Iowa farms deal with derecho’s aftermath: ‘I’ve got all my family and cows alive, that’s everything.’

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, August 21, 2020

This farm in Benton County was just one of many east-central and northeast Iowa dairy farms sustaining damage to silos, bent, toppled and with top halves blown off. Behind it is a view many are looking at right now of flattened and greensnapped corn. Dairies are pushing to chop silage while it’s still green so it will feed through the chopper, especially where stalks are snapped. KWWL drone photo

NEWHALL, Iowa — Farmers in Iowa say they’ve not seen anything like the derecho storm that hit so many with so much impact on Monday, Aug. 10. It was 780 miles long and 50 miles wide, moving at 50 to 70 mph west to east from South Dakota to western Ohio, straight through the middle of Iowa. Wind speeds were recorded up to 112 mph at the epicenter, with most severe impacts toward the east-central and northeast counties of the Hawkeye State, with virtually no time to prepare.

The winds of the “derecho”– like a hurricane over the Heartland — impacted an estimated 40% of the state’s crops on what the Iowa Department of Agriculture estimated Tuesday (Aug. 18) to be 14 million acres of corn and soybeans across 57 counties in its path. Within the 36 hardest-hit counties, the greatest impact is estimated on 3.57 million acres of corn and 2.5 million acres of soybeans.

USDA Photo by Jeremy Davis.

The storm also left in its wake destruction to infrastructure, an estimated 8,300 structures – homes, businesses, hospitals, schools – damaged or destroyed in towns, and untold losses to farm structures.

On Tuesday, the Ag Department responded to our inquiry to say that no livestock losses have been officially reported; but of five farms with dairy and beef cattle we spoke with in a hard-hit three county area this week, a collective 4% of cattle were euthanized or culled due to injuries or displacement.

Miraculously, on one dairy farm in Benton County, between the hard-hit towns of Cedar Rapids and Marshalltown, calf huts were found half a mile away, but the calves are all okay. On another dairy farm in that area, 44 calf huts were thrown about by the wind, and only two calves were lost.

Unlike a tornado hitting one area, the span of the derecho was broad, including Iowa’s second-most populated city of Cedar Rapids, where damage was severe. The uprooting of its many trees, hundreds of years old, bore testimony to the sheer strength of the winds and intense directional pressures within them.

For most of the first week after the storm, up to half a million people were without power, and 9 days later, 50,000 remain so. Some residents in the towns are living in tents as many structures are condemned. Access to communications and necessities have been disrupted — from food, water, fuel, building and repair supplies to power, phone lines, cell towers and internet access.

President Trump approved a nearly $4 billion emergency declaration requested by Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds on Monday. These are emergency funds for the state, not covering the farm, business and individual homeowner losses, which will be accounted for later.

The President held a disaster recovery conference in Cedar Rapids Tuesday afternoon, not televised by any national news network, except The Weather Channel. In fact, aside from The Weather Channel, social media posts, regional news coverage and a few national print media stories, the world is largely unaware of the derecho and its devastation.

The Iowa Department of Agriculture estimates the magnitude of impact to the state’s corn and soybean industry, alone, may exceed $4 billion as grain storage is decimated on farms and area elevators, and crop damage is so significant and widespread, it can be seen in satellite photos.

MODIS images like this one graphically illustrated by storm chaser and meteorologist Peter Forister are used by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and USDA Risk Management Agency to gauge the estimated crop damage across millions of acres at different wind speeds in the Aug. 10 derecho’s path across Iowa. Satellite photo provided by Peter Forister

Farmers are resourceful and resilient, and the farmers we spoke with in Iowa this week were also grateful their families and the vast majority of their animals are safe.

Through it all, Iowans are helping Iowans, despite their own troubles.

The Benton County Cattlemen’s Association grills meals for linemen, work crews and displaced families. Hy-Vee stores have been dropping water and necessities at farms and points in town. Farmers, with their own troubles at home, brought equipment to towns to help cleanup trees and debris so linemen could get in to work, including linemen from a dozen states responding to a nationwide call.

Churches are sending work crews and supplies. Insurance adjusters encourage farms to move quickly to recovery, to start fixing, harvesting as necessary, getting repairs scheduled. Vendors bring equipment, manpower and ideas to farms, many are donating products. These actions help everyone keep moving forward.

