Flooding then fire

Schultz family dealt stormwater surge, household flames

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FREEMAN, S.D. — John Schultz will never forget July 17, 2019, and not just because that day was his birthday.

Schultz and his brother, Jeff, along with their parents, Mike and Vicki, operate a 2,000-cow dairy near Freeman. 

The Schultz family farms about 4,000 acres, growing corn and alfalfa that are used to feed their herd. Schultz Brothers Dairy also raises their replacement heifers and feeds out their dairy crossbred steers.

Schultz Brothers Dairy is a third-generation family dairy operation. Mike helps with the crops and the feeding while Vicki is charged with the operation’s bookkeeping.

Schultz is the dairy herdsman and manages farm employees. His wife, Becca, is a physical therapist. The couple has two children: Penny and Harry.

“Penny and Harry are starting to help out around the farm a little,” Schultz said. “We want them to learn how to work, but our top priority is for them to be safe.”

Jeff manages the feeding and cropping sides of the operation. His wife, Yolanda, is a senior tax accountant. They have three children: Axle, Olivia and Ava.

“We had an extremely wet spring and early summer in 2019,” Schultz said. “Our soil was saturated. There were some low spots where we weren’t able to plant silage corn until July 3. But the growing season turned out pretty good as a whole. We had some great crops.”

A line of heavy thunderstorms rolled over the Freeman area during the night of July 17, dumping anywhere from 3-5 inches of rain on soils that were already saturated.  

“I went down to the barn to start morning chores and saw that the cows were standing in about 6 inches of water,” Schultz said. “Our manure pump wasn’t working because our electricity was out. We have a standby generator, but it didn’t kick on automatically like it was supposed to.”

The standby generator was quickly repaired and began to send electricity to the farm’s dairy facilities.

“The manure pump still wasn’t working, and the water was getting so high that it was beginning to creep into the cows’ feed,” Schultz said. “I was standing in about a foot of water, not far from a transformer, and trying to figure out what was going on with the breaker panel and thinking about how water and electricity don’t mix.”

Schultz soon located a breaker in an adjacent room that had been tripped by an overnight lightning strike. He flipped the switch, and moments later, the manure pump began its duty to remove the stormwater.

But that was far from the end of the problems instigated by the nighttime thunderstorm.

“I was just starting to resume my morning chores and was thinking that it couldn’t get any worse when my brother called to tell me that we had a house that was on fire,” Schultz said.

The house, located about 1.5 miles from the dairy farm, was the residence of three of the farm’s employees.

“A local contractor had just finished remodeling the entire house,” Schultz said. “He did a great job. The house was super nice.”

The Schultz brothers rushed to the scene of the fire.

“A couple of our employees were still in the house and were trying to put out the fire,” Schultz said. “We told them to get out of there before somebody got hurt. Our local volunteer firefighters arrived and started to battle the blaze, but it was no use. The lightning had started a fire inside the walls of the house, and it was too far gone by the time the firefighters arrived.”

It soon became clear that the house would be a total loss. 

“The firemen asked me to come over with our payloader and peel the roof off the house so they could finally extinguish the fire,” Schultz said. “It was a sad deal to lose that house, but we were glad that nobody was hurt.”

Mike and Vicki happened to be away from the farm and on vacation on that trying day.

“It just seemed to make things worse that Dad and Mom weren’t able to be here,” Schultz said. “It would have been nice to have their support and tap into their wisdom.”

July 17, 2019, was a difficult day for the Schultzes, but they are grateful for all the support they received from their community.

“I certainly had a memorable birthday that year, but all of the excitement took place before noon,” Schultz said. “The afternoon was a lot quieter.”

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