Dairy farmer still picking up after derecho damage

Jan Shepel
When hurricane-force sustained winds blew through Iowa on August 10, one of the many casualties in Iowa farm country was the freestall barn at Brian and Kristen Schanbacher’s farm – though the section of the barn that holds their two robot milking units was spared. The barn’s destruction meant they had to move their cows to the dairy barns of friends and neighbors. They likely won’t be able to milk their cows again at home until some time next year.

NEWHALL, IOWA – When the weather system called a “derecho” passed through Iowa on August 10, dairy farmer Brian Schanbacher had heard reports of wind gusts to the west of his farm that were 100 miles an hour so he was prepared for wind. But what he and his wife Kristen weren’t prepared for was how long it lasted.

“It was a lot of wind and it lasted a long time – 30 to 40 minutes,” he told us. Fortunately their young son and daughter were gone with family to an area where the storm wasn’t as horrific. “It hit here at 12:19,” he said. Wind speeds of up to 110 miles per hour were recorded.

“We are okay and our family is okay and our house survived so that’s what is really important,” he said. “We still have a roof over our heads.” Their farm, near Newhall, which is west of Cedar Rapids by about 20 miles, is where his mother grew up. It has been in her family for 154 years. Brian’s mom and dad started milking cows there in 1976 and Brian put in robotic milkers almost nine years ago.

Before the storm, the two robotic units milked the 100 or so cows that the Schanbachers housed in a freestall barn. But the storm took down the main portion of the freestall barn. “The robots on the east end of the barn ended up fine,” he says. “Dad says that’s the part of the barn he built so that’s why it’s still standing.”

Brian didn’t lose any cows that day. One heifer got cut up by debris and they lost her. Later, some of the storm damage to cows revealed itself.

Since the robots were okay and their equipment dealer got everything back up and running the night of the storm, amazingly they were able to milk cows yet that night. A milk line that runs 240 feet, taking the milk from the robots to the milk house had been destroyed by the windstorm. But it was replaced by 7:30 that night and most of cows entered the robot stalls and got milked. Only a few of the shell-shocked cows had to be pushed in.

In the aftermath of the derecho, it was apparent to everyone that their facilities didn’t represent a sustainable situation. Their freestall barn lost its roof and only the north wall of the building was left standing. They were unable to milk and take care of the cows the way they should be taken care of, he said.

When he knew he couldn’t take care of the cows at home, Schanbacher sent 20 to 30 of them to a neighbor’s farm. Fifty or so of the cows went to another farm and he dried some of the cows off early. “I also had some I sold. I didn’t want to pass some headaches on to those helping us out. And these were cows I was probably going to have to sell down the road anyway, so I did it right away.”

After the storm their farm was without electricity for ten days or more and they ran a generator during that time to keep things going. All of the overhead lines on the farm – and to the dairy barn -- were destroyed. But some of their lines were underground and still served the house, grain bins and other parts of the farm.

By mid-December, Brian reports that he is actually milking a few cows in his patched-up barn although the chores are taking two-and-a-half hours longer than they should. It took six weeks to get power back to his robots – most of the replacement lines were bored underground – and he started milking a few cows in October.

Iowa dairy farmer Brian Schanbacher, his wife Kristen and their kids Brilynn and Tryce survived the August derecho storm front that barreled through the Midwest without injury, for which they are very thankful. Their house was spared, along with grain bins, machine shed and shop. But the wind destroyed their freestall barn and they had to move all their cows to other farms.

He freshened a handful of cows and brought a few late-lactation cows back from their neighbors’ farms to be housed in the remaining freestalls. By November 1, Brian was back to shipping milk off the farm. He said his robots are milking 33 cows these days and more fresh cows will bring his on-farm milking herd to 37 by the end of December.

An Amish crew has now fixed the roof on a corn crib and a round-raftered barn. The crew that will re-build the freestall barn got done with the concrete work just ahead of last week’s snowstorm and is now ready for that construction project. Brian arranged to get a steel building to replace his freestall barn, but the timeline to get it built will stretch into next year.

Bins in short supply

In the path of the derecho, an estimated 57 million bushels of permanently licensed grain storage was damaged or totally destroyed and 75 million bushels of on-farm grain storage or more was lost in the storm. That makes it all the more amazing that all of the Schanbacher’s grain bins on the west side of the farmstead survived intact. “The bins are fine. It feels like we’re the only ones who still have bins on the farm,” he said. “The house is fine. It seems like there’s no rhyme or reason to what got damaged.

“We have a 60-foot cement stave silo that went down. It still had one-and-a-half doors of silage in it and I was going to have it re-plastered this fall,” he said.

He was able to help out a cousin with the use of a drying bin this fall because his was still intact. The storm somehow left intact their machine shed and shop as well as the house and the bins.

The baby calves on the farm were housed in a round raftered shed that his grandfather built in the early 1950s and it – and all the calves – survived, with some damage.

After the storm, Schanbacher was able to chop several bags of corn silage. “It was laid over but not flat.” He reports that his soybeans did really well despite what they went through; yields were 60 bushels per acre. The corn that didn’t go into silage yielded 130 bushels per acre with pretty good test weights. “It was not a complete loss and we have crop insurance which should help some.”

He says they are thankful for the small steps forward but admits “I just want things back to normal. This time next year we’ll look back and wonder how we did what we did.”

Schanbacher’s Newhall farm is part of a small pocket of dairy farms clustered around Cedar Rapids and the nearby community of Marion. In the wake of the storm, many of those farms lost their milk income.

Co-op disaster support

Their dairy co-op, the Madison-based FarmFirst Dairy Cooperative, helped them with some financial coverage due to the loss of their milk income. The Schanbachers were one of three family dairy farms in the path of the derecho to receive help from the co-op’s disaster benefit program. One of the other farmers to receive the FarmFirst disaster benefit was Ron Franck, a neighbor of the Schanbachers.

Franck said that of the 40 calf hutches used to raise calves on his farm, only four were found on the farm. Thankfully, he said, all of their cattle were found alive, including the calves.

Their co-op district board member, Bob Dietzel, a dairy farmer from East Dubuque, Illinois, visited with the three farmers a week after the derecho came through. Only a few weeks later he came back with a disaster check for each of them.

(FarmFirst said that over the past year, its disaster benefits program has awarded more than $81,000 in disaster payments to 13 different member farms. Members are eligible for these payments through the cooperative’s disaster benefits program, which assists against the loss of milk income caused by the death of a cow by either lightning or electrocution, the loss of electric power or due to impassable roads due to snow or flooding.)

His dad lives in town – they lost his mom suddenly in June -- and had an insurance adjuster for his roof damage who came from Texas. The adjuster said the storm damage in Iowa looked a lot like what happens in the wake of a hurricane. It’s just that Iowa is nowhere near the ocean.

“It was amazing how certain buildings were damaged and yet others on our farm were practically untouched,” Schanbacher said. “All we can do is take it one day at a time. It’s going to take longer than we’d like but we’ll get there.”