Steam rises from cows trapped under a collapsed roof on Feb. 23 at Friendshuh Farms near Clear Lake, Wis. 
Steam rises from cows trapped under a collapsed roof on Feb. 23 at Friendshuh Farms near Clear Lake, Wis. PHOTO SUBMITTED
    CHATFIELD, Minn. – The Hoffman family knew a blizzard would cause extra work on their dairy, but they never imagined the storm would force them to exit the business.
    “I was mixing feed when my dad called me and said another section of the barn [roof] had come down,” Corey Hoffman said. “I went over there and walked in to look at it. It wasn’t even two minutes and I said, ‘Dad, the cows have to go. We don’t have a choice.’”
    Two sections of the Hoffman family’s freestall barn that housed their 420-cow milking herd along with 30 springing heifers collapsed Feb. 24 and 26 on their farm, North Creek Dairy, near Chatfield, Minn.
    Many other dairy farmers across the region had barns and buildings cave in from the weight of snow and ice due to a blizzard the weekend of Feb. 23-24. The storm brought double-digit snowfall totals and wind speeds over 50 miles per hour, causing white-out conditions and major road closures for several days from eastern South Dakota, across southern Minnesota, down to northern Iowa and into western Wisconsin.  
    An 80- by 100-foot section of the Hoffmans’ roof collapsed about midnight on Feb. 24 while another 60- by 80-foot portion came down around 5:45 a.m. Feb. 26.
    “We instantly knew [we had to sell the cows] because the roof was not safe and more was going to come down,” Hoffman said. “The way the weather forecast was with more snow projected, we thought there’s no point in taking a chance of someone getting hurt.”
    Thirteen cows died from the incident.
    “The worst part was … lifting steel off and thinking there was nothing under there and all of a sudden there’s a cow shivering and not being able to get up, cut up, shivering and bleeding,” Hoffman said. “That was pretty hard.”
    About 300 cows were sold to a farm in Lake City and Hoffman’s friend, Mike Johnson, purchased a small group of the herd. About 53 cows were sold for slaughter. Dry cows and springing heifers stayed on the farm, but will need to be sold soon, Hoffman said.
    “Between Saturday night and Tuesday morning I kept it together,” Hoffman said. “But, when I knew the cows had to go I lost it.”
    The loss of their herd was especially tough because Hoffman said the herd had been producing the highest ever – 95 pounds per cow per day with 4.2 percent fat and 3.1 percent protein and a somatic cell count consistently under 100,000.
    “We were really optimistic and really looking forward to this year and now everything’s gone,” Hoffman said.  
    The family does not know if they will rebuild or start milking again.
    “People say you have to rebuild because you love it,” Hoffman said. “Yes, I love it, but it also has to be profitable. If we don’t get the insurance money to cover enough of this barn we won’t be able to afford to do it. There are so many variables. We’ll have to wait and see.”
    Across the border, Greg Friendshuh was also dealing with a collapsed roof on his 1,000-cow dairy, Friendshuh Farms, near Clear Lake, Wis. Although the dairy did not receive the same amount of snow or wind as those to the south, Friendshuh said rain in between bouts of snowfall caused a heavy pack of ice and snow on the 12-year-old barn’s roof, bringing down a 60- by 200-foot section Feb. 23.
    “When I first got on the scene, I looked at where the barn used to be and all I saw was white,” Friendshuh said. “The barn just crashed right down and the snow you saw on the roof was what you saw on the ground. I’ve had sections of barns go down before. They’re a terrible mess, and we’ve lost cattle, so I knew how destructive this could be. But to see a whole barn go down like this in one big boom, I didn’t think it could happen like this.”
    Of the 175 cows trapped underneath, 44 died and 20 were injured. Over 100 had to be moved to two neighboring dairies.
    “Around the fringes of the barn I saw cows pinned,” Friendshuh said. “Underneath the roof you could hear moaning and groaning and steam coming out from underneath. The first thing we did was cut holes in the roof to get air to the cattle.”
    The dairyman said he wants to prevent this from ever happening again on his farm.
    “I’m going to have a structural engineer come in and look at the rest of my buildings,” he said. “We’re going to bolster them up because I want to be able to walk in there with my kids and not have to worry about the sky falling, not to mention my guys working in there.”
    Friendshuh said he will rebuild the barn as soon as he can so he can bring the rest of the herd home.
    On the Cafferty family’s dairy, the roof of a 50- by 90-foot youngstock building collapsed Feb. 25 on their 62-cow dairy near Fountain City, Wis.
    “It was the worst day of farming,” said Kara Cafferty, who farms together with her husband, Paul, and son, Brandon.
    The incident trapped 100 animals – heifers and steers from 2 months old to about 1 year old.
    “We were so overwhelmed at first just trying to figure out how to get in there,” Cafferty said. “There was so much snow, and we had no clue how to even get in the barn.”
    Neighbors came over to assist by driving their snowmobiles across the fields to the farm. It was the only mode of transportation that did not get stuck in the unplowed and drifted-in roads.
    “We live where two valleys come together so we had snow whipping around us like you would not believe,” Cafferty said. “I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.”
    To get the animals out, one neighbor, who is also on the local fire department, drove his mountain snowmobile into town and brought back a metal cutter to extricate the animals.
    After five hours, all animals, except one steer that died, were out of the barn. The Caffertys sold the steers and arranged the heifers to be housed at neighboring farms.
    “We had redone the inside of the barn and thank goodness we did,” Cafferty said. “That’s probably what saved the animals. We had super heavy gates between each pen and headlocks through the middle. The beams laid on top of it.”         
    The family is unsure if they will rebuild.
    All three families said they are appreciative and grateful for the help they received from family and friends.
    “I just hope everyone knows how thankful we are that everyone came to help,” Friendshuh said. “And for all the prayers. That’s what got us through.”             Hoffman agreed. While it was not the outcome they envisioned from the blizzard, they are thankful for the people who helped them along the way.
    “There were so many strangers here lending a hand. A lot of people I didn’t even know,” Hoffman said. “It was a hell of a way to exit, but I’m extremely grateful for the help and finding a good home for the cows.”