Snow control cost/benefit tool goes online as program aims to expand

cornCorn rows left standing after fall harvest become a living snow fence. Cornstalks may not be the first thing that comes to mind for keeping rural roads clear in the winter. But when stalks near roadsides are left standing after fall harvest, they become a living snow fence, reducing the amount of snow blowing onto roads.

To help determine reimbursement costs for farmers and choose which roads are good candidates, the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) uses a snow control cost/benefit tool developed by University of Minnesota researchers. In a new MnDOT-funded project, CTS and U of M Extension are developing a website to host the tool and related snow-control resources.

The cost/benefit tool assesses agricultural and MnDOT costs to determine a fair and reasonable incentive payment for farmers. Farmers are compensated on a per acre basis that factors in crop yield, production costs, inconvenience factors for the farmer and traveling public, price of corn, and anticipated snow removal cost savings.

The new website is expected to be live by the end of the year. In future work, CTS and Extension will work with MnDOT and the U’s Department of Applied Economics to update the annual cost and input data. CTS will also convene stakeholders to evaluate the tools’ usage and functionality and discuss potential development needs.

The tool was developed by research assistant David Smith under a grant led by Gary Wyatt, an agroforestry extension educator with U of M Extension in Mankato. “With the new website, the tool will be available not just to MnDOT, but also to local transportation agencies in the state, and even to agencies in other states and countries,” Wyatt says.

The standing corn rows are part of an innovative MnDOT program started about 15 years ago that pays farmers to leave up roadside corn stalks after harvest, says Dan Gullickson, MnDOT program coordinator. Last winter there were seven miles of standing corn rows (out of approximately 70 miles of living snow fence along MnDOT-maintained highways). “MnDOT has identified about 1,000 miles of drift-prone highways in our statewide network that require additional resources beyond routine snowplowing to keep open,” he says. 

For the coming winter, MnDOT is seeking farmers with fields to the north and west sides of state highways and interstates where there is a known snow-drifting problem. New this year, MnDOT will also pay farmers to position large hay bales and silage bags at the proper distance from the roadway to offer snow and blowing snow protection. And if farmers want to plant a perennial shrub row receiving conservation payments, MnDOT will complement these incentives as well, Gullickson says.

Wyatt is also continuing his work to connect farmers with youth or adult organizations to hand-pick ear corn from sites (4-H and the FFA have participated in the past). “If farmers want to participate by leaving standing corn rows, this allows the farmer to keep the corn and reduces unwanted corn emerging in next year’s crop,” he explains. “It’s also a welcome source of revenue for nonprofit organizations.” 

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