling costs.
• Capture water runoff and nutrients, improve irrigation efficiency.
• Provide visual screen.
• Filter and reduce dust and help control odors.
• Provide wildlife travel corridors and habitat.

To learn more about how Oklahoma Forestry Services can help you plan a windbreak visit www.forestry.ok.gov/windbreaks-shelterbelts or call 405-522-6158.