In winter, wind can be the most serious threat to the health and comfort of cattle. Although snowstorms often come to mind first when preparing for winter, being prepared to protect cattle from wind should be the priority as temperatures drop and days shorten.

Omeara john
Freelance Writer
John O'Meara is a freelance writer based in Maine.

Looking over any farm or ranch, experienced cattle producers first evaluate how the place will feel in a hard wind. Although landscapes vary widely across North America, there are some tried-and-true methods of ensuring that the wind doesn’t have a negative effect on cattle and the financial viability of producers this winter.

Sarina and Ty O’Connor own and operate Montana Legacy Ranch in Ekalaka, Montana. The ranch usually has from 1,200 to 2,000 head of Angus crosses.

“Wind is definitely a factor,” says Sarina, noting that when the wind is bad in the winter, the cattle can take shelter in a wooded area near a creek. The ranch also utilizes large steel windbreaks to allow cattle to get out of the wind. “If it’s 45 below, and the wind is blowing, that can be hard on animals.”

Producing certified organic beef, which is processed on a USDA slaughterhouse located on their ranch – built during the COVID-19 pandemic – Montana Legacy Ranch is all about the health and productivity of the cattle. Providing relief from the wind is a key part of the ranch’s overall strategy.


Writing for the University of Nebraska – Lincoln, Extension Agent Brad Schick emphasizes the importance of properly constructed windbreaks. Schick says that windbreaks constructed into a “V” formation will provide downwind protection five times the height of the fence, and straight, porous windbreaks will provide protection eight to 10 times the height of the fence. A fundamental concern in designing a windbreak involves planning for snowdrifts, according to Schick. A V-shaped windbreak will funnel snow away from the center of the V, while a straight, porous windbreak will act as a snow fence, with snow accumulating on one side. In any case, the proper windbreak for individual conditions on individual ranches can increase calving success by 2% on average, according to Schick.

“There are two things that bother cattle: wind and wet, cold rain,” says Richard Nielsen, who until recently ran a herd of commercial Angus cows on Aroostook Beef Company in New Canada, Maine, with his wife, Erin Parisien. A native of Nebraska, Nielsen finds the more wooded Maine landscape to be less persistently windy than the Midwest. He relates that, unlike in his adopted home of Maine, ranchers in Nebraska often build windbreaks out of steel panels since trees are scarce. One danger is that the structure may blow over. “A windbreak has to be tall to do any good,” adds Nielsen.


Byre Farm, owned and operated by Jeffrey Patterson and Helen Costello, utilizes the forest as a windbreak for their Highland cattle during Maine's harsh winters. Photo provided by John O'Meara.

On his farm in Maine, Nielsen has used the woods as shelter. Maine is the most forested state in the U.S., so the natural landscape on many operations offers many natural shelters for cattle.

“They do better outside than in a shelter,” says Nielsen, noting that there seem to be fewer problems with disease in animals that are not confined.

Many ranches have wooded areas appropriate as living windbreaks; others aren’t so lucky. One solution is to plant a windbreak. Steve Higgins, a professor of biosystems and agricultural engineering at the University of Kentucky, emphasizes that anyone looking into planting a windbreak should analyze the particular conditions on that farm or ranch. Higgins says the best thing to do is to consult resources available through the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NCRS) and Forest Service.

“You go to your soil map for that particular location,” says Higgins when asked what species of trees he recommends for windbreaks.

Essentially, Higgins recommends the species that best fits the ranch’s microclimate.

“Use science to figure out what tree,” he says, emphasizing that invasive species must always be avoided in favor of native trees.

Wind can impact cattle in a variety of ways.

“This past winter,” Higgins relates, “I knew a herd that didn’t drink for two days.” Extreme wind discouraged the cattle from leaving shelter and accessing water. Higgins helps producers change management practices so that such instances are avoided.

Often, the addition of windbreaks and similar practices improve a ranch’s financial viability. Many times, the addition of a windbreak has resulted in incredibly “increasing productivity” on the farms Higgins works with. On one farm, Higgins helped the producer use an on-farm site that already existed. “We took a knoll and made it a winter feeding area,” he says.

In cases where trees are absent, a windbreak can be established into grass.

“Trees can be established in grass. Scalping or mowing the forages prior to planting may help with water availability and tree establishment,” says Higgins. He also mentions the advantages of planting a cover crop, into which trees can be planted at a later date.

A primary danger to young trees is livestock and wildlife. Trees can be fenced or provided with a small tree shelter available at many commercial nurseries. Seedlings can often be obtained through state agencies.

As the worst weather of the year approaches for many producers, it’s time to ensure that cattle have a way to get out of the wind – either in a living or constructed windbreak – so that they can live their healthiest, most productive lives.