News release: Alley cropping and windbreaks

Tim Baker, MU Extension Horticulture Specialist
102 N. Main, Suite 1, Gallatin, MO 64640

Release date: Oct. 17, 2013

Title: Alley cropping and windbreaks

Continuing my series on agroforestry, I would like to discuss two more of the five agroforestry practices, alley cropping and windbreaks.

Alley cropping involves the planting of crops in between trees. Of course crop plants require sunlight. And trees block sunlight.  So how does this make sense?

I’m not suggesting that a farmer start planting trees in his prime agricultural land. But there are situations where a landowner may find alley cropping attractive.

Say, for example, that a landowner has decided that he wants to plant trees of some kind. Perhaps he lives far enough south in our Northwest Extension Region that he can plant pecans.  There is good money in pecans, but they take a long time to start producing income.  What do you do in the meantime?

In this situation, alley cropping makes sense.  While the trees are still small, you can plant agronomic or horticultural crops and produce a good income. As the trees get larger, the role of alley cropping as an income producer may diminish. But that’s to be expected.

When I lived in southeast Missouri, I knew a peach grower who practiced alley cropping. He would plant new peach trees, and for the first several years he would plant soybeans in between the trees.  This worked very well.  One year he even planted tomatoes between the rows of peach trees.  This was certainly an interesting combination, to say the least.

So if you have long-term goals involving a tree plantation or orchard, think alley cropping in the meantime.

Everyone is familiar with the concept of windbreaks.  Trees are planted in such a way to prevent wind from affecting an area in an undesirable manner.  The classic example would be trees planted around the homestead to break the worst of winter’s wind and keep everyone inside the house a bit warmer.

But windbreaks can do much more. As mentioned in my column discussing silvopasture, windbreaks can provide winter shelter for livestock. In some instances, this may be a life or death situation, but even when the weather isn’t that bad, it can still keep your livestock more comfortable in cold temperatures.

Windbreaks can also prevent wind-blown soil erosion. A well-designed windbreak can substantially slow down the wind’s velocity. That will help keep your soil where you want it… in your field.

At the same time, it can protect crops. I have seen this first hand in southeast Missouri, where sandy soils can literally sand-blast crops, thus slowing plant growth and reducing yields.

Windbreaks can also be useful in snow management, as a living snow fence. A properly designed windbreak can spread snow evenly across a field, for example.

When you design a windbreak, you have to consider several factors. What kind of trees and other vegetation will you use?  How dense should they be?  Which way are they oriented? How high should it be to protect an area?

Next time, I will discuss the fifth and final agroforestry practice, forest farming.