Willow shrubs could be next great Minnesota snow fence

The benefits of living snow fences and other snow control tools to keep roadways clear of blowing and drifting snow have been known for decades, and MnDOT has been using a variety of these techniques for years to catch  snow before it gets to a road.

Living snow fences often consist of trees, grasses and even corn stalks left standing in a farmer’s field.  Now willow shrubs are being added to the list as a fast-growing, inexpensive snow control measure.

What’s new

WillowSeptember
Fish Creek willow shrubs (left) grow alongside corn in September 2015.

Researchers recently completed a study that investigated whether willow shrubs could make good living snow fences. While typical snow-fence plants, such as dogwood or cranberry shrubs, can take five to 20 years to establish themselves, shrub willows were effective at trapping snow after just two growing seasons, according to the study.

In spring 2013, researchers installed three varieties of shrub willow side-by-side in two-row and four-row configurations along about a quarter of a mile of Highway 14 in Waseca, where snow drifts are an issue. In April 2014, they cut the shrubs down to the ground  to encourage branching and bush density. Though the trimmed willows had little impact on drifting snow the first winter, each willow-shrub plot was collecting two to three metric tons of snow by the second winter, according to the research report. Researchers believe that after three or four growing seasons the willow shrubs could catch the entire mean annual snowfall on the site.

In the four-row configuration recommended by researchers, costs of raising, furnishing, planting and mulching came to about $3.60 per plant, which is dramatically less than the contract bid cost for traditional living snow fence species that cost more than $50 per plant. In addition, the willow shrubs could be harvested and sold as biomass every few years to provide an income source.

Past research

Willow trees is just the latest advancement in the state’s snow control program. A 2012 research project evaluated the costs and benefits of living snow fences and provided MnDOT with a payment calculator to determine how much to compensate landowners for installation and maintenance costs.

A recent research implementation project created a mobile-friendly Web version of the payment calculator tool.  The website also contains a tool for designing a own snow fence.

MnDOT has used these tools and other promotional efforts to nearly double the number of farmers with contracts for corn rows enrolled in the Living Snow Fences program.

What’s next

The willow species recommended by researchers will be evaluated further in 2017 when they install it as a living snow fence on a new construction site on Highway 60 between Windom and Mountain Lake. Researchers also recommend a future study to compare volume of road salt use before and after installation. They also want to look into identifying appropriate buffer distances to keep willow roots from interfering with cropland root systems.

Resources

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