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Kidneys & Cows: Mark and Bob Dombeck find kidney beans and milk cows are a profitable mix
June 01, 2001


Mark (above, right) and his son Bob team up to grow kidney beans, corn and alfalfa and milk 350 cows. "There's always something going on," Bob says.  Spring is a busy time for the Dombecks. Often, they must plant dry beans and cut alfalfa at the same time.

Youll be hard pressed to find a farmer more upbeat about agriculture than Mark Dombeck, of Perham, Minn.

Or one who works harder  or smarter.

The world belongs to people who want to get up in the morning and go out and find opportunities, says the 56-year-old farmer, who still rises at 4:30 a.m. And I have found the harder I work, the luckier I get.

Mark milks 350 cows and raises corn, alfalfa and kidney beans near Perham, Minn. His oldest son, Bob, 25, has joined him in the farm, called Sandhill Dairy.

Mark, currently a member of the Minnesota Dry Bean Research and Promotion Council, started farming in 1975 after a career in the construction business in the Twin Cities. He returned to his familys farm when his father, now 90 and living nearby, retired.

Mark milked 35 cows the first year and raised corn and alfalfa for feed.

In 1986, he began raising kidney beans rather than corn for a cash crop because dry beans generated more profit. He has stuck with the crop through market ups and downs ever since.

Usually dry beans are more profitable than corn, plus they help in the rotation, he says.

Expansion mode
Over the years, Mark gradually increased cow numbers to 90. In 1996, he expanded to 350 cows and built a new four-row drive-through freestall barn and a double 10 parallel milking parlor.

We increased the size of the dairy to maintain a multi-family business, Mark says

The site is permitted for 600 cows, so there is room for more of their children to farm. Steven, 19, is currently a student at North Dakota School of Science, Wahpeton. Two daughters, Sarah, 24, and Cheryl, 22, are pursuing careers off the farm.

 I have told them all that they can come back to farm. There is no end to the opportunities here.

But Mark has a rule: You have to be away from the farm for five years.

Going to college or tech school, or working off the farm is important, he says.  It broadens a persons view of the world, shows him or her what it is like to work for non-family members, teaches responsibility and sharpens appreciation of what a modern farm offers.

 I am keeping the door open for the kids, Mark says.

Ideal land for kidneys
In addition to milking 350 cows and raising young stock, the Dombecks farm about 1,200 acres. They grow corn and alfalfa for feed for the dairy cows. They dont produce 100% of the feed the cows need, but enough to give them a hedge against price swings in the corn and alfalfa markets.

They have grown several classes of dry beans since the mid-1980s, including cranberry, pinks and dark and light red kidneys. The mix depends on the market. This year, the Dombecks have planted all dark red kidneys.

Our land is ideal for kidney beans, Mark explains.

The soils are light and sandy and warm up quickly, which favors row crops such as beans and corn. The sand, of course, doesnt hold water well. Like most farmers in the Perham areas, the Dombecks irrigate all of their cropland. Marks father obtained the first irrigation permit in the county in 1956.

Managing irrigation is intense work. The Dombecks aim to provide kidneys with 1/2 inch of water three times a week during the growing season. Corn gets an average of 3/4 inch twice a week.

With all the regular fieldwork  spraying, haying and cultivating  and 14 pivots to keep running, its crazy around here in the summer, Mark says.

Kidneys and cows
Dairy and dry beans is a good fit for the Dombecks. They fertilize fields to be planted to dry beans with cow manure. The manure compensates for the lack of residue generated by dry beans and increases soil organic matter.

Bob Dombeck adjusts trash wheels on the planter. The Dombecks switched from a finger-type to a vacuum-type planter to improve stand.

Along with starter fertilizer that the Dombecks apply at planting, the manure helps the bean plants avoid root rot  a problem that has gotten serious since the mid-1990s. Wet, cool June weather creates an environment for the disease. The Dombecks are also using a seed treatment in an attempt to help protect the young plants.

If we can get kidney beans off to a fast start and keep them growing, then root rot isnt much of a problem, Mark says.

The Dombecks sidedress dry beans with urea when they cultivate. They mounted planter fertilizer boxes and a metering system on a cultivator toolbar.

They cannot apply all the nitrogen dry beans need for the year at one time because it would leach out of the root zone.

We have to spoon feed them, Dombeck says. It gives us a bigger bang for the buck.

Controlling ragweed has been another major production challenge for the Dombecks. They apply Prowl before planting and then follow up with post emergence herbicides as needed. Reflex is now their best herbicide for ragweed control. It has a broader window of application and provides more consistent control than other products, Mark says.

The Dombecks cut and windrow kidneys in two separate field operations in the fall. Then they thresh the windrows with two Lilliston dry bean combines. Because their soil is sandy they dont have big problems keeping kidneys clean and free of dirt balls. They also can get back onto fields sooner after a rain than farmers who have heavier clay soils.

The Dombecks like to contract kidneys when it is profitable. They also contract milk production.

If you know what your costs are, contracting can be a good deal, Mark says. It removes fear of the unknown of what the markets are going to do. It makes farming whole lot easier. n


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