September 5, 2017 at 3:32 p.m.
Thankful for good friends, neighbors
"It's the first time we (my wife and I) had been off the farm in awhile that wasn't a dairy show," Coons said.
However, a phone call he received shortly after cancelled their vacation plans. A fire had started on his 130-cow dairy farm that day, destroying their 32-year-old trigon parlor, an old barn and the milkhouse. Coons farms together with his wife, Judy, and his parents, Larry and Shirley, near Anamosa, Iowa.
"It was an 18-hour drive back home. We felt helpless because we were just driving," said Coons, who returned home at noon the next day.
The fire appeared to have started in the milk house of the old barn that was no longer used, Coons said.
"That's where the smoke came from," he said. "I didn't realize anything was on in there. I didn't think there was live current going through there."
A neighbor and the Coonses' full-time employee found the fire a little before noon on March 24 and then called 911.
"They climbed into the hay mow to see how bad it was," Coons said. "The flames were coming up through the walls so they made the choice to get out."
The hay mow stored 6,000 bales of hay, which fueled the fire along with winds out of the southeast gusting up to 25 miles per hour, Coons said.
Thankfully, a 2-year-old robotic calf feeder in a 50- by 72-foot building housing calves right next to the fire remained unharmed.
"We thought that building was going to go, too, just from the heat, but it stayed standing," Coons said.
The neighbor, along with two part-time employees, were able to successfully chase the cows far enough away from the fire to escape any casualties. Although no animals were directly killed from the blaze, a few calves were lost later from smoke inhalation.
"It's not good, but it's minor compared to what it could have been," Coons said.
The silver lining of the day was the help from all the friends, neighbors and strangers. When Coons first found out about the fire, he made two calls to two dairy farming friends to see if they could help.
"Between those two guys and the people at the farm, they had a dozen to 15 trailers there within a few hours," Coons said.
Coons estimates about 40 people helped the day of the fire.
"There were guys that were up pretty late that night trying to shove herringbone cows through a parallel (parlor)," Coons said.
About 80 cows were taken to the Telleen family's dairy, Fanfare Farms, about 12 miles away while the other cows were transported to Sco-Lo Holsteins, which is run by the Cannon family, about 75 miles away.
The farm close by was planning to downsize and had just taken freestalls out of a barn to convert to housing for feeder cattle.
"The next day I called Bruce to see if we could put freestalls back in. Within two hours, 18 guys were there and had the freestalls put back in within 1.5 hours," Coons said.
This has allowed the Coons to keep their herd separate and do the chores for their cows. The Telleens changed their three-times-a-day milking schedule so the Coons family could fit in milking their herd twice a day.
"They've been phenomenal to work with and as accommodating as they possibly could for the situation," Coons said.
In addition to doing the milking for their herd, the Coonses also truck feed 12 miles to the farm everyday. Coons said the cows at the other farm are also receiving good treatment, being taken in as if they were the farmer's own cows.
For the four days following the fire, about six people showed up each day to help clear wreckage, and a nearby neighbor brought over his track hoe to move large debris.
Now the Coonses are looking at rebuilding for the future.
"It's not the best time of the year to start gearing up for (building) plans because it's so busy," Coons said.
However, the family has had contractors and local equipment dealers out to help them devise their next steps. Coons said they are going to try to use the old parlor's existing foundation to create their new facility.
"With the way the freestall barn is with the holding pen we wouldn't be able to build anywhere else," Coons said.
They don't want a trigon parlor like their old one, but are looking into used herringbone parlors.
"But they're so hard to find that we'll probably put in a parallel," Coons said.
In place of the old barn, the Coonses will add a pre-fresh pen, a calving pen, a special needs pen and a show-cow pen.
"The plus side is that I see a lot of things at other farms that we want to incorporate - like a break room," Coons said.
Although Coons would like to be finished with all the building by mid July, a more realistic date is the end of October.
A fire is not an event they would have wished on anyone, but the Coons family is moving forward and looking at the good that came out of the situation.
"We wouldn't have planned it this way, but it's a chance to get into a new facility," Coons said.
And they realized and appreciate all the help from people who showed up to assist the family.
"I'm still finding out about people who were there that I didn't know about," Coons said. "It's humbling."
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