These dry cows have a makeshift area where a 100-cow robot barn once stood at Green Branch Farms in Newhall, just east of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Brian Schanbacher moved his milk cows to other farms and is looking to rebuild.  Photo provided

Dairy producer Brian Schanbacher of Green Branch Farms, Newhall reports that a work crew from Oakview Church 200 miles south in Memphis, Missouri showed up on his hard-hit dairy to help with cleanup and stabilizing remaining components of structures to tend dry cows while milk cows went to new homes and a rebuilding assessment could begin.

Similar stories are shared throughout the area.

A field rep working with dairy farms in the area notes that five of his producers have serious building damage or destruction, but that all farms in the area are dealing with power outages and crop damage.

“They have to start chopping silage, and as long as it’s staying green, they are trying to get out and do it, focusing on fields with snapped corn first. They can only chop in one direction, and it’s difficult to get it to feed through the chopper,” he said. “It remains to be seen how this will go, but corn can do amazing things, but in this case, the damage is later in maturity.”

Flattened corn, some of it dead, shown here in an aerial photograph. After a tour to assess damage this week, Iowa Ag Secretary Mike Naig has asked USDA Risk Management Agency for a no-harvest crop insurance option, deeming some of the over 14 million affected acres will be unharvestable. At the same time, last year’s crop is affected by damage to grain bins at elevators and on farms. Corn took the brunt, while several farmers report their soybeans may come back. Drought is also a problem in Iowa, but derecho’s path flattened some of the most promising acres. Agriculture in northern Illinois and northwest Indiana was also impacted by the derecho spinning off potential tornadoes as it slowed down into Ohio. Photo credit Iowa Dept. of Agriculture and Land Stewardship

In driving across the region, the fields he sees “range from 100% ruined to slightly ruined.” This was confirmed by Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig’s aereal report Tuesday, stating many affected acres will not be harvestable and tens of millions of bushels in grain storage is lost.

The hardest-hit area is mostly crop farms, with hogs and beef cattle, while Iowa’s heavier dairy area is to the north and west. At the storm’s epicenter are pockets of dairies and those working with farms there say many will have to have facilities totally re-done or significant repairs at a time when work crews are busy everywhere and lumber and tin are already in short supply at higher prices since the Coronavirus pandemic.

Three fatalities are attributed to the storm and many injuries.

“I’ve got all my family and cows alive. That’s everything,” says Brian Schanbacher. His three-row freestall barn is gone that had housed 100 cows and two Lely robots.

The derecho’s destruction at winds estimated between 100 and 112 through this part of the storm’s path through Iowa claimed the robot barn at Green Branch Farms, Newhall. Photo provided

“The only thing left standing is the north wall end with the robots. The cows were packed into that end of the barn in a 30 x 50-foot area, and no injuries to any of them,” Brian relates. “We lost a heifer and five others have injuries.”

Thirty of his cows went to Biercrest Holsteins, just a couple miles north in Van Horne, where Cary Bierschenk reports damage to facilities, feed storage and machine shop, but the parlor and freestall barn are operational. “Brian would do the same for me,” he says.

At Biercrest, the 150-cow freestall barn and milking parlor are functional, but with damage at one end. The recently remodeled barn for their show cows has its roof, fans and lights gone. The top halves of silos are gone, and a grain bin collapsed. But Cary and Kristen Bierschenk are moving forward one step at a time, even taking 30 cows needing a home from Green Branch Farms, because “Brian would do that for us too.” Photo provided

The Franck family of Newhall will also evaluate how to go about rebuilding. Their 200-cow freestall barn is destroyed, along with the old barn that housed the milking parlor. The milking equipment appears to be workable, but without a building, says Ron Franck, “we’re out of business right now.”

Ron and his wife Joan operate the dairy farm with their five children, ages 12 to 24. They sent half the herd to a farm 10 miles away and the other half an hour north. Like others in this situation, they truck feed to the cows that are nearby and help milk them, keeping dry cows at home and swapping fresh cows for dry going forward.

Ron recalls the first hours: “A pair of young kids just showed up around 4 p.m. when we were getting trailers around. Our boys were driving trailers and our daughters were getting cows out of stalls, and these kids could move and sort cows and set panels. The next day the hoof trimmer came with eight guys to clear a portion of the rubble to move dry cows to get feed and water and some shade. Our manure hauler brought 25 people here to canvas the corn fields, bringing out tin and debris, and my wife’s cousin brought a track hoe.

“We’ve not had to cook one meal. Too many people to mention have made sure of that,” he adds.

