Year after derecho, dairy farmer perseveres, brings his cows back home

Jan Shepel
Brian and Kristen were home when the hurricane-force winds struck their Iowa farm last summer. Fortunately their two children were with relatives, well out of the storm's path.

When the derecho passed through Iowa on August 10, 2020, Iowa dairy farmer Brian Schanbacher remembers that pre-storm reports told of wind gusts to the west of his farm of 100 miles an hour. He was prepared for wind. But what he and his wife Kristen weren’t prepared for was the duration of the storm.

“It was a lot of wind and it lasted a long time – 30 to 40 minutes,” he told the Wisconsin State Farmer. Fortunately their young son and daughter were gone with family out of the storm’s path. “It hit here at 12:19.” He remembers it exactly.

“We are okay and our family is okay and our house survived so that’s what is really important. We still have a roof over our heads,” he told said soon after the storm hit last year. 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 155 years. Brian’s Mom and Dad started milking cows there in 1976 and Brian put in robotic milking units almost ten years ago.

Since that storm tore through their farm, it has been a lesson in taking one day at a time. “It’s all in the process,” he told us with a sigh on the one-year anniversary of the storm. Schanbacher knew at the time that it would take longer than he wanted for things to “get back to normal.”

We called Brian to find out how things are going on his farm these days, following the path of destruction caused by the derecho and its hurricane force winds.

“I’ve gone through many types of thoughts in the last year – from ‘I’m not going to give up that easily’ to ‘Am I doing the right thing?’” he said. The frame of mind he finds himself in “depends on the day – some days are good. Some days are not.”

This year, oddly enough on the anniversary of the derecho, he had some brown mid-rib corn damaged by wind during a storm that provided no rain – and his crops need some moisture. Because last year’s storm curtailed his feed production, he grew some 75-day corn that he chopped and stored in a silage bag.

“Now, without rain, I’ve had people tell me that my 75-day corn might be the best corn I will have gotten all year,” he said ruefully. “Because that corn caught some rain during pollination it made pretty good silage.”

Brian, who farms 450 acres, was pleasantly surprised at the amount and quality of feed he was able to make last year after the storm. He was able to pick up most of the tilted corn – much more successfully than some of his neighbors, but says he didn’t put up enough silage.  “It’s been hard to plan with some cows here and some cows gone. For the last month and a half I’ve been buying corn silage from a friend.”

His short-season corn will soon go into the ration and he’s hoping his full-season corn will get the drink of water that it needs to make some good feed.

Many of the building's on the Schanbacher farm were damaged due to the sustained, hurricane force winds.

The 100 acres of corn he combined last fall had a really good test weight and the dry fall weather helped with the harvest. It yielded 100 to 130 bushels per acre. Even after the derecho, his soybeans did really well, yielding 60 bushels per acre.

At the time of the rare derecho, his two robot units had been milking the family’s 100 cows that were 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 were fine,” he told us. “Dad says that’s the part of the barn he built so that’s why it survived the storm.”

They didn’t lose any cows to the storm.

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

But it was quickly apparent that the damage to their facilities made milking cows there an unsustainable situation. There was no way to take care of the cows the way they needed to be taken care of, he said.

Cows moved

After the storm, he sent 20 to 30 of his cows to a neighbor’s farm. Fifty or so went to another neighboring farm and he dried some of the cows off early.  A few cows got sold as he didn’t want to pass headaches on to other farmers who were helping him out.

“The cows did real well,” he now says. “The two places that took them did really well with them. I can’t thank those guys enough for taking them on.”

The two nearby farms – one a mile and a half away and the other a half-hour drive away -- both had parlors and room to take care of the Schanbachers’ cows.

Since his robots were functional, he decided to keep cows and heifers at home if they were scheduled to freshen after October and through the winter. Brian and his Dad reasoned that they didn’t want to send heifers to a parlor setting and then expect them to come home and adapt to robots.

The damaged barns had 18 freestalls that were useable and he had some room for “fresh air” feeding, he says with a laugh. They improvised with a sand shooter, putting feed into it and distributing feed that way, putting it in the remnant of one barn. They also brought home some late-lactation cows that they knew they could dry off soon and take the pressure off the housing situation. “We did a lot of makeshift things to get by,” he said.

When the storm hit, their freestall barn lost its roof. Only the north wall of the building was left standing.

When the storm hit, the Schanbacher's freestall barn lost its roof. Only the north wall of the building was left standing.

In mid-February, just before the brutal cold snap that hit the Midwest, the roof got done on the freestall barn along with the side curtain on the north side. Once the building was back up and the weather moderated a little bit he began bringing his cows home six at a time, every two or three days, to “get them and myself back into a routine.”

He expressed amazement and admiration for the adaptability of the cows. Of each group of six cows that came home in the afternoon, most were back in the routine of going into the robot milking stalls on their own by the next night.

His goal was to get all the cows back at home by his Mom’s birthday – April 2 – and he beat that goal by two days.

Some of the structural repairs at the farm got done last fall and winter, Brian said, with some work stretching into January and February. “Now that we’ve got most of the major work done, we still have a lot of the detailed stuff to finish.”

After the storm, the farm was without electricity for more than ten days and the family 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 those were able to serve the house, grain bins and other parts of the farm.

Amazingly, all their grain bins on the west side of the farmstead survived intact.

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 remarkable that all of the Schanbachers’ grain bins survived intact.  “The bins are fine. It feels like we’re the only ones who still have bins on the farm,” he said at the time. “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.”

A beam and peg barn built 125 years ago is in pieces after being damaged by the derecho that occurred on  July 29, 2021, in the Town of Concord.

Some things fell, others didn’t

That silo still had one-and-a-half doors of silage in it and he planned to have it re-plastered in the fall once he had used the feed. The storm somehow left intact their machine shed and shop along with the house and the bins.

Last fall he was able to help out a cousin with the use of his drying bin because he still had one intact.

The family has been coping with another loss – Brian’s Mom died suddenly a year ago in June. As well as trying to recover from the derecho, the family has had to change some of the roles on the farm in his Mom’s absence.

The baby calves on the farm were housed in a round rafter shed that Brian’s grandfather built in the early 1950s and it – and all the calves – survived the storm. The west end of the building was blown in but with that minor storm damage it was still able to serve as the calf nursery.

His Mom used to feed the calves and his Dad tried to take over that role. Then Brian said his sister offered to take all the baby heifer calves to her farm down the road and that has worked out really well. “We have all been trying to do all the things Mom used to do,” he said.

Schanbacher’s Newhall farm is part of a small pocket of dairy farms clustered near the community of Marion. In the wake of the storm, many of those farms lost their milk income. The Schanbachers were among them. Once the cows left their storm-ravaged barn, they didn’t have a milk check. They had some insurance but that doesn’t take care of everything.

The Schanbacher's cows are again back home, eating inside the rebuilt freestall barn.

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 had been using 40 calf hutches to raise calves on his farm, but only four remained on the farm after the storm last summer. Thankfully all of his cattle were found alive, including the calves.

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. It 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.