January 17, 2022 at 2:53 a.m.

The aftermath of strong storms

An EF0 tornado took part of Luke Miller’s heifer shed in the storm Dec. 15 near Altura, Minnesota. Miller is currently housing the heifers at his brother, Rob’s place. The Millers plan to rebuild. PHOTO SUBMITTED
An EF0 tornado took part of Luke Miller’s heifer shed in the storm Dec. 15 near Altura, Minnesota. Miller is currently housing the heifers at his brother, Rob’s place. The Millers plan to rebuild. PHOTO SUBMITTED

By Kate Rechtzigel- | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

LEWISTON, Minn. – The National Weather Service issued severe thunderstorm and tornado warnings across Iowa, southeastern Minnesota and western Wisconsin on the evening of Dec. 15, 2021. The storm, which was later classified as a serial derecho, moved at speeds of 60-80 mph and caused damage and power outages for area dairy farmers. 
“It was super warm that whole day,” Luke Miller said. “I had a feeling that it was going to storm.” 
Miller milks 700 cows and runs 1,700 acres with his parents, Jack and Pat, and brother Rob and his family – wife Kathi and children Bradley and Ella – at Clear Crest Farm near Lewiston.
Miller and his family took shelter from the storm but soon realized the damage on their farm. 
“The milk hauler had just got here; it must’ve been right after the storm because I was still in the basement,” Miller said. “He called and said we had a bunch of junk on the road and our cattle were out. I was only in the basement for a couple minutes.”
The Millers lost the heifer shed, had a damaged grain bin and grain leg which the heifer shed smashed into, lost a hay shed, had garage doors and curtains blow in on the freestall barns, and lost the plastic on the feed bunkers. Nearby, employee housing was destroyed from a tornado which touched down near Lewiston. 
“I was still in the basement when one of the milkers called,” Miller said. “He said he was really, really, really nervous because there was a loud thud on the house and the house was moving.” 
After talking to Miller, the employee went into the basement. Later, Miller learned the detached garage was picked up by the tornado and a large tree branch fell on the home. 
“There were a lot of people here that night helping move animals and clean stuff off the road after it happened,” Miller said. 
Thanks to the fire department, neighbors, friends and other community volunteers, the Millers were able to clean up most of their damage the night of the storm. 
“We’re very grateful that nobody got hurt, and we’re thankful for all the neighbors and friends who came out to help us even though a lot of them had storm damage themselves,” Miller said. 
The Millers hope to rebuild the heifer shed next summer and plan to be back to normal by this time next year. 
“We’re very thankful that there was minimal damage done to the milking parlor and freestall barns,” Miller said. “It’s a lot easier to function when there isn’t a lot of extensive damage on the home farm. But when you step back, everything’s rebuildable, and nobody got hurt so we’ll come out OK.” 
Andrew Gathje’s farm was also hit by the storm 39 miles away in Stewartville.
“I wasn’t really thinking too heavily about the storms that were expected to come,” Gathje said. “Nine times out of 10 when severe weather is forecasted, the storm that actually rolls in is significantly weaker than what was predicted. I didn’t take the National Weather Service predictions as seriously as I should have.”
Gathje, 23, milks 55 cows with his dad, Andy, and brother, Ben, 21. They also have 70 cow-calf pairs of beef cattle, feed out 85 head of cattle a year and cash crop corn, soybean and oat as well as raise alfalfa for feed. 
From the storm, the Gathjes lost a calf shed, trees, a calf hutch, had other calf hutches blow around and lost power for nine hours. 
“This storm exceeded my expectations with the wind,” Gathje said. “When the line of storms was about 30 miles southwest of the farm and still producing 80-plus mph wind gusts, my first thought was that we were likely going to actually get strong wind gusts for the first time in 13 years. However, I still did not think Minnesota would see a tornado that night, let alone over a dozen of them. The fact that one of those tornadoes was 4 miles south of our farm is pretty bizarre to think about.”
Gathje was in his house with his dad when the storm rolled in; his brother and mom, Nora, were in the other house. 
“Normally when the wind blows outside, I can tell how fast the wind is blowing by how bad my house shakes and how the wind sounds,” Gathje said. “When I felt and heard the house shake harder than I can ever recall, I thought, ‘Man they actually weren’t kidding about this one were they.’” 
Right before the power went out, Gathje walked to his front door and saw their calf shed lying upside down next to the dairy barn. 
“I knew then I was going to have a mess to clean up after the storm passed,” Gathje said. “I also had to hook the tractor-powered generator up right after the storm so the fans in the barn would be able to give the cows proper ventilation all night.”
The Gathjes spent most of that night and the next day searching for calves and hutches, cleaning up after the storm and coping with no power. Their power was back on shortly before 5 a.m. the day after the storm. 
“Right after the storm, a neighboring dairy called me to see if we were all OK,” Gathje said. “Unfortunately, they had taken a harder hit in the storm, and it bugged me that I couldn’t go help anyone due to the damage I had to deal with at home. Thankfully, everything still worked out in the end, and I was very appreciative someone checked in on me after the storm.”
The Gathjes hope to rebuild this spring and summer and be back to fully operational come fall. 
“One of the biggest lessons to learn in farming at a young age is that there are a lot of variables which are out of your control,” Gathje said. “You can get as angry as you want about the weather, input prices or whatever is causing mental stress, but doing so doesn’t change anything. I hope my best days as a farmer are yet to come and will be more abundant in quantity and quality than I could ever imagine.” 


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