January 26, 2023 at 3:47 p.m.
“I told him, ‘Just don’t tell my family. They’re going to really think we’re weird,’” Karen said.
Today, the Klaphakes have traversed varying opinions of organic production and now milk 80 Holsteins in a double-8 parabone parlor on their 260-acre farm south of Melrose.
When the Klaphakes began converting their crop ground, the initial results looked unpromising.
“We had our doubts,” Neal said. “The first couple years, our fields looked tough.”
“We had some pretty ugly corn,” she said. “We didn’t know much about organic back then. There was very little of it.”
One day during a dry year in the middle of the Klaphakes’ transition, an agronomist was checking one of their corn fields, and Neal asked him how he thought the field would do for yields.
“The guy said, ‘About 26 bushels an acre,’ and I thought, ‘Holy cow,’ Neal said. “I asked how his corn was doing, and I think he said it was about 110. I wasn’t very proud.”
A definite learning curve was present.
“We didn’t have anything figured out yet,” Karen said. “There weren’t a lot of people then who could guide you. We were organic when organic wasn’t cool.”
The next generation of the family is following suit.
Neal and Karen’s son and daughter-in-law, Nick and Hope Klaphake, milk 80 Holsteins on their organic farm down the road, and their daughter and son-in-law, Carlee and Jacob Gaebel, have an organic dairy farm northwest of Melrose. Three daughters – Samantha, Apryl and Crystal – live off-farm, but they and their families come by to help or visit. Their youngest son, Josh, who graduated from high school last year, wants to take over the home farm.
It is safe to say the Klaphake family has embraced the organic movement.
“It’s been very rewarding,” Neal said. “Sometimes the family gets together, and afterward Karen will say to me, ‘You can’t just talk about farming.’”
However, Karen said going organic was the right choice for their family.
“(Neal and I) have often said that, even if organic fell apart, we would still farm the same,” Karen said. “Once we realized that (organic farming) works, it’s become a way of life for us.”
Early on, though, both had to take a leap of faith when their future in organic farming was just a seed of an idea, and that idea came through an indirect route. The Klaphakes were having issues with mastitis in their herd. Neal began attending classes on the subject where he heard that a low-line parlor could make a difference. The Klaphakes built such a parlor in 1999.
However, Neal was absorbing other information at the meetings as well.
“I remember going to a meeting and hearing that you could actually treat cows and not have to throw the milk away,” Neal said. “That was interesting, because every time a cow had mastitis, you’d give it a shot of penicillin and have to dump the milk.”
In the late 1990s, there were other reasons to consider organic production.
“There was more money in organic,” Neal said. “The price was higher.”
When their son, Nick, began farming near them in 2005, he began transitioning to organic as well.
Soon after, Neal went to one of Nick’s fields and started cultivating it. Neal realized the field was already a disaster.
“I told Nick, ‘We’re starting over; go get the digger out,’” Neal said. “It was the beginning of June.”
Nick was horrified, Neal said, but they worked the field, making sure every weed was dead. Then they planted corn – again.
“That fall, when we chopped the field, it was beautiful corn,” Neal said. “It was tall and nice.”
Over time, the Klaphakes’ fields improved through a series of trial and error.
“As we’ve been doing this longer and longer, we’ve learned with weed control what to do and what not to do,” Neal said. “Rotation was huge, and liming was huge. We worked with an agronomist who helped us with balancing soils. That helped a lot.”
After three years, on Oct. 15, 2002, Neal and Karen had their first organic corn in the harvester. Their milk became certified organic Jan. 15, 2003.
Then, they received what they said was a fortunate break. Organic Valley of Wisconsin came calling in December 2002.
“We were transitioning to organic but didn’t know if we would have a place for our milk,” Karen said. “We just had hope and faith that we would. Then, Organic Valley came to us.”
There was no longer a need to find a market, and the family could focus all efforts on farming.
The Klaphakes are with the company today. They are also seasoned organic farmers who share what they have learned with other organic farmers who come to them for advice.
Neal said one of the main principles of organic farming is keeping his soil balanced and in harmony with his crops.
“When we had fields that we needed (to turn organic), we first planted it into hay,” Neal said. “We’d take the hay off and plow it under and then grow corn there. It’s easy to grow corn after hay. The soil is looser. Weeds prefer tight soils.”
Neal adds bacteria to the farm’s manure and makes a compost he stores in a compost barn.
“Once you get the manure and lime right and the soil balanced, the soil turns so soft, almost like potting soil,” Neal said. “It’s like you’ve got more life in the soil.”
The Klaphakes also learned it is better to grow corn one to two years at most before rotating it out. Neal likes to plant barley next, interseeded with hay.
Neal waits until the ground is warmer to plant corn, and once it is about 10 inches tall, cultivates it to bury the weeds. Sometimes, depending on weather, he only has to cultivate it once.
“It’s crucial to plant when it’s not wet and cold,” Neal said.
That requires not paying attention to what other farmers are doing.
“Sometimes that is hard,” Karen said. “Everyone else’s corn is coming up, and we’re just starting to plant.”
Another technique the Klaphakes use is roasting their grain.
“It kills all the weed seeds that are in the grain,” Neal said. “Also, by roasting it, the starch changes to dextrose in the grain itself, so the cows can digest it better. You don’t need to feed as much.”
After he harvests grain, he runs it through the roaster and then puts it in the bin. He has found it works best with a bit of moisture in the grain because it will expand and split open. He even roasts all of his dry corn.
As far as treating illnesses in calves and cows, the Klaphakes have found organic remedies for pneumonia and other illnesses. They use garlic, aloe and an herbal tea. They also use a whey injection under calves’ skin that has colostrum from cows more immune to mastitis. These treatments have worked well for them, Neal said.
“Twenty years ago, the treatments weren’t as accessible, but now there are a lot of companies that make stuff like that,” Karen said. “The vet outlet has a whole area where you can get (such products).”
Neal said he believes in building the immune systems in his animals.
“If you can get the cow to help its own immune system, to fix its own problem, then it’s fixed instead of just putting a Band-Aid on the problem,” Neal said. “Otherwise, the temperature drops and (the cow) is sick again. We have a lot less repeat (illnesses).”
The Klaphakes rotationally graze their milking herd across four paddocks.
“When the cows are grazing, I can get a lot of feed out of a pasture with the blend, almost more than I can out of a hay field,” Neal said. “That changed a lot since I started (organic farming). It’s close to 15 different varieties of species that I plant in there.”
When the grazing season is done, Klaphakes feed a ration of 1 pound dry corn, 3 pounds roasted barley, 15 pounds snaplage, 25-30 pounds corn silage and haylage for the rest.
Looking back at 20 years of organic farming, the Klaphakes agreed their enjoyment of learning new things has kept them positive and focused, getting them to where they are today, which both Neal and Karen said is a good life, one that allows their small farm to be self-sufficient.
“With organic, you can make a nice living without farming a lot of land; you don’t need 1,000 acres,” Neal said. “I don’t buy any protein. I had to buy some hay this year, but it was very minimal. I hadn’t bought feed in many years. I can grow enough feed on my own. When the prices of things go up, it doesn’t affect me very much because I don’t sell it and I don’t buy it.”
Karen said organic has afforded them the size and style of farming they want.
“Back when we were going organic, it seemed that a lot of farms were quitting or else were going big,” Karen said. “We were able to keep our family farm this size and operate it ourselves.”
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