What Type of Snow Fence Is Best For You?
Following several mild, almost open winters, the past three winters have been a mix of heavy snows, strong winds and cold temperatures on my acreage. Certainly not something we like to think about in early fall, however, this is the time to prepare for winter. By this I mean come up with a plan to handle the possible drifts that could bury your backyard, driveway or lane to the road. It’s time to consider implementing your own snow fence plan right now!
We’ll look at three types of snow fences: a human-made and erected (permanent or temporary) snow fence, standing corn, and a living fence. All are designed to do the same thing: protect a farmstead, acreage, a lane or a roadway from those incredible drifts. What is interesting, though, is that the snow fence is not designed to stop the snow from moving. Instead it is to slow it down and to create a drift, but to create it away from the area you want protected. It is important to remember that the higher the fence, the farther away the drift will start and most likely the greater the drift will be. Placed in a strategic place, a snow fence traps the snow as it blows across the fields, piling it up before it reaches whatever we want protected. What you’re really attempting to do is slow down the wind and allow the wind-driven snow to come to rest where you want it. Thus, the drift ends up away from your yard, lane or roadway. A word of caution: place your snow fence too close, and it becomes a disaster with the snow fence actually causing a greater drift than before right where you don’t want it to be.
Case in point: A friend of mine lives on the east side of a lake in northwest Iowa, and the northwest winds drive that snow to his shoreline. He decided a few years ago to place a snow fence along the shoreline as far back from the back of his home as he could. Because of the depth of the lot, that meant he could only put it 80-90 feet from the back of his home. It started off OK, but if you know how snow comes across an open lake, soon the drift went right over the top of the fence and made an even larger drift right at his back door. Since a drift can spread as far as 35 times the height of the fence, there simply was not enough room to get a snow fence to do its job correctly. The four-foot fence he had erected needed to be set at least 140 feet away from his back door.
That’s why if you are considering some type of snow fence, you need to have a good understanding of types, where to locate, costs and if there are any cost-share or any long-term payments when it comes to erecting a living snow fence.
To erect a temporary man-made fence, you can just go to a local farm supply or hardware store, and they can set you up with everything you need. For information on these, I went to my local Bomgaars store, where I found all that I would need to put up a temporary fence. If you want to go beyond this to a living snow fence, you can go to the Iowa Department of Transportation (IDOT) for information or the local Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). You can also check out your state’s transportation authority (Department of Transportation, or DOT, in Iowa) to see if they can help you plan or possibly help pay for a living snow fence.
Lay of the Land
Before you begin, make sure you know where to put the fence. It must be set between the prevailing wind and the area you want protected. The fence itself needs to be porous. Experts say porosity of 40-50 percent will form the largest drift. Horizontal gaps work better than vertical. At the same time, there should be a gap under the fence to help prevent the fence becoming buried under the snow. The average snow fence is four feet high, because it has been found that in winds of less than 20 mph, approximately 90 percent of the blowing snow stays below four feet. At the same time, even when winds get up to 45 mph, 70 percent of the blowing snow remains below four feet. Plus, the four-foot height is a manageable height with which to work. It is important to have a 6-8 inch gap between the ground and the bottom of the fence. This slows the wind and the snow, but still allows movement through.
So, where should the fence be placed and how far back? Once again, remember to first of all determine the most prevalent wind direction and erect the fence so that it will intercept the snow as it blows across. An important fact when it comes to placement is that a drift can spread as far as 30-35 times the height of the fence. A four-foot fence means that the distance should be 120 to 140 feet away. However, because of the amount of moving snow, some people will place a second fence another 100-150 feet further out in the field. This provides almost 300 feet to slow the snow and develop drifts and keep them away from the protected area. It is also important to place the fence further than the area to be protected, allowing for shifts and variations of the wind. A rule of thumb is to add 20 times the height of the fence on each end. This will give you optimum protection.
