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Hundreds of farms in western Wisconsin already struggling from the ongoing farm crisis were ravaged by a late February storm that caused barn roofs to collapse, killing thousands of animals.

The damage stunned Wisconsin’s new agriculture secretary during a recent visit to farms in Buffalo and Trempealeau counties where he witnessed barns with roofs caved in by heavy snow that fell on Feb. 23 and barns missing roofs that were ripped off by high winds that followed on Feb. 24.

He saw cattle killed by the collapsed roofs and heard stories about all the injured cattle that were rescued but euthanized later.

“What I saw absolutely made my heart sink,” said Brad Pfaff, the incoming secretary of the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

At least 1,000 dairy and beef cattle were lost, according to Sandy Chalmers, the state executive director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency in Wisconsin. Most of the losses occurred in Buffalo and Trempealeau counties, which border the Mississippi River just north of La Crosse, UW-Extension officials said.

Buffalo County officials are estimating that 235 cattle, 4,800 hogs and 2,000 turkeys have been killed there by collapsed roofs since the winter storm, according to Carl Duley, the ag agent for UW-Extension’s Buffalo County office.

An estimated 65 farms had buildings that were destroyed by the storm, Duley said. The types of buildings ranged from barns and machine sheds to much smaller buildings. He also said 150 farms had buildings that sustained major damage.

In Trempealeau County, just about every farm sustained some sort of building damage, said Steve Okonek, the ag agent for that county’s UW-Extension office. Farms ranging from CAFOs with more than 1,000 cows to the smallest dairy farms had serious damage and animals killed, he said.

There were also reports of collapsed roofs in Minnesota and neighboring counties in Wisconsin as far north as Clark County from the storm that dumped as much as 16 inches of wet snow followed by wind gusts of over 50 miles per hour.

The storm was blamed for one human death — a farmer in Eau Claire County who fell through a skylight while snowblowing the roof of his barn.

Many of the roofs that collapsed were part of newer freestall barns that are less than 10 to 15 years old, Okonek said. There are no code requirements for farm buildings in Wisconsin, according to multiple sources.

The last straw

The storm was the tipping point for a few farmers, who have struggled with multiple years of little or no income from continued low commodity prices. At least one farmer quit on the spot, according to Okonek.

“They decided that was it, they weren’t going to fight this anymore,” he said. “This couldn’t have happened at a worse time.”

Pfaff, whose parents own a farm in La Crosse County just south of the devastated area, heard similar sentiments. He said they left a lasting impression on him.

“I heard stories from individuals who shared with me that their farm had been in their family for multiple generations and that their ancestors had made it through the Great Depression,” he said. “Now all of a sudden, between the low milk prices and Mother Nature, they didn’t know what to do.”

Pfaff recalled hearing stories about Herculean efforts by neighboring farmers, firefighters and others to find shelter for and milk thousands of displaced cows. But the trucks couldn’t get to all the farms to pick up the milk because the snow made travel impossible.

Okonek said some milk went to waste.

“I do know anecdotally that there were several bulk tanks that either overflowed (with milk) or had to be dumped because the milk trucks just physically couldn’t get to certain farms because of the drifting and blowing snow,” he said.

Lost production

The building damage and animal deaths don’t come close to covering the farmers’ total losses in production, according to Duley. For instance, Duley believes many more cows will be slaughtered because their production level dipped significantly after they were uprooted from their homes.

“The number of involuntary culls (of dairy cattle) because of injury or stress will far outnumber the number that were killed (by the collapsing roofs),” he said. “The other big loss is machinery that was damaged. Most people haven’t looked at that yet so we have no idea what that cost is going to be.”

Some farmers have what is called snow-load insurance but farmers are finding out that not all insurers cover the machinery affected when the roofs collapse, Duley said. “Some (insurers) are saying the equipment isn’t covered because they were damaged by a falling object and you’ve got to have a separate rider on your insurance for that,” he said.

The Farm Service Agency is still gathering information to determine whether to request a disaster designation for the area, Chalmers said. Even if a disaster designation isn’t made, low-interest loans are available to eligible producers, she said.

But another loan is not something most farmers can deal with as the farm crisis continues unabated. “Even if it’s zero interest it has to be paid back and they’ve already been borrowing for survival,” Okonek said.

The latest setback for the farmers has all but doused their usual optimism, according to Okonek. “Their mood is pretty somber, with like gallows humor,” he said.

What’s next?

For those who rebuild, a big issue is making sure the roofs on their new buildings don’t collapse. The area also had several barns collapse in 2010.

Duley and Okonek believe the standard of building roofs to withstand 30 to 32 pounds per square foot is too low, especially since snow depths on some barn roofs reached 4 or 5 feet. “That’s about 160 pounds per square foot,” Okonek said.

The Eau Claire farmer who died while snowblowing his barn roof exemplified the huge risks farmers were taking to save their roofs from collapsing after the heavy winds stressed the roofs by pushing much of the snow to one side. Okonek said several farmers hoisted snowblowers up on their barn roofs, while others shoveled it off. He said he heard that at least one fell off the roof but wasn’t seriously injured.

Duley said nobody is to blame for the collapsing roofs, especially the builders.

“It’s just we need to figure out how to bring (new and) existing buildings up to where our current weather patterns are,” he said.

[Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect a correction. Braf Pfaff owns land in La Crosse County, but his parents own a farm there.]

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Rob Schultz has won multiple writing awards at the state and national levels and covers an array of topics for the Wisconsin State Journal in south-central and southwestern Wisconsin.