Editor’s note: This is the second story in a new series titled “The Day That Went Awry.” All dairy farmers have experienced a day where life on the farm did not go according to plan. Dairy Star will highlight the stories of farmers’ mishaps and how they overcame those unfortunate days on the farm.
CAMBRIA, Wis. – Austin Bender’s memories of July 4, 2013, have little to do with typical Independence Day fanfare. The fireworks of the evening did not stick out in his head like the fire that occurred during the day on his family’s farm.
“We got to watch our tractor burn on the Fourth of July,” Austin Bender said. “I’m just glad no one was hurt.”
Bender farms with his dad, Melvin, and his brother, Andy. The Benders milk 120 cows and farm about 1,200 acres on their third-generation farm near Cambria. Cows are housed in free stalls, and the family upgraded from a step-up parlor to a double-9 parallel 1.5 years ago. Youngstock reside in bedding pack barns, and the Benders also raise steers in an open lot.
“We finish out all of our steers and purchase beef crosses to keep our calf barn full,” Bender said. “Our automated feeders work better that way.”
The day of the fire started out like any other summer day at Bender Family Farms. The family did chores that morning and, later, did fieldwork. It was a sunny, bluebird sky day, Bender said, with temperatures in the 80s – perfect weather for making hay. The Benders were in the midst of chopping second crop when the tractor they used for bagging – a Case International 5288 – started on fire.
“I just got done filling one load of haylage before taking an empty wagon to the next field,” Bender said. “My friend, Gage, was riding with me. We were about a quarter mile away when we both looked over to the bagging area just minutes after filling the bag and noticed smoke rolling out of the exhaust from the tractor.”
Bender checked with his friend that they had indeed shut the tractor off.
“Gage said we did, so then why the smoke, I wondered,” Bender said.
Bender and Gage unhooked the empty wagon and drove back to find the bagger tractor going up in flames. It was around noon.
“The tractor actually turned itself back on at full throttle, and she just ran,” Bender said. “I’m thankful neither Gage or I was by that tractor when it started on fire. The insurance company assumed it was electrical – a battery short or something like that.”
Bender immediately called the fire department. Bender’s dad, who had been chopping hay on a different field, was also back at the farm by this time.
“It worked pretty slick that it was July 4th because the local Fourth of July parade was just finishing up, and the fire trucks were leaving the parade when they got the call,” Bender said.
The parade took place in Marquette, about 6 miles from the Benders’ farm, putting the fire trucks in closer proximity to the dairy.
“They were here in 3.5 minutes,” Bender said. “It would’ve taken at least 30 minutes if the firefighters would have been at their homes when the call came in.”
The Green Lake County Sheriff was there along with several fire departments from the surrounding area that tended to the fire for about two hours. The Benders observed from across the road in the driveway to their house.
“The tractor was a goner,” Bender said. “We were basically trying to save the bagger and the feed.”
There are no buildings on the side of the road where the Benders store their feed, and fortunately, the wind was blowing in the right direction that no feed caught fire.
“Most of the firefighters at the local departments are volunteers and haven’t seen a lot of tractors burn,” Bender said.
As he watched the tractor disintegrate, thoughts about how they were going to get the hay done spun through Bender’s head. The Benders lost a day in the fields as the unexpected delay prevented them from chopping more hay that day. The Benders had to wait for the insurance adjuster to come before the burnt-up tractor could be hauled away.
“We probably would’ve got another six to eight loads in if the tractor hadn’t started on fire,” Bender said.
It was a tractor that would be missed. Built in the early 1980s, the Benders had it for about 10 years and previously used it to chop hay. They eventually upgraded to a bigger tractor for that task and moved the Case to the bagger. All summer long, the tractor ran a bagger, while in spring, it was used to plant soybeans and alfalfa. In the fall, the tractor was put to work planting wheat.  
“All that was left was the metal shell,” Bender said. “All of the windows were busted out, and the tires were melted. The motor and shield that goes around it were blackened.”
The fire caused the Benders to begin making baleage instead of haylage sooner than they expected. They had recently bought a round baler and wrapper with plans to switch over for third crop. The next day, the Benders finished filling the bag they were in the middle of and then began using the round baler for the remainder of their second crop hay.  
“We got the idea for baleage because fourth-crop hay would always dry too fast, and we didn’t have enough manpower to chop quick and make quality feed,” Bender said.
The Benders took the interruption to their hay harvest in stride, and when chores were done that night, they went to see fireworks. It was a welcome change of pace for a day that did not go as planned. The fire that happened nearly 10 years ago while making feed for their cows made that Fourth of July a holiday the Benders will always remember.