A rich mix of the new ... and old
In scenic northeast Iowa, organic farmer Dan Specht combines conservation, grass-based livestock production and open-pollinated corn breeding. It's a unique--yet in many ways traditional--farming strategy that honors the diversity of this region's natural and agricultural heritage.

By Laura Sayre
Posted February 22, 2005

Organics in Iowa:
Clayton County

Clayton County, Iowa, lies along the Mississippi River in the northeast corner of the state. It's a rural county, with fewer than 20,000 people, and it's not a rich county in terms of being home to people with a lot of disposable income.

But it is rich in natural beauty, with dramatic limestone bluffs, diverse woodlands of oak and hickory, and remnants of native prairie sheltering turkeys, hawks, and other wildlife. Iowa's only federally-owned preserved land, Effigy Mounds National Monument, lies just north of here, a 2500-acre swath of ridge and valley where the Eastern Woodland Indians constructed burial mounds in the shapes of bears and falcons to honor their dead.

It also forms part of one of the nation's epicenters of organic agriculture, where the concentration of organic farms is approaching a critical mass--a point at which farms of different types, processors and other members of the ag community can support and complement one another.

Why here? As the two longtime organic farmers profiled in this 2-part story argue, because the area's rolling terrain encouraged more farmers to keep raising livestock, maintain their pastures and keep growing small grains. "Most of the early adopters [of organic] were livestock farmers," observes Dan Specht. "If you've gone to straight commodity crops, it's a big risk to shift to organic; it's pretty scary. If you're still growing small grains you have a lot more confidence in your ability to make a system like this work."

Part 2: Jeff Klinge is a 5th-generation farmer who's been certified organic since 1997. "I liked the idea of being able to raise crops without being dependent on the chemical companies," he says. "It just kind of makes you feel good." MORE>>

"Pigs do really well on grass," says Dan Specht, stepping over a single strand of electrified wire and moving toward a group of sows, grunting and squealing among themselves on this misty late October day. "You can't get the combination of minerals and nutrients out of a bag that you can get out of a good quality pasture."

The field we walk out into is divided into three large rectangular blocks, one at right angles to the other two. On our right hand the sows and their boar--a mingling of Berkshire, Duroc and Chester White, breeds that Specht says offers a good balance of meat quality, maternal aptitude, and affinity for the outdoors--are being worked across a vigorous green pasture of mixed legumes and cool-season grasses, currently about 10 inches high. The pitch of the squealing rises as we enter the field.

"It's good to keep them a little hungry," Specht comments. "You can tell how hungry they are by the noise they make when they see you coming." We listen to the chorus for a few moments, and he smiles and nods. "They're right in tune."

"It's good to keep them a little hungry," Specht comments. "You can tell how hungry they are by the noise they make when they see you coming." We listen to the chorus for a few moments, and he smiles and nods. "They're right in tune."

We're here to supplement their pasture diet with ear corn, drying down in the adjacent block to our left, and the sows of course know it. As we move through the stalks, breaking off ears, we get glimpses of young pigs, half wild, running through the corn and scavenging what has fallen to the ground. They're small enough to pass under the electric wire keeping their father and mothers on the pasture, and not big enough to knock down the stalks and help themselves to the rest of the harvest. When we throw the ears to the big pigs it sets off an orderly riot of feeding, the sows chomping away with robust intelligence.

Conservation and community

Clearly, this is not your typical Iowa pig operation, although it's not all that different from what you might have found here 50 or 75 years ago. In fact it's difficult to say whether Specht, who is in his early 50s and grew up on a farm two counties south of here, represents a new or an old kind of Midwestern farmer.

He owns 500 acres spread across two farms, including about 160 acres of native woods. In 2004 he grew 15 acres of open-pollinated corn, 30 acres of soybeans, and 80 acres of barley. He pastures 60 sows, farrowing about 1000 pigs a year (45 litters in the winter, 60 in the summer), and grass-finishes 80-90 cattle annually. He's farmed organically since 1983 and has been a certified organic grower since 1995. He was among the first farmers to sell organic pork through Organic Valley/CROPP, based just across the river in Wisconsin.

He's also a farmer-naturalist in the tradition of Aldo Leopold. He can identify just about every native species in the prairies and woods of Northeast Iowa. If he's out moving cattle or making hay or planting corn, he'll also be bird-watching. When he describes his seasonal farming schedule he interweaves items like "wean summer pigs" with "start of hawk-watching season" (both in September). In his spare time, he gets together with other members of what he calls "the eco-ag activist community around here" and collects and disperses prairie seed.