Photo credit Iowa Dept. of Agriculture and Land Stewardship

Attention this week turned from cleanup to crops. “Much of the corn is flat, leaning or snapped over, a bunch of stalks with the leaves stripped off,” Brian observes. He and others report their bean fields look like they may come back.

Salvaging corn silage is a priority for dairies. “We don’t feel like we get much done each day, but we are getting it done,” says Cary. He and Jennifer and their son Zachary and daughter Ally operate Biercrest Holsteins.

The tremendous crop he expected to harvest is now flat on the ground. He started chopping some fields this week, concerned that many had snapped stalks where the corn was dying.

Seven miles east of Brian Schanbacher’s Green Branch Farms, his cousins at Schanbacher Acres mainly lost feed storage, silos and stored feed that is either lost or inaccessible. They milk 280 cows, and the freestall barn and parlor are fine, they say, but are scrambling for what to feed. This week, Ron Franck and his sons began chopping fields for them before getting to their own, so at least the Schanbachers have green chop to feed. Photo provided

It’s a slow-go, chopping in just one direction, while hoping to avoid unseen debris in the fields that can stop progress in a hurry.

“Everyone has a story from this storm,” says Brian. They’ll remember where they were when it hit. He tells of his cousin who was baling hay in the middle of a field in a tractor and of a farmer grabbing the axel of the combine with his arms around his grandkids holding on to him as the machine shed broke apart around them.

“It’s therapy to talk about it, I guess,” says Brian. “This was no tornado, it lasted at least 20 minutes.” He and his wife Kristen were at home, and their children were 15 miles north where the damage was less severe.

Ron and his sons were also at home 10 miles north of the main farm when the derecho hit at lunchtime. “By the time we heard about Marshalltown, it was already here,” he recalls. “Our first warning was the emergency sirens, and 5 to 10 minutes later, it was on us.”

To a person, farmers recall how devastating the wind was in its duration. “A tornado comes through, lasts a few minutes and hits one area. This lasted 20 to 30 minutes or more and it covered a large area,” says Ron. “The meteorologists couldn’t keep up with it because as it hit the towns, it annihilated weather stations, cell phones went haywire, so they didn’t have data points.”

Even before the storm was completely over, Ron and his older sons knew they had to get back to the farm. “We got a mile or two south and it was pretty bad, straight west of the house, the farmstead was wrecked,” he reflects. “There must have been big variations in the pressure. We would see things look good on one place, and the next place, totally wiped out. Just no rhyme or reason to it.”

(Above and below) The derecho split the Franck family’s 200-cow freestall barn right down the middle and destroyed the building that housed the milking parlor. They’ve sent cows to other farms, keeping only dry cows at the main farm. Their attention this week is getting the flat corn chopped for neighbors who have cows to feed, but lost or can’t access their feed. The tall green bountiful corn crop close to normal chop date is now flat in the distance, but they are getting what they can. KWWL drone photos

What they found at their main farm was half the cowherd in the corn fields and the other half huddled against a corner with most of the barn gone — split right down the middle by the force of the winds.

By 11 p.m., all the milk cows were placed at other farms. By midnight, they had one area functional for dry cows.

While it’s hard to see forward more than a day at a time, producers talk of rebuilding – grateful for the help offered in the early hours and days — to help find animals, pull debris from fields, sort cattle to be moved, bring meals, lend a hand, give a hug.

“We have insurance and crop insurance, but we need profitability in agriculture to keep going. We need to be able to rebuild, and rebuild right, and to know we have a future. This is unlike anything we’ve seen. Trouble, we’ve seen before, but never so many at once,” said a beef producer during the President’s disaster recovery conference in Cedar Rapids.

Amid the significant challenges ahead, the recovery begins.To facilitate the neighbor-helping-neighbor process, the Iowa Farm Bureau has developed the Farming Community Disaster Exchange – an online message board.

“It’s a little overwhelming how much help we have had,” Ron says, pausing a moment to collect his thoughts.

“I will say this… six days after the storm, we are stabilized — as long as the weather is nice – from a cow health perspective with just the dry cows here now. Those little calves in the huts went for quite a ride, but we’ve modified things with what we have left to make pens, and my daughter has them looking pretty good again.”

‘No rhyme or reason to it.’ Toppled silo wagons are to be expected in a massive storm like this. But what amazed some farmers we spoke with is how there was no rhyme or reason to it. One example, two wagons side by side – one knocked over while the other is found a mile away in a field, destroyed. Photo provided

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