One of two freestall barns are destroyed from a tornado that touched down at Pebble Knoll Dairy in Fond du Lac County in eastern Wisconsin.
One of two freestall barns are destroyed from a tornado that touched down at Pebble Knoll Dairy in Fond du Lac County in eastern Wisconsin. PHOTO SUBMITTED
    BRANDON, Wis. – Operations started out as a normal day Aug. 28 at Pebble Knoll Dairy, near Brandon, Wis., but by the time the sun set, it became a day Eric Wetzel will not forget thanks to a tornado that caused extensive damage.
    Along with his wife, Danielle, and parents, Dick and Gail, Eric operates Pebble Knoll Dairy, an 1,100-acre farm where they were milking 675 cows in Fond du Lac County. His brother, Todd, serves as the farm’s accountant and bookkeeper.
    It was a hot and humid August day, with temperatures rising as quickly as the dew point. Several areas across southeastern Wisconsin, including Dodge and Fond du Lac counties, were saturated with rain the past week. Some areas received as much as 20 inches of rain in the month of August and were not looking forward to the forecasted rain.
    At approximately 4 p.m., an EF-1 tornado touched down in the Fond du Lac County township of Alto, Wis., flattening corn fields, snapping trees and wreaking havoc on farming communities.
    Eric said sometime before then the storm warning came across his phone.  
    “We’ve had so many this summer,” Eric said. “We didn’t really pay a lot of attention to it. Suddenly the winds started to get really bad, and we realized this one was for real.”
    Eric said the storm hit at shift change, and the majority of the employees hunkered down in the parlor to ride out the storm. Fortunately, the parlor was one of the buildings left intact following the storm’s passing.
    On the farm, young heifers are kept in the newly-built calf barn, while older heifers are raised in Oconto, Wis. Dry cows are on a separate site, and all close-up heifers and cows are brought back to the dairy prior to calving.
    The storm was later confirmed by the National Weather Service as tornado that reached wind speeds of over 100 miles per hour. It was one of 16 tornados confirmed to have touched down in eastern Wisconsin that afternoon, nine of which were in Fond du Lac County, according to WISN 23 News.
    Damage to structures on the Wetzel farm was intense, according to Eric. The two main freestall barns that house the farm’s nearly 700 milking cows were a complete loss, as was the barn housing their pre-fresh group.
    “I just stood there with my hand over my mouth, and that was not what I thought had happened,” Danielle said.
    Eric agreed.
    “There might be some concrete work that can be saved,” he said. “It’s hard to say though. The posts are snapped off right at the curbs.”
    The farm’s shop building and machine sheds, as well as the contents, were destroyed. The roofs were torn off their calf barns, and the holding area leading to the parlor was damaged, as well. The farm’s milking parlor came through relatively unscathed, with roof and cosmetic damage.
    The Wetzels saw their farm community, as well as many non-farm neighbors, step in to assist them with the immediate needs of the cattle.
    Herdsman Jason Ganske and family friend Abe Daane worked with Eric. Friends, neighbors and complete strangers parked along the road to help move cattle in the pouring rain and in the dark, as all electricity to the farm was lost in the storm. Livestock trailers from Lemenes Custom Farms and Frey Livestock soon arrived to move cattle to area farms.
    “We have a great management team here on the farm,” Wetzel said. “We are so lucky that way. Everyone knows everyone, and we all got on the phones and started making calls.”
    Within 4.5 hours, the herd was moved to nine farms, from Waterloo to Rosendale, Wis., and several points in between to the following dairies – S&S Dairy, Daane Dairy, Hilltop, Prideview, Dwaine and Dustin Brunn, Crave Brothers, John Hemstra, Rosendale Dairy and Warmka’s. Calves were relocated to a farm near Cecil, Wis.
    Five cows were lost that night. Eric said another 45 have been culled due to injury and stress-related problems, such as mastitis.
    “We were cutting cows out of trusses and out of wood,” Ganske said.
    As clean-up began the evening of the storm, the local insurance agent was on-site to assess the damage.
    Likewise, companies across the county and businesses in Waupun, Wis., came forward to help in providing meals for volunteers or coming to remove metal and debris from the barns and nearby fields. Waupun Equipment sent people with skid loaders to move steel and metal. Novis came to help move rubble. Vita Plus sent employees to recover the feed pile. Subway donated food, and Pizza Ranch donated meals. Further, local groups, like the Waupun Area FFA Chapter, came to aid in cleaning up debris from the farm and neighboring fields.
    “We are so blessed,” Danielle said. “Amongst all this tragedy and destruction, we are blessed beyond all belief. And, I wish I knew a word better than thank you.”
    Eric plans to build for the same size as what they were operating at.
    “I don’t want to get bigger,” Eric said. “I want to be able to maximize our parlor that we were lucky remained, and I don’t want to add a lot of debt. Within the first couple days, we met with our banker and some builders. We toured some farms and started getting ideas for how we wanted to proceed.”
    Following the storm, no cattle remain at the home farm, but about 100 head of heifers remain at an adjacent farm that did not suffer damage. Another 200 head remain at a nearby farm.     
    Although clean-up is in the early stages, Eric feels a great deal of the work has been done in less than a week since the storm. In determining a re-building timeline, he estimates the remainder of the clean-up will take a total of three to four weeks. He is hoping to be able to begin construction for the rebuilding in six or seven weeks, and is hoping they can be moving into their new facility by mid-January or February.
    “As bad as everything was, it could have been worse,” Eric said. “No people were injured, and for the amount of destruction you see when you look at things, animal loss was minimal.”