With a degree in biology, Specht has worked with researchers at the University of Northern Iowa (including Laura Jackson and Daryl Smith, director of UNI's Native Roadside Vegetation Center) on questions like how to use grazing livestock to encourage native species on intact prairie. "People are thinking grass-based agriculture can be a bridge between prairie ecology and prairie restoration," he says, with soft-spoken enthusiasm.

"People are thinking grass-based agriculture can be a bridge between prairie ecology and prairie restoration."

"Prairie soils and timber soils mix on this farm," Specht observes when we arrive at another property, one which he rents from a woodworker and former farmer whose commitment to natural resource conservation is every bit as strong as Specht's own. His landlord, says Specht, "works harder at taking care of his woods than anyone I know. The farm has been in his family since the 1940s, and it's never received agricultural chemicals—and you can tell by the diversity of plant species here." The landowner specifically sought Specht out as a tenant because he wanted an organic farmer managing his land.

Of his own decision to start farming organically, Specht says, "I just felt it was the right thing to do." His eyes were first opened to the environmental effects of ag chemicals by reading Rachel Carson's Silent Spring as an undergraduate; but he also had personal experience, as a conventional farmer, with acute pesticide toxicity. "After I sprayed I would experience flu-like symptoms for a few days--diarrhea, headaches. I've seen pets poisoned from drinking water out of the upturned lid of a chemical container, cattle killed from licking the seed boxes on a planter," he recalls.

He regularly goes fishing and eagle-watching along the Mississippi, just minutes away from his farm, and it visibly pains him to think about the persistent agricultural chemicals--some of them banned 20 years ago--lying in the sediment beneath that noble river.

At the same time, Specht recognized that the rolling land he farms was better suited for forage production than for row crop production. "I could see going 100 percent grass except for my corn-breeding," he says, although at the same time admitting that even dedicated graziers—including the New Zealanders—believe it's good to keep some arable in the rotation. "It invigorates a pasture to break it into grain occasionally. The really productive clovers need rotating every four to five years."

Breeding open-pollinated corn--and feeding pigs

On the pig farm, Specht has developed a rotation that goes breeding corn / sow pasture / small grain (generally barley). Unlike ruminants, pigs do need some grain: About 12 bushels per pig to a finishing weight of around 250 lbs., he says. The high price of organic grain has forced organic livestock farmers like Specht to get creative in their feeding strategies. He likes barley, for instance, as a feed for larger hogs, because it has a higher and better-quality protein content than corn, including more lysine (a limiting factor in many livestock feeds).

Small pigs can't digest barley, but hull-less or naked oats are "almost a perfect pig starter," he points out, and wheat, too, makes a good hog feed. Specht also makes use of organic processing by-products--waste butter, cheese, half and half, and powdered sour cream from Organic Valley's Chaseburg Creamery across the river, waste organic corn meals from Integrity Mills in Cresco, Iowa. "There are good deals to be had on organic by-products," he says, and it's nice to close the other side of the loop between organic farmers and processors.

And then there's his corn. Specht's goal is to develop a food-grade, milling-quality open-pollinated corn for a premium market.

And then there's his corn. Each year, Specht grows 10 acres of production corn and 5 acres of breeding corn, all of it open pollinated. In the fall, he makes a daily chore out of selecting the best ears to plant the following season and feeding the culled ears to his gestating sows on pasture. "It takes just a third of a bushel—about 24,000 kernels, or about 40 ears—to plant an acre of corn," Specht points out, so there's plenty of opportunity to exert selection pressure.

Specht's goal is to develop a food-grade, milling-quality open-pollinated corn for a premium market. He's been collaborating with Walter Goldstein of the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute in East Troy, Wis., who has been breeding OP corn for organic farmers for a dozen years or more. "Walter's germplasm is really broad-based, so there's lots to work with," Specht explains. "He started with 30 different Native American varieties, plus an old open-pollinated strain from an old guy out in Nebraska. I got in after Walter did most of the hard work."

In company with other OP corn enthusiasts, Specht believes that non-hybrid corn offers real promise for small-scale, independent and organic farmers. In the first place, of course, it saves farmers the expense of buying seed corn every year. But it also means that farmers can develop their own lines, locally adapted to their own growing conditions. It offers added protection against the possibility of GM contamination of seed sources, and it gives organic farmers, in particular, access to desirable crop characteristics no longer present in most hybrid varieties. Trials conducted at Michael Fields since 1989 have shown that OP corn yields are just 15 to 20 percent lower on average than hybrid yields, but that OP corns typically have higher protein content and utilize soil nutrients more efficiently.

