September 28, 2020 at 1:20 p.m.
The derecho, a widespread, long-lived, straight-line windstorm, left its mark across Iowa, Illinois and several other states with winds well over 100 mph. The devastation included flattened crops across a wide stretch of Iowa just as many dairy farmers were planning silage harvest.
A month and a half later, those same farmers have adjusted their harvest timing, chopping crews, equipment, rations and future field work. In the meantime, they have cleaned up farmstead damage and worked with insurance adjusters while continuing the day-to-day challenges of dairying.
“We run into these bad deals now and then,” Blood said of the storm’s devastation. “You have no choice. … You just have to get it done.”
Blood and his wife, Holly, run Blood Dairy with their son, Alex, and his wife, Melissa.
Sixty miles east of Blood’s farm, where some of the most serious derecho damage occurred near Newhall, Nathan Franck, 21, bought a chopper a week before the storm. His intention was to chop his farm’s corn as well as that of a neighbor or two. It was his first effort to expand from a custom baling business he started when he was 16. Franck joined his father, Ron, full time at their dairy in January.
But chopping corn flat on the ground was not what he anticipated, especially while his family was also picking up the pieces of their dairy which was destroyed by the derecho. His chopper had a Kemper rotary head that he replaced with an older style row head he found in Wisconsin shortly after the storm.
“It was chaotic and stressful,” Franck said of the work that is now finished.
Franck chopped for four farmers in addition to his own.
“Every field is different; no two are alike,” he said. “You get in a field and experiment a little with what angle works best. You have to go with the way it lays, and one-way chopping is pretty hard on efficiency.”
It was also hard on his equipment. Two breakdowns left him glad he had a dealer who was, in his words, worth his weight in gold during the rush to get the crop chopped.
Franck began chopping fields with snapped-off stalks and then moved on to those where the corn had bent. Last week, he chopped in a field where he had to raise the head to only chop the very top of a damaged field.
The unusual condition of the fields also meant purchasing new equipment at Blood Dairy. They began harvest eight days after the storm with the help of a direct cut head they got after their dealer told them it was the only way to manage the downed corn. He said he hopes the new head will never be needed again.
Blood and Franck both said custom choppers were in high demand. Franck had to turn down requests, and Blood found help from out of state.
“When we saw how slow it was going, we hired custom choppers out of Minnesota, where silage hadn’t started yet,” Blood said. “We had to get it before it dried up.”
Drying up before farmers had a chance to chop was a risk that developed quickly, said Iowa State University Extension Beef Specialist Denise Schwab. She was part of a series of disaster meetings that drew as many as 125 farmers in Benton and Linn counties.
“There were lots of questions for our agronomists,” Schwab said. “The corn went from being a little too wet to too dry in a week and a half. At our first meeting, we were telling them to check moisture. By the third, it was too dry, and we were talking about baling it up.”
Disaster meetings were held in nearly every county along the derecho’s path.
Schwab rode with one farmer on a chopper fitted with what was called a hurricane kit, and saw it work well picking up the bent stalks.
But she said stalks broken totally off were susceptible to mold, quickly creating a problem even for those who want to harvest for grain, bale or pasture the damaged fields. A 6-inch rain in eastern Iowa four weeks after the derecho complicated matters.
“Our options have been fewer by the day,” Schwab said, speaking to the concerns about how farmers will meet feed needs. “But remember, these are ruminants we’re feeding. We can feed them a lot of stuff, so there are opportunities. We have to think out of the box and be flexible.”
Blood said his silage appears to be good quality and tonnage is roughly three-quarters of normal, likely supplying the feed his herd needs.
“But the harvesting cost is the big thing,” he said.
While chopping silage is behind him, Blood still has corn to combine for grain and expects it will be tough going.
Franck, meanwhile, is glad to have his first chopping season behind him and is working with his father on plans for the new buildings that will replace the ones taken down by the storm.
“That’s the only fun thing going on,” he said.
Schwab’s advice goes beyond taking care of the damaged crops to the stress of working through the difficulties the storm added to an already difficult year for farmers.
“Take care of your neighbors,” she said. “COVID has isolated us, but check on them. There’s a lot of stress out there.”
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