September 5, 2017 at 3:32 p.m.
On, May 24, at about 4:45 p.m., the construction crew wrapped up their day after putting the last few rafters up for the new 114-by-283-foot freestall barn at the Knutson Brothers Dairy south of Ossian, Iowa.
Brothers, Chuck, Mark and Ron, and other family members had helped out during the day on the construction project. Their mom, Elaine, was in the house. Most of the 13 grandchildren, had spent at least part of the day at her house like they do on a typical summer day. The kids had just cleared out shortly before it started to storm.
About 5 p.m., the brothers were in the milkhouse along with neighbor, Jason Winkler; their concrete guy, Mark Bohr; employee Lee Kleppe; and Mark's son, Christopher, watching the frame of their new barn while it rained. Pea-sized hail started to fall, and soon it increased to about an inch and a half. The guys retreated farther into the barn. The wind picked up and suddenly became very strong. The wind, rain and hail made it impossible to see much of anything so they decided to take cover. Two of the guys went under the bulk tank and held onto the legs while the rest ran for the pit parlor.
They saw the roof of the holding pen blow off. Then, like dominoes, the rafters of the new freestall barn started to go down, collapsing the entire structure. In mere seconds, the barn came down, half of their 2-year-old calf barn came down, and three cattle sheds were destroyed.
As Elaine headed for the basement, she heard something strike the house. It turned out to be part of one of the sheds. After less than a minute, she opened the door to the outside. It was silent.
"That was the worst part for me," Elaine said. "I knew the guys were out there but I didn't hear a thing."
Then one of her sons came around the house expressing worry about the cows, so she knew everyone was okay.
"It was amazing how fast it came and went," she said.
They started making phone calls to get help. Help came within minutes, and then came in droves.
They estimate more than 250 people were at their farm that night. The brothers, who are used to running a 210-cow operation, 1,300 acres and operating custom chopping and combining business, suddenly found themselves organizing a massive cleanup effort. Neighbors brought skidloaders and showed up with 20 pounds of sloppy joes to feed the volunteers. Larger equipment was found to move larger pieces of buildings.
The roof of the holding pen took down a power pole, which meant the farm was without electricity. They used their generator along with a neighbors to give them power.
Chuck's daughter, Karissa, and Ron's daughter, Carlee, had been at the farm before the storm hit and had headed home a mile away to change clothes before milking. They knew it was storming, but had no idea how violent the storm had become. Karissa said they thought it was a joke when they got the phone call telling them the barn blew down.
On their way back to the farm, they came across calves running around about a quarter-mile from the farm. The calf huts had blown that far, but the calves were fine.
"I can't image how those calves lived," Karissa said.
The Knutsons' freestall barn was originally built in 1998 and needed updating. They wanted to switch to sand to increase cow comfort and also increase their herd size to about 300 cows. In March they started to tear down their old freestall, and construction started on the new barn the end of April. The milking herd was housed in some outbuildings and the pasture. The roof of the building where most of the cows went when it started to storm was torn off, but incredibly, they only had one cow killed by the storm. Three beef steers were also injured.
Fortunately, the cows were comfortable in their new temporary home, and once the rubble was cleared enough for them to be brought up to the parlor, they did so without incident.
"Thank God the parlor was left standing," Elaine said.
Mark said he believes if the wind had kept up much longer it would have taken the parlor, too. The storm only slightly delayed the evening milking shift, which usually starts at 5:50. Lexi, Karissa and Carlee Knutson, and family friends started milking by about 6:10 p.m.
All their buildings need repairs because of the storm. Damage such as a 2-by-4 speared through the garage wall could be found all over the farm. To add to the woes of the storm, the hail sheared off the six-inch high corn on about 55 acres, and damaged about 50 acres of alfalfa.
The family tried to save what they could from the frame and rafters of the barn, but not much was salvageable. Although their contractor, said it should have taken a week or two to clean up something of that magnitude, the majority of clean up was done in five hours.
The support beams, which were embedded in the concrete, bent under the force of the structure collapsing, cracking the concrete. On Tuesday, they started air-hamming out the concrete that had been so recently poured. By the next Saturday, a majority of the concrete had been replaced.
The Knutsons had planned to be in their new barn by June 20, but now their goal is July 20.
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