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Organic farmers share drought experiences

By Jean Caspers-Simmet

Date Modified: 12/12/2012 9:04 PM

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IOWA CITY, Iowa —For Alta Vista farmer Tom Frantzen whose farm is integrated with crops and livestock working together, the drought caused a series of problems.

"Most originated around our beef cow herd, and the beef cow herd is an important part of our farm," Franzten said at last week's Iowa Organic Conference in Iowa City.

He, Harlan farmer Ron Rosmann and McGregor farmer Dan Specht talked about how they are surviving the drought. Chad Hart of ISU Extension talked about crop insurance products available to organic farmers.

Frantzen and his family grow organic crops, and have 65 beef cows and 30 brood sows.

"In July 2011 the tap shut off and the only thing that would grow in the pasture was alfalfa," Frantzen said.

They grow a very diverse pasture mix, and their crop rotation includes small grains, hay, pasture, corn and soybeans.

"I tried to be careful, but I lost three cows, a herd bull and a nice big calf to bloat over a couple months," Frantzen said.

Creeks that had carried water even through the Depression years dried up. The Frantzens activated their underground water system which is 3/4 of a mile long. It allowed them to water their cattle, but with one of their wells just 35 feet deep, Franzten wonders how long they will have water with out recharging rains.

In 2012 they planted in a timely manner. The surface was dry and they were able to get the seed down to moisture. Weed control was good.

Frantzen grows succotash, an oats, barley, wheat mixture, and they chop the succotash acres that have giant rag weed in them as silage for calves.

"This year we couldn't even grow very good weeds," Franzten said. "But we did chop a third of it.

For the first time in his life and all the years that his father farmed, the dry weather killed the new hay seeding. In the part of the seeding that followed soybeans, they couldn't find a plant. Where it followed corn, it was poor yielding, but it survived.

It was dry in June and never rained in July. Moisture finally came in August. The middle of August they plowed up two-thirds of the new seeding and reseeded hoping for a nice rain. Eventually they did get rain, the seeding came up, and Frantzen is hoping for a hay crop next year.

His bean yield averaged 45 bushels, one of the best ever, and corn, 120 bushels. The corn with gravel subsoil was chopped for silage. Between the silage, the chopped succotash and enough hay on hand, they will be able to feed their cows and calves.

They bought a vertical grinder/mixer with scales to offer more flexibility and precision in feeding cows. Sows went out on pasture May 1, and the alfalfa provided all their protein needs. The sows grazed corn stalks and soybean stubble following harvest.

Rosmann's farm received seven inches of rain in June following a normal to dry spring. He and his family planted oats and succotash March 16 to 17, corn May 1 to 12 and beans May 16 to 23.

Rosmann said his family built a farm store in the past year and getting that running has taken away from other duties. A ridge tiller, he got behind on weed control in April when the weeds were really growing.

"By the time we got out there, we decided we had to pre-cultivate the centers where the ridge was because we couldn't see the ridges," Rosmann said. "The giant rag weed was that bad."

The other problem was the little gap on either side the shoulder of the ridge where the cultivator and planter don't get the weeds.

"After this year I'm determined to work with my local welder to come up with something better to get that gap," he said. "It hurt us the rest of the season with the giant ragweed."

The Rosmanns grow corn, soybeans, hay, pasture and popcorn and have 90 cows and 50 sows, all certified organic.

Their corn averaged 145 bushels per acre including the good and not quite so good ground. Beans averaged 40 to 45 bushels per acre. They frost-seeded chicory into their pastures in the spring and it didn't come up until they received a three-inches of rain in August. They had the best hay crop ever due to the longer growing season.

Rosmann lost three spring calves to bloat this fall when they crawled under an electric fence and got into an alfalfa field. It was the first time in 15 years he lost anything to bloat.

Specht received three inches of rain Memorial Day weekend, barely any rain in June and five inches in 10 days in mid-July.

"This year there was a fine line between either just enough, just in time or too little, too late, and it was all about the soils," Specht said. "If you had deeper soils, it was just enough. If you had poor soils, it was too late."