September 5, 2017 at 3:32 p.m.

Committed to dairying

McComish family rebuilds after fire destroys parlor
Work is progressing on a new barn and milking parlor at McComish Farms, Shullsburg, Wis. The Lafayette County operation milks 200 Holsteins that are temporarily being housed at three other farms, one of them 50 miles away. The new barn will be more than twice the size of the previous one.<br /><!-- 1upcrlf -->PHOTO BY RON JOHNON
Work is progressing on a new barn and milking parlor at McComish Farms, Shullsburg, Wis. The Lafayette County operation milks 200 Holsteins that are temporarily being housed at three other farms, one of them 50 miles away. The new barn will be more than twice the size of the previous one.<br /><!-- 1upcrlf -->PHOTO BY RON JOHNON

By By Ron Johnson- | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

SHULLSBURG, Wis. - Some things you just don't want to remember. So it is for Tim McComish, of Shullsburg, Wis., and the fire that destroyed the barn that housed his milking parlor.
"I kind of erased that date from my mind," said the Lafayette County farmer. "I think it was Sept. 15 or so. I know it was a Friday or a Saturday."
No matter the exact date, the blaze annihilated the 60-year-old, gambrel-roofed barn, along with the swing-12 parlor that was retrofitted inside it eight years ago. The fire left the McComish family's 200 Holstein cows scattered at three farms, where they are being tended and milked while a new building goes up.
The afternoon milking was underway when Tim helped an employee move the last group of cows into the parlor. The dairyman then walked to where corn silage was being bagged. When he got there, he looked back and noticed smoke billowing out of the barn.
Tim ran back, looking for the employee.
"I was frantic, thinking the hired hand was in there, stuck somewhere," McComish said.
Soon, though, the employee came running down from the house, where he'd been looking for someone to telephone the fire department. Firefighters arrived around 4 p.m., but by then the barn was totally engulfed in flames, Tim said.
Meanwhile, Tim managed to chase the last 12 cows out of the burning building. Then he made his way to the office, at the other end of the barn.
"The neighbors came running in and asked if they could help," Tim said. "I picked up a bunch of farm records, and there were two kittens on the floor, so we grabbed them. We got out just as the barn roof collapsed."
Word of the fire spread rapidly throughout the neighborhood.
"The firefighters hardly even got here and we had people here, wanting to help. We had more cattle trailer capacity here than we had cattle on the farm. Everybody knew they had to get somewhere to be milked," Tim said.
By midnight, three groups of cows were settled in at three farms and were being milked. The 110-cow, high-producing group ended up 50 miles north in Fennimore, Wis., on the farm of Lonnie Holthaus. Holthaus had just completed a 120-stall addition to his barn but had yet to stock it.
Fifty lower-producing cows are intermingled with the herd of Dean Paulson in Belmont, Wis. Some 15 other cows are being milked with those of Clark Scott, a mile from the McComish place.
Tim and his son, Joe, and Joe's wife, Amber, plus an employee, have been hauling a semi load of the farm's total mixed ration (TMR) to the cows near Fennimore every other day. A McComish employee is there six days a week, milking the resettled Holsteins and helping the Holthaus family milk their cows.
Despite having to become acclimated to new surroundings, the cows are doing well. Tim said cows in the top group were averaging a tad over 90 pounds of milk a day at the time of the fire. Now they've slipped closer to 80 pounds. Overall, when the fire started, the McComish cows were averaging between 28,000 and 29,000 pounds, on three-times-a-day milking.
"Having the cows in three groups at a trio of farms is working out good for us," Tim said. "It's going a lot better than I thought it would."
McComish Farms did not lose any valuable information, for the laptop computer was not in that barn at the time of the fire. No cows were lost, either, because it was a calm day, so the smoke floated straight up and over two nearby freestall barns and other buildings.
The blaze did claim a silo and some corn, a roller mill, the milk pasteurizer, a water heater and associated milkhouse equipment. For now, the McComishes have a makeshift milkhouse set up in a corner of a machine shed.
Every once in a while, Tim and his wife, Kim, are reminded of things the fire took away. "Two or three days after the fire, we were out here, feeding calves, and Kim asked where the raincoats were. I said, 'They're in the barn,'" Tim said with a chuckle.
The McComishes hope to be in their new barn by Christmas or Jan. 1. Excavation for the 68-by-114-foot structure began Oct. 22, and the footings were being poured the next day.
At more than twice the size of the old barn, the new one will contain more office and utility room space. It will also have a restroom, and a lounge area that Tim intends to also use as a place for employees to spend the night during bad winter weather. Another area will house a cow float tank and will see use for hoof trimming.
Of course, the heart of the new barn will be the milking parlor. Tim and his family opted for a double-10 as an improvement from the old swing-12. The new facility will have automatic takeoffs and equipment that is cleaned in place.
It will also be a low-line parlor, needing less vacuum and making it easier on the cows. "We should be able to get more milk, and if we do, we should have the capacity to get it away," Tim said.
Robotic milkers were considered, said Tim. But he isn't sold on their reliability.
"Besides," Tim added, "I've got good employees and I didn't want to take away their jobs. That was one of my big concerns, as crazy as it sounds. I hated to take work away from those guys."
The decision to rebuild the milking parlor was not automatic.
"We had choices to make when this happened. I was ready to get out of milking 10 years ago," Tim said.
But a decade ago, Joe wanted to keep the cows and now owns half the herd. This time around, the McComish family had options again. Tim said they could have sold the cows and raised heifers. Another possibility was selling the cows and postponing rebuilding until next summer.
"Or," said Tim, "we could just get at it right now and get things back on the farm as soon as we can. Hopefully, we'll have the cows back in a couple of months and we'll continue the legacy we've had the last 30 years."
The old barn was insured, but only for what it was worth. Tim figured the new barn will cost about three times the value of the previous one.
Money can rebuild a barn. But the new one won't have three decades of memories associated with it.
"My wife was very emotional after the fire," said Tim. "Our children were pretty much raised in that barn. When we were milking 50 cows, in that barn by ourselves, Joe and Erica were just little kids. We'd have a little airplane swing hanging from the pipeline, and they'd be in there safe and sound while we did chores."
To thank all the neighbors and other folks who pitched in to help after the fire, the McComishes hosted an appreciation dinner on Oct. 27 in the machine shed. A neighbor, Mark Rielly of Darlington, Wis., who lost a hand in a corn chopping mishap and received help and support from people in the community, co-hosted the dinner.
"The support we got during and after the fire was unbelievable," said Tim. "I had no idea how many people would come to help after a tragedy like a fire. I knew we had friends around here, but I had no idea how good the people are in this area."
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