Because the horny endosperm is much denser than the inner starch layer, Specht's corn is heavier than average. He laughs: "[one guy] told me I'm growing bullets out here."

When making his selections in the field, Specht considers stalk, ear and kernel characteristics: Is the stalk firm, straight, not too tall? Does the ear turn down as it ripens, with the husk loosening? Are the kernels more orange than yellow, indicating a high horny endosperm and low starch content?

At the end of the season, he goes back through all his saved ears, reselecting for seed quality, using a dog toenail clipper to slice open the hard kernels and examine the starch-to-endosperm ratio. Because the horny endosperm is much denser than the inner starch layer, Specht's corn is heavier than average—in fact, it's shown the highest test weight of any corn analyzed by his local elevator or by Integrity Mills. Specht laughs: "[one guy] told me I'm growing bullets out here."

Specht thinks he could be just a year or two away from a marketable, food-quality OP corn. "I've got what they want but I don't have enough consistency yet,"
he says.

When he has his final ear selection, he shells them out with a hand cornsheller, keeping the top cut for his breeding field and using the rest to plant his 10-acre production field. He also gets it tested for density and for milling characteristics, working with Integrity Mills to analyze the latter. Specht thinks he could be just a year or two away from a marketable, food-quality OP corn. "I've got what they want but I don't have enough consistency yet," he says.

Grass-fed (organic) beef

Specht's primary cattle grazing farm is a narrow strip of land stretching for more than mile along one of Clayton County's characteristic oak-fringed ridges. The 320 acres are divided into 8 paddocks of varying size, the largest being about 70 acres. Specht moves his herd of 135 head from paddock to paddock every few days, down one side of the ridge and back the other. With 8 paddocks, that gives him a return interval of around 30 days, which gives the grass plenty of time to recover in the lush Iowa growing season.

Specht favors rapid rotations in part for management of internal parasites. "The organic graziers in New Zealand have a theory that it takes five days for the worm eggs to hatch and become strongly infective, so if you keep your cattle moving every five days or less, you can reduce the impact of parasites," he explains. For external parasites like lice, which can be a problem in the winter, Specht puts out a pile of diatomaceous earth mixed with salt. The cattle lick the mixture and spread it around with their tongues, eliminating the lice within a few days.

The grazing farm has dense, south-facing shelterbelts that enable the cattle to seek protection in cold weather without barns or sheds, Specht says. He tries to make as little hay as possible, preferring to stockpile grass and make haylage. He also occasionally uses the cattle to freshen his pig pastures, since pigs require lusher pastures than cattle and don’t eat forage down to the ground the way well-managed cows can.

Specht's cattle are managed organically and are entirely grass-fed. He buys his feeder cows from an organic farmer with a cow-calf operation in the next county to the north, and markets the finished animals through Thousand Hills Cattle Company, a grass-fed beef operation founded by a man named Todd Churchill and based in Cannon Falls, Minn. Thousand Hills participates in the Midwest Food Alliance's third-party certification system, and guarantees that the cattle it handles are 100 percent pasture-fed, are humanely treated, and receive no antibiotics or hormones.

"We have doctors in Minneapolis-Saint Paul who are prescribing our grass-fed meat for their patients with high cholesterol," he says with some pride.

The arrangement suits Specht because he knows that his beef is being sold fresh, not frozen, to customers who value its quality. "We have doctors in Minneapolis-Saint Paul who are prescribing our grass-fed meat for their patients with high cholesterol," he says with some pride. He's also getting a better price for grass-fed, non-certified organic beef than he was previously getting for non-grass-fed, certified organic beef. (A key factor in the grass-fed beef market is that USDA meat-quality standards are biased toward grain feeding. The highest grades, prime and choice, are based on fat marbling that is difficult to achieve without feeding some grain, so if buyers are grading and pricing according to those standards, graziers will get lower prices for their meat.)

Ideally, of course, Specht and his fellow Northeast Iowa organic farmers could develop additional local markets for their products, and not have to sell beef as far away as Minneapolis. Specht says he does sense increasing support for organic and grass-based agriculture from non-farming members of the local community. Many of the farm veterinarians he knows, for instance, though they may have been initially skeptical, have grown increasingly receptive to organic methods. "They have to deal with the consequences of confinement on a daily basis," observes Specht. "They know what's wrong with the dominant system. I don't see my vet much."

Other people in the community might have less direct contact with animal confinement systems, but they still perceive consequences. Awhile back, Specht says, he had a guy out to give a quote on putting up a grain bin, and when he saw Specht's pigs on pasture he said, "'now that's good to see. Most pork doesn't taste like anything anymore.'"