Types of temporary snow fences
The most common prefabricated snow fence is the kind you can pick up at farm supply or hardware/lumberyard stores. There is the wood version that we’ve seen for years, what we used to call corncrib material. The newer and more common types now are general purpose plastic, made of high-density polymers, usually orange in color and come in 4’ x 50’ or 4’x100’ rolls. Depending on the durability, cost for a 100’ roll of this is going to run $50 to over $100. You will need good steel fence posts to keep the fence upright. Put the fence posts no more than 6-8 feet apart and be sure to drive them down into the ground so they hold solid. A six-foot steel post should be driven in about 18 inches or so. Also, stretch the fence taut so the weight of the snow won’t allow it to sag and eventually go down. Some people will actually take two wood slats and put them across from each other to make the plastic fence even sturdier. Others will add a support wire attached to the top of the final fence post at each end to pull the fence taut. The support wire is angled down to the ground at 45 degrees and anchored to a stake driven well into the ground. Good ties need to be used from top to bottom of each fence post to make sure the fence is securely attached. Thus, you have a good temporary snow fence that can be taken down after the snow melts.
The second type is a series of unharvested standing cornrows left in the field. It is amazing how much snow builds up before the standing corn, into the stand and then begins to level off and diminish the closer the snow gets to the desired protected area. Again, remember the distance needed away from the protected area. The landowner/farmer can be paid for leaving it there (contact your local NRCS office for more details on this) and after the snow has melted in the spring, whatever is left can be harvested. Whether it’s their own farmstead or a neighbor’s acreage, I’ve seen farmers leave a stretch of standing corn to protect buildings, driveways and lanes. It’s a pretty effective way to do this. There needs to be advanced planning in this type, though, because the rows of corn need to be planted parallel to roadways or buildings.
Living Snow Fence
The next two options are long-term solutions that provide benefits way beyond the fact that they catch the snow in the winter. I’m talking about the living snow fences. Again, remember the need to give space between the plantings and the roadway or buildings to be protected. Something as simple as a 3 or 4 rows of trees and shrubs can offer protection against the driving snow. The key here is to make sure that the plantings are placed back from the area to be protected 15 times the height of the mature height of the plant. Thus, if you planted a row of deciduous trees that would be 30-40 feet tall at maturity, then you want to be back a minimum of 400 feet. Local NRCS or Farm Service Agency technicians can help property owners design their living snow fence.
The final fence is the ‘Cadillac of winter protection.’ Check out the diagram ‘Living Snow Fence’ to get a visual of this design. It falls under what is called the Conservation Reserve Program Continuous Sign-up. Upon acceptance, participants will receive cost-share assistance, possible upfront incentives and rental payments for up to 15 years. Optimally, this type of living snow fence would include a couple rows of conifers, a row of shrubs and then several feet of native grasses. In addition to the snow catch, the continuous CRP would also offers wildlife benefits. There are also conservation organizations that can help you with some of the cost (part of their mission is to establish wildlife habitat).
What is really exciting about the living snow fence idea is that it provides many more benefits besides controlling snowdrifts and reducing snow removal. It also provides:
· Greater visibility and safety
· Reduced spring flooding
· Improved wildlife habitat
· Livestock protection
· Reduced soil erosion
· Beautifying landscapes
· Visual screens
· Reducing energy costs in dwellings
Old Man Winter is coming; it’s just a matter of time. If you have had trouble with snowdrifts over the years, now is the time to make plans. This late in the game means probably putting up a man-made fence, but if you have the land to do so, now is the time to plan your own living snow fence that will provide not only years of protection but also both aesthetic pleasure and improved wildlife habitat.
#1-Standing corn provides a great wind blocker and traps the snow in the cornrows. Notice the size of the drift diminishes as the snow is trapped. (Photo courtesy Iowa DOT)
#2-Diagram of a living snow fence (courtesy of the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS))
#3-A mature shelterbelt/windbreak captures a lot of wind-driven snow. (Photos courtesy Iowa DOT)
#4-A new windbreak has been established. It will begin holding snow in its first 2-3 years. (Photo courtesy of Pheasants Forever)
#5-An added benefit of planting a living snow fence! (Photo by Steve Weisman)